4. A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)
Carter has always been a literary composer. He majored in literature as an undergraduate, and read and studied the works of the first wave of 20th century American Modernists (including, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, and Williams) as they appeared. He was friends with some of the poets of the second wave, Robert Lowell in particular.
More directly, many of Carter’s major works from across his entire career have literary backgrounds. Carter’s note frequently point to literary works and images that either guided his work or came to him after a composition was completed, and the allusion could performers and listeners find their way into a piece. Carter’s early career is filled with choral works and pieces for voice and piano. It’s a little surprising then that nearly thirty years elapsed between vocal works, after the appearance of Emblems (chorus) in 1947.
A Mirror on Which to Dwell was commissioned by Speculum Musicae (“mirror of music”) for soprano Susan Davenny Wyner. Since the commission was for a woman’s voice, Carter wanted to set the words of a female poet. Lowell pointed Carter to the work of Elizabeth Bishop, a rough contemporary of Lowell’s whose poetry turned out to appeal to the composer very much.
Bishop’s language is precise and abstract, much like Carter’s music. By “abstract” I don’t mean that her words and images are untethered to experience. Quite the opposite, in fact—her images are very much grounded in the world as we observe it. Her images reflect the way an observant mind works; she puts together things and ideas that would seem not to go together. After she has shown us that they do, we wonder how it was we never connected them ourselves.
One of Bishop’s lifelong concerns was with the borders that separate us, one from another, and from fully experiencing the world. This seems to me to parallel Carter’s interest in simultaneous streams of music—streams that occur at the same time, but something keeps them apart.
The six poems Carter sets in Mirror are not connected; this is not a song cycle as such but a collection of lyric pieces. Carter has arranged them so their focus narrows from general at the start to more specific at the end. The collection nature of the piece is emphasized by the instrumentation, which is different for each song. The vocal line tends to be angular, but the words come through clearly, as the rhythms are very much like those of spoken American English.
Carter’s settings are really more like expressively annotated readings than they are song or recitative. The musical materials are directly related to the poetic content of the poem, from the skittering oboe music in “Sandpiper” to the musical entropy that mirrors the diminishing energy that characterizes “Anaphora”.
Music in performance is an intensely collaborative artistic endeavor. Composing is much less collaborative, though working with a given performer or an ensemble when writing for them is certainly a collaborative effort. Setting pre-existing texts written by someone whom you may never have met, who in fact may have lived long before you read their work, is a special kind of collaboration. When there is artistic sympathy, a deep understanding of the words and what can be done with them, borders are crossed; connections are made.
Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)
Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)
Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)
Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)
Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)
Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)