Elliott Carter’s ‘Epigrams’ reveal the lifelong work behind his wit

Michael J. Lutch

Next Thursday, June 22, violinist Frank Huang, cellist David Requiro, and pianist Giles Vonsattel perform a Rockport Music concert including “Epigrams” (2012), the final work completed by American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012). Punctuating a prolific life (and a “late period” rivaling many composers’ entire careers), Carter let loose some intelligent play: 12 brief movements, concise ideas thrown together until sparks fly. But the music’s mechanisms reveal the lifelong labor that enabled such offhand wit.

In his later music, Carter pared down his elaborate, complex harmonic language to the implications of a few favorite chords: a pair of what’s called all-interval tetrachords — four-note chords that can yield all the chromatic scale’s available two-note intervals — as well as a likewise fecund six-note chord containing a comprehensive collection of three-note combinations. Carter’s connection with the tetrachords, especially, was longstanding, going back to the 1950s, when his complex but tonally rooted neoclassicism evolved into a highly individual musical modernism. (Carter’s first two string quartets and his 1961 Double Concerto, the works that cemented his modernist reputation, were structured around all-interval tetrachords.) The fifth and seventh “Epigrams,” in particular, put the tetrachords in the spotlight: favorite troupers, taking a curtain call.

The seventh “Epigram” also runs on classic Carter polyrhythms, competing subdivisions of the beat that push individual instruments’ characters into sharper relief: in this case, constant 3-against-4-against-5 rhythms that never quite coalesce. That inimitable way with the give-and-take of individuals and groups turns up throughout. In the fourth movement, the pianist stubbornly stays in quintuplets against the strings’ four-to-a-beat 16th notes; that quintuplet is momentarily transformed into a swinging triplet, only for the piano to immediately appropriate the angular 16ths for itself. The ninth is similarly persistent: A florid piano solo is thrice shut down by sharp, heavy scolds from the violin and cello, but the piano has the final — if subdued — word.


Even at the age of 103, it’s hard to imagine the ever-industrious Carter writing a valediction; one suspects it was only by chance that the “Epigrams” were the final project to cross his desk. But the compositional work left its own epitaph. Carter’s finishing touch was not the set’s delicate, pizzicato-staccato-pizzicato ending, but its opening. Having drafted all 12 movements, Carter was dissatisfied with the introduction, and so wrote a different first movement, completing it six weeks before he died. The last thing Elliott Carter wrote was, quite literally, a new beginning.

Frank Huang, David Requiro, and Giles Vonsattel perform music of Beethoven, Carter, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky, June 22, 8 p.m., at Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport. Tickets $47-$65. 978-546-7391,

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at