- Elliott Carter as (Anti-)Serial Composer
Was Elliott Carter a twelve-tone or serial composer? For decades scholars and critics have argued about the basic methods behind Carter’s compositions, and still today scholars offer contradictory answers to this seemingly straightforward question. On the one hand, Joseph Straus, in his Twelve-Tone Music in America, writes: “During the war, a rising generation of twelve-tone composers (including Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and George Perle) was already at work, forging new ways of composing with twelve-tones related only to each other,” and Mark Evan Bonds, in A History of Music in Western Culture, states: “[Carter’s] early music tends toward the Neoclassical, but he later embraced serial composition.”1 On the other hand, some see Carter’s antiserial statements as a defining characteristic. Charles Rosen, a close friend of Carter, declares: “Carter is perhaps the only major composer of our time who has never even tried to write a serial work,” and Steven Mackey adds: “Elliott Carter, in fact, has always been provocatively anti-Serial.”2 This confusion stems, in part, from Carter’s statements on the matter, which were inconsistent and often purposefully muddled the issue. For example, in his 1960 article, “Shop Talk by an American Composer,” he answers the question “Do you use the twelve-tone system?” by joking, “Some critics have said that I do, but since I have never analyzed my works from this point of view, I cannot say.”3 [End Page 68]
In this article, I detail Carter’s conflicted and changing relationship with twelve-tone and serial methods through an examination of published writings and interviews alongside unpublished recordings of spoken lectures, correspondence, and drafts of writings from the Paul Sacher Foundation archives. These sources reveal the thoughts of a composer struggling to understand the compositional world around him while seeking to carve out his own unique compositional identity. Examining Carter’s struggle also provides new insight into recent debates concerning the concept of a twelve-tone or serial “tyranny.” His writings and interviews indicate that the precise definition of twelve-tone and/or serial methods was often unclear, even to composers who were well established within the advanced or modernist compositional community. Through examining Carter’s thoughts and statements, we find that the empirical evidence and retrospective statements that have dominated debates regarding the “twelve-tone/serial tyranny” often miss the rapidly changing nature of the contemporary composition scene at the time.4
One of the challenges in approaching Carter’s attempts to construct his identity with regard to the concept of twelve-tone techniques and serialism is that they themselves are constantly evolving. I view serialism along the same lines outlined by Arnold Whittall in Serialism for the Cambridge Introductions Series: “‘Serial’ is a much more comprehensive term than ‘twelve-tone.’ … [A] series of pitches can comprise fewer than twelve tones. Similarly, a series can be devised for other musical elements, or parameters.”5 Twelve-tone techniques, as derived from Arnold Schoenberg’s theory, are a subset of serial composition, describing one way of handling pitch serially. While this definition is more straightforward than that of serialism, we will see that it is malleable in similar ways. For Carter and certain portions of the public at large, twelve-tone and serial methods were almost interchangeable, representing an idea about contemporary composition methods moving toward mathematical, scientific, and objective approaches. Similarly, one could approach twelve-tone music from the opposite side and include instances of composers making use of the entire chromatic pitch-class collection as a type of twelve-tone composition that would include Bach and Mozart. As we will see, Carter took advantage of this range of definitions in his writings, lectures, and correspondence as a means of defining himself within or in opposition to these approaches.
Carter did experiment with serial approaches to composition. Of course, this should hardly be surprising for a composer just beginning a teaching career in the late 1940s. Carter’s brief experiments survive in a few sources from this time, often regarded as a transitional period.6 The [End Page 69] earliest evidence of Carter’s...