Carter at 100: Part 9

2. Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)

Between his 80th and 100th birthdays, Carter completed some 40 compositions, from occasional pieces for solo instruments to two of the biggest pieces of his career, the Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (47 minutes) and the composer’s only opera to date, What Next? (1997, ca. 40 minutes). Between his 40th birthday in 1948 (the date of the Cello Sonata) and his 60th in 1968, he completed nine works.

Those 20 years found Carter exploring the nature and potential of musical materials—especially those relating to pitch and rhythm. In the Cello Sonata, the First String Quartet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, the first six of the Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, and the Variations for Orchestra (all of which were composed between 1948 and 1955), Carter conducted these explorations in a mostly tonal environment, and where the rhythmic innovations could still be readily heard within the context of a beat or of multiple underlying beats.

Carter’s explorations bore decisive fruit in the two works he composed at the same time in the second half of the 1950s: the Second String Quartet (1959) and the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961). In the Second Quartet, as we have seen, Carter applies his researches to the idea of establishing a distinct musical character for each instrument.

The request for a piece for harpsichord and piano immediately presented Carter with problems of a distinctly sonic nature. The piano is much louder than the harpsichord and has a much wider dynamic range; the harpsichord, through the use of stops, has a wider range of colors available; the piano sound can resonate for quite sometime, while that of the harpsichord cannot. The solution that Carter chose was to give each instrument a small orchestra that would soften the differences between the soloists—for example, three of the four brass instruments are assigned to the harpsichord’s orchestra, to make up for the difference in volume.

Each orchestra includes two percussionists playing a large battery of unpitched instruments. Both solo instruments have an element of percussion in how they produce sound, so the narrative of the Double Concerto comes, in part, from the soloists bridging the gap in their own ensembles between pitched and unpitched instruments. The music moves between extremes of percussive noise and pristine chords in the winds and strings.

The Double Concerto begins in noise. Carter’s research into pitch and rhythm led him to link them in ways very different from those adopted by the serialist composers working at about the same time. The cymbal and drums rolls of the beginning move in waves whose durations are related to specific intervals—in this way pitch and rhythm are tied together but not in a mechanical way. As the intervals are gradually introduced the waves of percussion meet in works first climax, which dies away and joins to a movement featuring the harpsichord, with piano commentary.

At the center of the work is a chorale for the winds and strings. At the same time the soloists and percussion whirl around the chorale in phrases that accelerate and decelerate against the steady music of the winds and strings. The climax comes at the end of the chorale with single high notes on antique cymbals (the only pitched percussion in the entire piece).

Carter has described the Double Concerto as being analogous to a world coming into being from chaos (the noise at the beginning) and functioning as a working living organism. After final spectacular solos from both the harpsichord and the piano, the music pauses. Then a great percussive crash signals the beginning of the Coda, which is really an extension and composing-out of that crash. The music moves back towards noise while quietly dying away. Carter has said that he took inspiration from poems by Pope and Lucretius about the beginnings and endings of worlds, but the music is really much more direct: From noise you came and to noise you will return.

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)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)

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