Canonic Suite (1945, revised 1981), Elliott Carter

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Canonic Suite (1945, revised 1981), Elliott Carter
Year of Composition: 1945    
Fanfare
Nocturne
Tarantella

Review

Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Friday, September 10, 1999
Back saxes
Herman Trotter

TWO WORLD premieres were featured in Thursday evening's concert by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, The program, "American Variations," was in Slee Hall, VB North Campus; and will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. next Friday in Westminster Presbyterian Church.

There was enough music built on repetitive, orderly devices such as canon, phase shifting and retrograde that the program assumed an almost neo-baroque dominant tone.

The world premiere of David Sipos' "Scalindrome" was of major interest. Like a literary palindrome, it is exactly the same played forward or backward. That may sound gimmicky, but Sipos' mirror image has musical interest, too. A baritone solo in baroque-like figurations introduced the others, generating a hauntingly distant, almost middle eastern effect. Down the line the music was replete with ornamental scalar runs in canonic presentation and bold, wide interval leaps. It was so memorable that one waited eagerly for the various elements' return in retrograde (played backwards). The incessant pulse and rhythmic vitality were infectious. Fittingly, the composer changed the title at the last minute to a palindrome, "Evade Dave."

The other premiere was Charles Griffin's "Panta Rei," a pulsing, fast, free-flowing piece of tight, dense textures and few open spaces, save for an island of rather uneasy repose in the middle.

Variation in texture seemed a program objective. Elliott Carter's "Canonic Suite for Four Alto Saxophones" fit that criterion, three movements, each with abrupt endings, all strictly canonical but of different character: mechanical, dreamy and strongly fugal.

Another highlight was Jerome Moross' "Sonata for Piano Duet and Quartet," transcribed for saxes by Russ Carere. Stephen and Frieda Manes were the excellent piano duo in this very appealing work, whose American character was projected with a happy wedding of theme development with accompanying rhythmic supporting lines. The three movements were percolating, wistful and quasi-bluesy and a jaunty "boulevardier" theme sauntered through the Finale.

In Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," the musicians clapped the same rhythmic pattern then continually shifted it farther out of phase until it came full circle and back into phase. It's fiendishly difficult, must be torture to practice, but at intermission most people quizzed didn't care to hear it again. Tayloe Harding's Quartet is conventionally scored and is acrid in its harmonic bite, full of introspective groping, dissonant continuo lines, and choppy, narrow intervalled patterns. It's admirably consistent in character even if not entirely comfortable to the ear.

Evade Dave (1999), Dave Sipos
Panta Rei (1997), Charles Griffin
Canonic Suite (1945, revised 1981), Elliott Carter
Sonata (1975), Jerome Moross
Clapping Music (1972), Steve Reich
Quartet for Saxophones (1990), Tayloe Harding
Back saxes

Composer Biography

1908 —

Carter, Elliott (b. 1908) is a native of New York City. He majored in English literature at Harvard, then decided to be a musician and stayed on for graduate studies in music with Walter Piston. In 1932, Carter went to Paris where he studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger. He settled in New York City in 1936. Throughout his career, Carter has taught frequently at Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Queens College, Yale University, and the Juilliard School, but his main activity has been composing.


[from Wikipedia]

Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. (born December 11, 1908) is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer born and living in New York City. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s, and then returned to the United States. After a neoclassical phase, he went on to write atonal, rhythmically complex music. His compositions, which have been performed all over the world, include orchestral and chamber music as well as solo instrumental and vocal works.

He has been extremely productive in his latter years, publishing more than 40 works between the ages of 90 and 100,[1] and three more since he turned 100.

Carter's father, Elliott Carter, Sr. was a businessman and his mother was the former Florence Chambers. The family was well-to-do. As a teenager he developed an interest in music and was encouraged in this regard by the composer Charles Ives (who sold insurance to his family). In 1924 a "galvanized" 15-year-old Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the New York première of The Rite of Spring, according to a 2008 report. Carter was again in attendance (see below) at Carnegie Hall, on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2008, when the orchestra, now under the baton of James Levine, again performed the Stravinsky piece as part of its tribute to Carter.[2] Although Carter majored in English at Harvard College, he also studied music there and at the nearby Longy School of Music. His professors included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club. He did graduate work in music at Harvard, from which he received a Master's degree in music in 1932. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger (as did many other American composers). Carter worked with Mlle Boulanger from 1932–35 and in 1935 he received a doctorate in music (D Mus) from the Ecole Normale in Paris. Later in 1935 he returned to the US where he wrote music for the Ballet Caravan.

From 1940 to 1944 Elliott Carter taught in the program, including music, at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. During World War II, Carter worked for the Office of War Information. He later held teaching posts at the Peabody Conservatory (1946–1948), Columbia University, Queens College, New York (1955–56), Yale University (1960–62), Cornell University (from 1967) and the Juilliard School (from 1972). In 1967 he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1985 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Carter has lived in Greenwich Village since 1945.[1]

On December 11, 2008, Carter celebrated his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Daniel Barenboim played his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra from 2008. Between the ages of 90 and 100, Carter published more than 40 works, and after his 100th birthday he has composed three more.[1]

On February 7, 2009, Carter was given the Trustees Award (a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers) by the Grammy Awards.[3]

Carter is on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center where he gives annual composition master classes.

Carter was born the very same day as fellow centenarian Manoel de Oliveira.

Carter's earlier works are influenced by Stravinsky, Harris, Copland, and Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical in aesthetic. He had a strict and thorough training in counterpoint, from medieval polyphony through Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocahontas (1938–39). Some of his music during the Second World War is frankly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber. Interestingly, Carter abandoned neoclassicism around the same time Stravinsky did, saying that he felt he had been evading vital areas of feeling.[citation needed]

His music after 1950 is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. While Carter's chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period, Carter does not employ serial techniques in his music. Rather he independently developed and cataloged all possible collections of pitches (i.e., all possible 3 note chords, 5 note chords etc.). Musical theorists like Allen Forte later systematized this data into musical set theory. A series of works in the 1960s and 1970s generates its tonal material by using all possible chords of a particular number of pitches.

The Piano Concerto (1964–65) uses the collection of three note chords for its pitch material; the Third String Quartet (1971) uses all four-note chords; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) all five-note chords; and the Symphony of Three Orchestras uses the collection of six note chords. Carter also makes frequent use of "tonic" 12-note chords. Of particular interest are "all-interval" 12-tone chords where every interval is represented within adjacent notes of the chord. His 1980 solo piano work Night Fantasies uses the entire collection of the 88 symmetrical-inverted all-interval 12 note chords. Typically the pitch material is segmented between instruments, with a unique set of chords or sets assigned to each instrument or orchestral section. This stratification of material, with individual voices assigned not only their own unique pitch material, but texture and rhythm as well, is a key component of Carter's musical style. Carter's music after Night Fantasies has been termed his late period and his tonal language has become less systematized and more intuitive, but retains the basic characteristics of his earlier works.

Carter's use of rhythm can best be understood within the concept of stratification. Each instrumental voice is typically assigned its own set of tempos. A structural polyrhythm, where a very slow polyrhythm is used as a formal device, is present in many of Carter's works. The solo piano work Night Fantasies, for example, uses a 216:175 tempo relation that coincides at only two points in the entire 20+ minute composition. This use of rhythm is part of his goal to expand the notion of counterpoint to encompass simultaneous different characters, even entire movements, rather than just individual lines.

Carter developed his technique to further his artistic goals. His use of rhythm allows his music a structured fluidity and sense of time perhaps unique in classical music. The music also is overtly expressive and dramatic. He has said that "I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble." He has also talked about his desire to portray a "different form of motion," in which players are not locked in step with the downbeat of every measure.

He has said that such steady pulses remind him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds that are not heard anymore in the late 20th century, and he wants his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane. While Carter's atonal music shows little trace of American popular music or jazz, his vocal music has demonstrated strong ties to contemporary American poetry. He has set works of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore. Several of his large instrumental works such as the Concerto for Orchestra or Symphony of Three Orchestras are inspired by twentieth-century poets as well.

Among his better known works are the Variations for Orchestra (1954–5); the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959–61); the Piano Concerto (1964–65), written as an 85th birthday present for Igor Stravinsky; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), loosely based on a poem by Saint-John Perse; and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). He has also written five string quartets,[4] of which the second and third won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973 respectively. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993–1996) is his largest orchestral work, complex in structure and featuring contrasting layers of instrumental textures, from delicate wind solos to crashing brass and percussion outbursts.

In spite of a usually rigorous derivation of all pitch content of a piece from a source chord, or series of chords, Carter never abandons lyricism, and ensures that a text is sung intelligibly, sometimes even simply. In A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) (based on poems by Elizabeth Bishop) Carter writes colorful, subtle, transparently clear music; yet almost every pitch in the piece is derived from the content of a single sonority. Most of Carter's music is published by either G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers (works up to 1981) or Boosey & Hawkes (works since 1981).

Carter continues composing. Interventions for Piano and Orchestra received its premiere on December 5, 2008, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine featuring pianist Daniel Barenboim at Symphony Hall in Boston. The pianist reprised the work again with the BSO at Carnegie Hall in New York in the presence of the composer on his 100th birthday.[1] Carter was also present at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival to hear the world premiere of his song-cycle On Conversing with Paradise, based on Ezra Pound's Pisan canto 95 and the unfinished canto 121.[5] The premiere, on 20 June 2009, was given by baritone Leigh Melrose and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Oliver Knussen.[6]

Figment V for marimba with Simon Boyar was premiered in New York on 2 May 2009 and Poems of Louis Zukofsky for soprano and clarinet had its first performance by Lucy Shelton and Stanley Drucker at the Tanglewood Festival on 9 August 2009. The US premiere of the Flute Concerto took place on 4 February 2010 with soloist Elizabeth Rowe and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine.

Composition Notes

The Canonic Suite for a quartet of alto saxophones is a revision made in 1981 of the Suite for Quartet of Alto Saxophones. It was awarded a prize in 1945 by Broadcast Music, Inc. and was first published in that year. The Fanfare is a canon in four parts at the unison. The Nocturne is a four-part canon in inversion (saxophone 2), retrograde (saxophone 3), and retrograde inversion (saxophone 4). The Tarantella is a four-part canon at the second above.