- Elliott Carter Studies ed. by Marguerite Boland and John Link, and: Elliott Carter’s What Next?: Communication, Cooperation, and Separation by Guy Capuzzo
At the time of his passing in late 2012 at the age of 103, Elliott Carter was widely regarded as one of the most influential and celebrated twentieth-century American composers. Although his compositional career is frequently divided into three principal stages—an early neoclassical period; a middle period during which he penned extremely complex and challenging works; and a lyrical, more accessible late period—he is most generally associated with the music of his middle period. And while his critics have held these compositions from approximately the mid-1950s through the early 1980s as exemplars of a modernist composer who wrote only for himself (one of Carter’s famous aphorisms from the early 1950s was how, in order to reinvent himself as a composer, he adopted the position “to hell with the public and with the performers too” [p. 34]), his music has garnered interest and respect from the highest musical echelons, including the most prestigious musicians and performing ensembles throughout the world.
There has also been a significant amount of scholarly interest in Carter’s music; consider, for instance, the vast number of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations one can find even with a cursory search using ProQuest. In this review I examine two recent additions to the growing body of Elliott Carter scholarship: a multi-authored book edited by Marguerite Boland and John Link entitled Elliott Carter Studies, and Guy Capuzzo’s monograph on Carter’s opera What Next?
Elliott Carter Studies is the first full-length multi-authored study of the composer’s music. It naturally follows such seminal works as David Schiff’s survey The Music of Elliott Carter (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983; 2nd ed., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler’s 2008 study of Carter’s sketch materials (Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents [Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press]), and James Wierzbicki’s 2011 biography Elliott Carter (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)—this last title surprisingly absent in Elliott Carter Studies’ otherwise admirable bibliography. The present volume also offers collections of interviews with and writings by the composer himself.
Elliott Carter Studies contains fourteen chapters within four parts. Part 1 is entitled “Overview: Music Early and Late”; it contains two chapters. In the opening essay Jonathan Bernard, appropriately enough, discusses Carter’s early works. Bernard argues that Carter’s early compositions—i.e., the works until approximately the cello sonata from 1948—have been unfairly ignored [End Page 128] by scholars, largely because significant innovations developed during Carter’s middle period such as metric modulation and his particular approach to harmonic construction have drawn too much attention at the expense of these works. (Yet as Bernard notes, ironically, performers and critics have not shied away from these early pieces to the same degree.) Bernard effectively illustrates that these pieces are not simply harbingers of Carter’s post-1950 works; rather, he identifies compositional practices that can be found throughout his career.
In contrast, John Link explores the composer’s body of work from the other end of his career—chiefly, the works beginning around the mid-1980s. He begins by discussing a recurring theme in the Carter literature: namely, that instruments or instrumental ensembles interact with each other like characters in a play; attributes such as harmony, rhythm, form, and expression further reinforce this metaphor. Put another way, and here quoting David Schiff, “from the cello sonata onward, Carter’s music sprang from a single idea: disconnection” (p. 34). Link admirably contends that a primary characteristic of Carter’s late music is the significant destabilization of these attributes. More specifically, the interaction between the...