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Reviewed by:
  • Carter by David Schiff
  • Deniz Ertan
Carter. By David Schiff. Pp. xvi + 266. (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2018. £22.99. ISBN 978-0-19-025915-0.)

Elliott Carter's compositional opulence shines both in the vastness of his output and his grand designs that are marked by a forward propulsion. As a man of contradictions, he could be simultaneously intuitive and logical, restless and enduring, American and European, radical and conservative, Trotskyite and anti-communist, but always uncompromising in pursuit of what he saw as the ideal. Carter is neither a biography nor an analytic study but a multifaceted, sometimes non-linear, presentation of perspectives, personal memories, anecdotes, and historical overviews. It works. David Schiff faced a mammoth task in fleshing out and assessing the composer's multi-storied music and many-selved life.

There is some autobiographical information and detail that is irrelevant to Carter studies, which, especially early on, can read like a personal memoir. While these may be seen as self-advertisement or attempts to legitimize the authority of the author, they forge a sympathetic bond with the reader. On the odd occasion, two biographies intertwine with one another: Carter's growing pains, self-assertions, and loyalty struggles (with Charles Ives and others) on the one hand, Schiff 's journey as author and composer-student of Carter on the other. Both venture towards differentiation and independence. This is the author's third monograph on the composer and it differs from the first two (1983, 1998) in several ways. With the passing of the composer in 2012, Schiff has been relatively less restrained towards, and hence more critical of, Carter's work (i.e. without his suggestions, corrections, and technical terms). The author's position wavers between loyalty and independent thinking, though the former is a continuous presence. Further, because of Carter's ever-expanding and evolving repertory and Schiff 's dissatisfaction with his own earlier writing style, he has been rewriting and updating the existing material with each book. It is not an easy task [End Page 578] to return repeatedly, to reassess, question, and even disprove one's previous work. Schiff thus demonstrates admirable, stubborn dedication to the subject. There is a degree of compromise and change of approach, however. Given the new framework of the Master Musicians series of Oxford University Press, the book excludes extensive musical analyses and is 'intended for listeners rather than theorists', curiously omitting musicians. It provides an interdependence of fact, interpretation, criticism, unknowns, omissions, and mythology. The last three in particular show that a decisive Carter biography will probably never be written. Both the man and the music lack transparency and resist definition. In his third book, probably even more than before, Schiff shows greater maturity as he struggles openly to define Carter. His depiction of the composer as an 'outsider who looked like an insider—or maybe the reverse' (p. 1) could not be more apt.

Some of Schiff 's assertions can be sweepingly broad, but they are rarely vague or ambiguous. When he is unable to give reasons for the puzzling inconsistencies, problematic holes, and mysteries in Carter's life, he is usually humble and cautious in expressing his own bafflement. Comfortable with the unknowns, he is unashamed of exposing the composer's defects, problems, aggressive assertions, and moments of hypocrisy or dishonesty. The reader learns that Carter's letters and writings on music revealed 'opposed impulses and personae' (p. 61). In one of Schiff 's striking accounts, the author was trying to decipher 'the voluminous mountains of preparatory sketches, graphs, and outlines' in front of Carter, who then became 'almost embarrassed by the evidence of his protracted labors' and mused, 'you might get the impression from all those sketches that I didn't have any idea how to compose' (p. 17). Schiff sometimes criticizes Carter by pointing at his flaws; more often, he defends him with wholehearted support. He can also be half-critical, half-defensive: 'however whimsical it feels at times and despite its pared-down forces, has its own weight' (p. 209). He even offers corrective feedback to some of the compositions: for example, 'As an easy fix, I would...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1477-4631
Print ISSN
0027-4224
Pages
pp. 578-581
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-15
Open Access
No
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