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The American music of Elliott Carter

The composer’s “difficult” music captured the spirit of the Founding Fathers.

Elliott Carter’s work honoring the Bicentennial, “A Symphony for Three Orchestras,” divided that ensemble into three often disputatious groups.Jim Estrin

The composer ­Elliott Carter, who died last week at the age of 103, had, by virtue of longevity and industry, become the dean of American composers: honored, commissioned, and, especially in his extraordinarily productive final years, celebrated.

But just how "American" Carter's music was had been often debated. Coming out of an era when composers like Charles Ives (an early mentor to Carter) and Aaron Copland (an often skeptical colleague) were held up as having created a truly American style, deliberately evocative of American landscapes and traditions, Carter instead wrote music that was modernist and unapologetically intellectual. Copland, for instance, worried that the music of his own generation, which had "fought hard to free American composition from the dominance of European models," was being lost in the techniques and sounds of European modernism that Carter freely adopted. Carter, it was said, was an American composer who wrote European music.


But to see it that way is to miss something important about Carter. In his own way, Carter's music was very much American: implicitly and explicitly, fascinated by the possibilities and hazards of democracy, by the promise and peril of yoking disparate voices into something resembling a union. The fascination was one shared by the thinkers and theorists who invented the American nation. As a composer, Carter's vision of America resembled nothing so much as that of the Founding Fathers.

The early Americans, after all, were dedicated to self-determination, but forever nervous about the gray area between individual opinion and collective policy. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison worried over "the violence of faction": "The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice." Carter made that concern musically his own: Faction and unity would become the latitude and longitude of his musical map.

In many ways, Carter was cut from the same cloth as the Founders. Crossing back and forth across the Atlantic with his father, a lace importer, Carter spoke French before he spoke English. At Harvard, he initially spurned music, opting instead for Greek and mathematics and philosophy. He recapitulated some of the background of the aristocrats who founded the United States: a classical education with a French flair. He was a modernist equipped with the intellectual tool kit of the Enlightenment.


He came to be a composer in deliberate fashion; he was well into his 30s before he wrote music he thought worth keeping. It would be another decade before he began to realize his own style. The decisive break came in his first two string quartets, dating from 1951 and 1959, where the four players become strikingly individual characters, with their own motives, articulations, and even tempi, an intricately managed clash of temperaments. Almost all of his subsequent music would similarly straddle the line Thomas Paine drew between society and government: "The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions." Carter's goal was to give every instrument in the ensemble its own individuality within the piece's entirety. ''This seems to me a very dramatic thing in a democratic society,'' he said. In honor of the American Bicentennial, Elliott Carter even split the orchestra asunder, composing "A Symphony for Three Orchestras," a work that, indeed, divides that ensemble into three distinct and often disputatious groups. It might have been only a coincidence that the onetime revolutionaries who assembled for the Constitutional Convention in 1787 came up with a similar model for the federal government.

Starting in the 1930s, Copland had reworked his youthful neo-classicism into the accessible Americana of "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." While Carter admired Copland's skill, his own music increasingly chased different goals. Where Copland aimed for simplicity, Carter aimed for clarity. Where Copland embraced populism, Carter enfranchised entire populations: the sharply-drawn characters of his string quartets, the teeming crowds of his works for orchestra. Their musical ancestry was similar, but while Carter's early "Holiday Overture" starts off in convincing Coplandesque style, it spins off into a joyous cacophony at the end. "Another complicated Carter piece," Copland called it, but that is to confuse complicatedness and complexity. Copland sought to ennoble and even sentimentalize the American experience; Carter sought to capture it, in all its higher-order chaos.


But it was, maybe, Elliott Carter's sense of musical time that was his most American achievement. His rhythmic language was famous, saturated with metric modulation, the tempo in carefully engineered flux, beats sliced into smaller units and then reassembled in ever-varying numerators. It was the source of the formidable complexity and density of his scores, but the idea was simple: Keep the music from settling into a solid downbeat until the very end of the piece.

Even as Carter's music continued to evolve, that sense of long-range lift and momentum was a constant. The challenge of his music—demanding an uncommon engagement from the listener, exercising the ability to comprehend multiple, divergent layers of discourse—parallels the challenge of democracy. Intricate but unsettled, fixed but fluid, the music evokes the paradox of the experiment that those early Americans set in motion, an experiment still in process, an ideal still being chased. Elliott Carter wrote anthems for a country forever in the making.


Matthew Guerrieri writes on music for The Boston Globe and NewMusicBox. His book, "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imgination," will be published by Alfred A. Knopf on Nov. 13.