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By James Wierzbicki
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Foundations (1908–45)
AN UNFORTUNATELY ENDURING MYTH has it that Elliott Carter was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and that this good fortune somehow related both to Carter's intellectual grounding and to his work as a composer. Often echoed and paraphrased, the misleading idea likely stems from 1957, when Richard Franko Goldman—in one of the earliest biographical-critical studies of Carter—wrote that "as the son of a well-to-do New York family, [Carter] was not faced with the economic necessity of choosing a career, and was able to pursue an education in the leisurely fashion no longer common."
It is true that Elliott Cook Carter Sr., sustaining a business launched by his father (Eli C. Carter) shortly after the American Civil War, in the early decades of the twentieth century was a successful New York–based importer of French and Belgian lace. It is not at all true, however, that Elliott Cook Carter Jr.—the composer—lived his creative life in the lap of luxury. The firm of E. C. Carter & Son was one that Elliott Carter Sr. had to buy from his father at a considerable price, the loans for which Carter Sr. was still repaying when his son (his only child) was born on 11 December 1908. The firm prospered only until the mid-1920s, when the American market for handmade lace curtains in essence dried up; after that, the composer's father shifted the focus of the business in turn, and always with a struggle, to knitted draperies and such relatively déclassé items as inexpensive perfumes and breath fresheners.
That Carter Jr. expressed little interest in devoting his adult life to peddling drugstore commodities caused his entrepreneurial father no end of chagrin. Carter Sr., in fact, was openly contemptuous of his son's commitment to such an impractical field as music, and in the late 1930s, when compositions by Carter Jr. began to get hearings in the New York area, Carter Sr. set a policy of not attending performances. More to the point, the always hardworking Carter Sr. never gifted his musically minded son with anything more than a modicum of independent income. The family's relatively secure financial status in the twentieth century's early decades indeed afforded Carter Jr. with what might be called a "good" education, first at the Horace Mann School in New York and then—from 1926 to 1932—at Harvard University. Carter's living expenses while at Harvard were of course paid for by his family, but after Harvard the young composer, in terms of finances, was pretty much on his own.
When Carter set off for Paris in 1932 primarily for the sake of studying with Nadia Boulanger, his family granted him an allowance too small for anyone to live on. Upon his return to the United States in 1935, Carter discovered that in the severely depressed economy teaching positions were almost impossible to find, and so he felt himself lucky to be able to cobble together a small income by writing reviews for the journal Modern Music and serving as music director for a dance company—Ballet Caravan—run by his Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein. He felt even more lucky to be offered—in 1940, a year after his marriage to sculptor/ art critic Helen Frost-Jones—a full-time teaching position at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.
Carter taught at St. John's College for only two years, his stated reason for leaving being a desire to devote himself more fully to composition. He continued to write for Modern Music until the summer of 1946, at which time he embarked upon his second academic appointment, at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Following his resignation from St. John's College in 1942, Carter eagerly applied for paid positions with the war-embroiled U.S. government.
His efforts to find meaningful employment (i.e., employment not just remunerative but arguably patriotic) as a translator or cryptologist all came to naught. Early in 1943, however, Carter was offered a modestly paid position as musical advisor for the New York office of the government's Office of War Information. However little it paid, this was a job that Carter took quite seriously. But it was not so time- or emotion-consuming a job that it prevented Carter from focusing on his own music. Significantly, the government work did not keep Carter from thinking long and hard about the complex machinations by which the creation of sophisticated music—or even self-consciously "difficult" music—might somehow be converted, on the eve of the twentieth century's midpoint, into a source of income. Unlike his childhood mentor, Charles Ives, Carter was never a musical amateur.
New York (1908–26)
Carter first met Ives in 1924, when he was in his fourth year at the Horace Mann School. The introduction came by way of Clifton J. Furness, the teacher at Mann assigned to guiding the students through a regimen of courses in music appreciation. Asked by interviewer Allen Edwards if at the Mann School music had been taught "as a serious thing," Carter answered that music at Mann was taken very seriously, but he added that the official curriculum focused entirely on "older music," that is, on canonic masterworks from Bach through Wagner, a repertoire that Carter said during his adolescence "bored me completely."
At the Mann School, Furness dutifully taught classes in the standard repertoire, but he had a keen extracurricular interest in music of a much more daring sort. He eagerly shared this interest with Carter and like-minded Mann students (including John Bitter, son of sculptor Karl Bitter; Eugene O'Neill Jr., son of the well-known playwright; and Ivan Narodny, whose father ran a Soviet-oriented theater/art gallery in Greenwich Village). With Furness as their leader, Carter and his classmates celebrated modern music as "sort of an 'underground' affair"; before long, Carter had grown so enamored with modern music in general—so "struck by its intensity and its power," he recalled—that he committed himself to the idea that someday he would "become" a composer.
Furness showed some of Ives's piano music to Carter, who had been taking lessons since the third or fourth grade and who by this time had developed both a good reading ability and a considerable amount of keyboard technique. Furness invited Carter to accompany him to private recitals given by Katherine Ruth Heyman, an English-born pianist—and self-proclaimed mystic—who championed music not just by Ives but also by such composers as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Cyril Scott, Emerson Whithorne, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and Dane Rudhyar. It was during the conversations that followed Heyman's recitals, which she called "séances," that the young Carter first learned of theosophy and of the American variant, launched in 1912 by Austrian immigrant Rudolf Steiner, called anthroposophy. It was during these conversations, too, that Carter discovered that whereas Schoenberg's new serial music in the minds of at least some New York intellectuals was considered to be something of a dangerous "black art," Ives's apparently "mystical, transcendental" music had granted the composer the status of a much-reverenced "white god."
"The mystical bias in all this appealed to an adolescent," Carter recalled, and so it must have been a momentous occasion when Furness, late in 1924, actually introduced Carter to Ives. More than a half century after the fact, Carter fondly remembered the "dark, rainy Sunday" on which he and Furness went to Ives's residence near Gramercy Park and "stepped into a cheery, old-fashioned interior" and then "excitedly discussed modern music all afternoon." The discussion must have gone well; intrigued by the teenager's wits, Ives made a habit of inviting Carter to join him and his wife in their Carnegie Hall box for New York performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which under the leadership of Serge Koussevitzky was at the time (and for decades to come) the United States' premiere medium for adventurous concert-hall music.
Carter recalled that during the 1924–25 and 1925–26 seasons he met with Ives only "occasionally," most often at Carnegie Hall but sometimes at Heyman's loft or at Ives's residence. Their relationship was not just cordial but sustained: the correspondence between Carter and Ives and/or his wife extends through 1954, when Ives passed away. At least in its early years, however, it was never anything more than a respectful relationship between a precocious high-school student and an arguably curmudgeonly man in his fifties who by this time had long earned his living not through musical endeavors but through management of a successful life insurance company. In the letter of recommendation requested of him when in 1926 Carter applied for admission to Harvard, Ives wrote: "Carter strikes me as rather an exceptional boy. He has an instinctive interest in literature, and especially music, that is somewhat unusual. He writes well—an essay in his school paper, 'Symbolism in Art,' shows an interesting mind. I don't know him intimately, but his teacher in Horace Mann School, Mr. Clifton J. Furness, and a friend of mine, always speaks well of him."
Ives's comment that he did not know Carter "intimately" is worthy of note, and the comment seems all the more credible after careful scrutiny of Carter's various writings on Ives. Deeply appreciative as these writings are, they contain little information as to what Ives might have said, specifically, about any of the doubtless thought-provoking compositions that he heard in Carter's company. Carter's "lively talks" with Ives, it seems, tended to be of a general nature. Carter recalled:
Often [Ives] would poke fun, sit down at the piano to play from memory bits of a piece just heard, like Daphnis et Chloé or Le Sacre, taking off the Ravel major seventh chords and obvious rhythms, of the primitive repeated dissonances of Stravinsky, and calling them "too easy." "Anybody can do that," he would exclaim, playing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," the right hand in one key and the left in another. His main love, however, was for Bach, Brahms, and Franck, for he found in them spiritual elevation and nobility, which, like many a critic of his generation, he felt contemporary music had simplified away.
Carter of course learned much from his conversations with Ives, but the lessons had little to do with compositional technique. For Carter, Ives was not so much a teacher as a stimulus, a role model, and—importantly—a granter of verification for Carter's status as a young intellectual.
Not surprisingly, Carter noted that it was before his watershed decision to be a composer that Ives's influence on him was greatest. Once Carter made the commitment, he was swept over by a desire "to learn how to write music step by step, not only by traditional methods but also from the new music that was within my grasp to imagine auditively and to formulate clear ideas about." Carter would remain deeply fond of Ives and his music, but from this point on he was driven in large part by an affinity for "clarity and sharp definition of musical material," and thus he felt "a mounting sense of frustration" whenever he returned to Ives's work because in general it "seemed so disordered and even disorganized that ... it was nearly impossible to understand how or why much of it was put together as it was."
In the summer of 1925 the sixteen-year-old Carter accompanied his father on a business trip to Vienna, in the process acquiring all the currently available scores of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In the mid-1920s, Carter recalled, music by these three Vienna-based composers was still not much heard in New York; he purchased the scores and began to study them, he said, mostly because their importance had been noted by the critic Paul Rosenfeld. How much of this music Carter at the time actually understood remains unclear, even to Carter. But Carter seemed to know instinctively that the order and organization of this music—serial or otherwise—was at least capable of being understood and that in this respect it stood in marked contrast to the music of Ives.
Carter brought that same attitude—that is, the sure confidence that certain phenomena perhaps not immediately grasped might nevertheless indeed be built of graspable elements—to the various forms of non-Western music he explored during his high-school years. Tantalized as any teenager might be by exotic sounds but also motivated by an urgent need for syntactical understanding of "foreign" music, Carter earnestly dabbled in music from the Indonesian island of Bali (through field recordings by pioneering ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee), from China (by means of attendance not just at routine theatrical offerings in New York's Chinatown but also at New York performances by the Beijing-based Mei Lan-fang Opera Company), and from East India (via concerts featuring vocalist Ratan Devi, introduced to Carter by his high-school friend John Bitter).
Likely Carter brought that attitude as well to the sundry nonmusical works of art that during the mid-1920s caught his teenaged fancy. Perhaps owing at least in part to his friendship with schoolmate Ivan Narodny, these included numerous Soviet products of recent vintage: poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky, for example, primitivist paintings by Nikolai Roerich, abstract paintings by Kasimir Malevitch and El Lissitsky, films directed by the likes of Alexander Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. They included, too, "experiments in what now is called mixed media," Carter recalled, perhaps most notably a staged reading of Walt Whitman's Salut au monde "with a background of wondrous colored, moving shapes" generated by the light-projecting device called the Clavilux. And they included a large amount of cutting-edge English-language literature, not the least of which were James Joyce's highly controversial 1920 novel Ulysses and his 1905 Chamber Music poems, some of which the young Carter—still just testing the waters of life as a composer—set to music and shared, to apparently encouraging response, with Ives.
Most important, Carter brought his receptive yet precociously critical attitude to the many examples of "modern" music whose performances he so hungrily sought. According to Carter's various reminiscences, the most memorable of these were pieces by Bartók, Ruggles, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Varèse, and Webern. The venues ranged from downtown lofts to Carnegie Hall, and the presenters included the Franco-American Music Society, the International Composers' Guild, the League of Composers, the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. The deepest impressions, it seems, were made by Koussevitzky.
Excerpted from Elliott Carter by James Wierzbicki Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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