Magazine article Musical Times

'A Play of Pure Forces'? Elliott Carter's Opera in Context

Magazine article Musical Times

'A Play of Pure Forces'? Elliott Carter's Opera in Context

Article excerpt

ELLIOTT CARTER'S A mirror on which to dwell, settings of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop for soprano and chamber orchestra (1975), was his first vocal composition since Emblems, for male chorus, of 1947. Since 1975 there have been several more texted works, mainly for solo voice, usually with ensemble accompaniment, and a concentration on modern American poets: John Ashbery (combined with ancient Greek) in Syringa (1978), Robert Lowell (In sleep, in thunder, 1981), John Hollander (Of challenge and of love, 1994), William Carlos Williams (Of rewaking, 2002), Wallace Stevens (In the distances of sleep, 2006), and Ashbery again in the six- voice Mad Regales (2007). The exception in the field of composition for solo voice and ensemble is Tempo e tempi, for soprano and four instruments (1998), a collection setting modern Italian texts by Montale, Quasimodo and Ungaretti. And this was closely followed by the major exception as far as vocal genre is concerned - the opera What next?

What next? (first performed on 16 September 1999 at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin) is in a single act, playing for about 40 minutes, and the libretto is by the English music writer and novelist Paul Griffiths. Some sense of its essential subject-matter, and the context of Carter's creative enterprise, can be set out in a brief, imaginary, dialogue:

Carter. I wanted an automobile accident, and people recovering from it, and getting sort of disjointed in their lives.

Boulep I need, or work, with a lot of accidents, but within a structure that has an overall trajectory - and that, for me, is the definition of what is organic.

Carter. When I decided to accept a commission for an opera [...] I wanted to present a contemporary subject of wide concern. Seeing Jacques Tati's movie Trafic, I realized that an automobile accident (or some other accident) could be such a subject.

Boulep I believe that the fundamental freedom of composing can only be found in the rupture, in the accident constantly absorbed by the law, at the same time as the constantly repeated destruction of the law by the accident.1

There are many angles on the affinity between Boulez and Carter, having much to do with a shared nexus of attitudes to things French that blends exasperation and affection, and possibly also with the abiding influence of two Gallic mentors - Nadia Boulanger for Carter, Olivier Messiaen for Boulez - who, while very different in many ways, shared an aesthetic ethos that resisted the projection of alienated melancholia. Just as Boulez's music, while seeming to shun the tragic and the pathetic, does not thereby forfeit all sense of human feeling, of celebration and even exultation, so Carter's awareness that he could never write an opera which related to 'all the great historical tragedies I've seen over the years' did not exclude a subject that might be presented 'somewhat ironically and humanly'.1

Roughly speaking, Carter's formative decade - 1925-35 - came 20 years before Boulez's. As a result, Carter has been less sceptical about traditional generic frameworks in music, perhaps because he has been so much more prolific, and less involved with other ways of making music. But both composers, like so many of their progressive contemporaries, have found ways of embracing the limitations (relative to instrumental or electronic media) of the human voice. Both have been intrigued and provoked by grappling with the endless oppositions and interactions which arise when words are set to music. Both have made use of the particular sonic qualities that arise when a vocal line is wordless. Both have shown exceptional imagination in balancing creative spontaneity against rule-based thinking. But - so far only Carter has managed to complete an opera, albeit one on the scale of Erwartung or L'enfant et les sortilèges rather than oí Parsifal, Pelléas, or St François d'Assise.

How What next? works

What next? is about six people on the way to a wedding reacting to the shock of a road accident which is depicted as an initial 'representation of chaos' (percussion only, 'violento'), but whose specifics are never described. …

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