Carter at 100: Part 6

5. Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Given two of Carter’s nearly career-long interests—in structural heterophony and in writing music that plays to the strengths and musical personalities of the performers—it isn’t surprising that solo (or duo) concertos make up a significant portion of his catalog. In the Piano Concerto (1965), for example, the soloist can be heard as representing expressive individuality, as opposed to the orchestral mass, whose massed forces surround her. In the Piano Concerto Carter gives the soloist a seven instrument supporting concertino, which plays the same kind of music as the soloist, against the more monolithic music of the orchestra.

In the Clarinet Concerto, Carter reimagined the relationship between the soloist and orchestra, resulting in a soundworld and formal layout that came to be characteristic of his recent music. The Concerto was composed for Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble intercontemporain (and its clarinetist Alain Damiens), and the Ensemble’s unusual instrumentation—13 winds and percussion and 5 strings—created a balance problem that Carter saw as an opportunity.

The structure Carter devised for the Concerto is a collage; it consists of seven short sections, each scored for a small subsection of the orchestra. Each, that is, except the last, which is the only tutti section in the piece. More important, the tutti section is the only part of the Concerto that has the orchestra playing in opposition to the clarinet. In the first six sections, which are short, self-contained musical character-statements, the clarinet is accompanied by small concertinos, as in the Piano Concerto, which offer support rather than opposition. The only orchestral tuttis occur in short links between the movements, while the soloist moves from one concertino to another—this movement from small group to small group is a visual cue that the clarinetist is a partner with the groups that play each section.

The backbone of this Concerto is the clarinet melody, which spins out over the course of the entire work, changing mood and character as the soloist joins a new concertino group. The melody is not built from scales or from collections of notes (a practice Carter uses frequently, but not here). The melody is instead built from a small collection of intervals Carter assigns to the clarinet—the other intervals are assigned to the orchestra, but the general practice in the orchestra is to build chords from the intervals. The clarinet melody is extremely free, therefore, and gives the impression of improvisation, especially in the sections that have a slightly jazzy feel.

This freedom of expression characterizes most of the solo parts in Carter’s concertos, regardless of whether the orchestral forces are with helpers or hinderers. In the Clarinet Concerto, the soloist even has the last utterance, a loud final note. Not the still, small voice, to be sure, but the last word nonetheless.

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)


  1. The Clarinet Concerto left me a bit cool on first listen, but I've since warmed to it.

    I'm enjoying this whole series, thanks, Steve!


  2. You're welcome, Karl. I'm glad you are enjoying it. I'm learning quite a bit, actually.

    I felt the same way about the Clarinet Concerto at first.