Carter at 100: Part 4

7. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996).

The symphony is typically a four-movement orchestral work that stands as a musical whole. The ways it can be made whole are tremendously varied—there can be a key scheme that holds it together, there can be thematic relationships between the movements, etc. The vast majority of symphonies have a first movement that makes a rigorous musical argument in what is called “sonata-allegro” form, a form whose properties are not at all relevant here. They also have last movements usually end in triumph (cf. Beethoven’s Fifth) or in resignation (Mahler 9); in either case, things get wrapped up.

Carter’s Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei is more of a triptych than a symphony, though it has the heft and size of a symphony. The composer takes his inspiration (and his subtitles) from Bulla ("The Bubble"), a poem (in Latin) by the 17-century British metaphysical poet Richard Crenshaw in which a bubble “represents” change and all that change means for life and art. The subtitle (“Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei”) means “I am the prize of flowing hope”.

The piece is suffused with irony, Carter’s favorite artistic mode—after all this is a 47-minute symphonic work about a bubble. The first movement (though “panel” seems more appropriate) is Partita (“I am the star of the sea, as it were, the golden wit of nature, the rambling tale of nature, the brief dream of nature”), which is not a reference to the baroque suite form, but rather the word is taken as it is in Italian, to mean “game”, as in a soccer match. There is no “form” as such, and the music does take on the aspect of something happening on the fly, as in a game. Partita is fast, rambunctious, and urban—the fast pace of much of Carter’s music is as direct an expression of modern life as there is in art. It is colorfully and clearly orchestrated, with virtuoso episodes for virtually every section in the orchestra. It embodies experience as explosively alive and vibrant.

The second panel, Adagio tenebroso (“I am the glass of the blind goddess”) is in stark contrast with Partita. Where the former is full of life, its changes and surprises, Adagio tenebroso seems haunted. It is a slow, irregular but inexorable march—Carter employs his structural polyrhythms closer to the surface here, sounding like an approaching army unsure of its course. The music builds and recedes in waves, promising resolution but withholding it. Withholding it, that is, until a big noisy passage right before the end, after which, the music dies away, with brief snippets of what had come before.

The first two panels of Symphonia deal, respectively, with light/life and dark/death. How does Carter resolve these two irreconcilable world views and give his work its proper symphonic conclusion?

The answer was the third panel, Allegro scorevole (“I am the brief nature of the wind. To be sure, I am the flower of the air.”). As the title (“fast, scurrying”) and subtitle implies, Allegro scorevole flies up and down through musical space with incredible speed, interrupted from time to time by episodes of sustained lyricism. The predominant mood of the piece is that of thoughtful lightness, with music that flows and tends to be soft rather than loud.

The trajectory of the scurrying music is upwards, while the contrasting lyrical passages are rather more earthbound. After a climax of the lyrical material, a coda briefly combines the lyrical and the scurrying until a lone piccolo in its highest register quietly ends the piece.

So maybe Carter does resolve the tension of the first two panels, in his own ironic way. An answer to the 20th century’s increasing urbanization and its attendant alienation, as well as the century’s seeming love of death, may be an ancient one: the still, small voice.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

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