Modern Madrigalisms: Elliott Carter and the Aesthetics of Art Song

By Kramer, Lawrence | Chicago Review, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Modern Madrigalisms: Elliott Carter and the Aesthetics of Art Song


Kramer, Lawrence, Chicago Review


In 1978 I attended the premiere of Elliott Carter's Syringa for mezzo soprano, bass-baritone, and chamber ensemble, a setting, so to speak (but we shouldn't) of John Ashbery's 1977 poem of the same name. As befits the music's two voices, which sing at the same time but not together, dual but not a duet, Syringa affected me doubly. It changed my view of Carter and it showed me possibilities of vocal writing that Carter himself would subsequently leave unrealized.

My familiarity with Carter at the time of the premiere was limited to four or five compositions, an unsurprising number given how relatively sparse his output had been. The only piece of Carter's I genuinely enjoyed had been his First String Quartet (1950-51), which seemed to me to accomplish with great expressive power the task--giving each instrument in the ensemble a radically individual identity--more famously addressed by his Second String Quartet (1959), a piece I found arid. "I regard my scores," Carter explained in a much-quoted statement, "as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble." (1) But even in the First String Quartet, and in a later work that fascinated me without giving me much pleasure, the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), this individualization seemed more a theoretical horizon than an acoustic reality. A recording of the concerto could not do justice to the division of forces, but even in live performance, with the groups separated spatially to underline their being equipped with their own distinct pitches, rhythms, and tempos, the dense texture and complex layering of sound made it difficult to keep the individuals individual. The music seemed to implode into the compositional voice of a monolithic persona, a rugged original who would later declare, "I just can't bring myself to do something that someone else has done before," a distinctly American figure of Emersonian self-reliance whose nom de plume was Elliott Carter. (2)

Syringa fixed all that. Ashbery's poem is a reworking of the Orpheus legend and the music is a reworking of the poem, which Carter does not so much set to music as refract. The mezzo does indeed sing Ashbery's text but at the same time the baritone sings a series of ancient Greek fragments telling various aspects Of the original myth. The two singers not only sing in two different languages, one dead, one living, but also in two different styles, the mezzo's restrained and spare, the baritone's impassioned and widely spanned. In performance these differences formed the stuff of a genuinely audible scenario. The differences in personality and musical identity between the work's two vocal personae were clear without being obvious, and the differences clearly mattered: the baritone, a not-quite Orpheus, traced fervent arabesques of desire and mourning that enveloped but never reached the mezzo, a not-quite Eurydice (not to be found in the underworld, either; in a role reversal mapped onto the difference of ancient and modern, that was where Orpheus lingered) for whom the baritone's plaints acted as an unconscious that was not quite hers. Eurydice was lost to Orpheus, not in the past, but in the future, where she would be deaf to him no matter who did or did not turn around. The voices of these two compound figures imparted something of the -figures' own agency to the instruments of the ensemble. Every voice could speak, and did, though to what end was not always known. The monolithic persona had left the building.

Syringa seemed to me to open a fresh series of possibilities in the long and often cliched history of the relationship between words and music--not only possibilities of multiplicity and of effective vocal acts that could not be confined within the grid of speaker and listener, but also possibilities of vocal expression in music that went beyond the mimetic without at the same time receding into abstraction. …

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