Elliott Carter: Euro-centric or American Modernist?


Professor Roger Heaton, Bath Spa University

8 March 2011

As I write this Carter (b. 1908) is just about to celebrate his 103rd birthday with three world premieres. As busy as ever Carter came of age musically in the modernist ferment of 1920s New York fascinated by the avant-garde composers working there, Varèse, Cowell and Ruggles, as well as studying scores from Europe by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Bartók.

As a child he travelled extensively in Europe, later studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and since the Second War has had more recognition here than perhaps in his native country where his modernist, atonal, highly structured music has been considered out of step with the neo-tonal minimal and post-minimal musical pluralism prevalent in America. Carter has always considered himself an American composer writing American music despite recent comments about his 'Euro-centrism'. Less overtly ‘American’ than Copland his aim during the 1920swas to create a modern American music that could equal the sophisticated work of the Europeans: a fusion of American radicalism and spirit with European modernism.

What his work has achieved is an American model of 'international' modernism formed by a fusion or synthesis of traditions. His journey towards this individual style took place through a number of works in the 1940s and 50s leading up to the First String Quartet (1951) and arriving at the mature style with the Second Quartet (1959). These pieces embody a 'problem-solving' attitude toward technique: a kind of research-model that we see in post-Second War European serialism as well as with Cage and experimentalism in America. The Piano Sonata (1945-6) is a study in sonority, the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1950) originated as teaching materials: studies in construction with minimal material. The Cello Sonata 1948 is about time and combines what Carter calls 'chronometric' (regular) time in the piano against 'chrono-ametric' time in the cello. The First Quartet brings these ideas together in a work where there is less regard for the players than for compositional experiment. Carter often writes about his search for a 'flow' of musical expression, ‘...as though every note counted in some way...I've been very concerned with trying to...re-energize the tensions of the notes, the qualities of individual pitches.’ His work is complex and difficult yet has a vitality, energy and questing spirit, still undimmed and quintessentially American.

The following works were illustrated by recordings as part of this lecture, or, in the case of the solo clarinet piece GRA, performed live by Professor Heaton himself:

  • Pocahontas (1936-9)
  • Holiday Overture (1944)
  • Piano Sonata (1945-6)
  • Cello Sonata (1948)
  • Eight studies and a Fantasy (1950)
  • Studies for four Timpani (1950)
  • First String Quartet (1950-51)
  • Second String Quartet (1959)
  • GRA for solo clarinet (1993)
  • Dialogues (2003)
  • Sound Fields (2007)


Roger Heaton, 2011


Note:  Elliott Carter was born on December 11 1908, and died on November 5 2012, a few weeks short of his 104th birthday.