Introduction

By Calahan, Joel | Chicago Review, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Calahan, Joel, Chicago Review


"The naturalistic setting of words-that is, setting them in a way that will follow the normal rhythm and inflection of the voice-presents a problem, since we do not speak rhythmically.... If the music is to have an interest and a coherence of its own...then it must establish its own pacing and its own pattern, which must inevitably affect the naturalistic presentation of words and actions. "

-Elliott Carter, "The Gesamtkunstwerk" (1964/1994)

Elliott Carter ( 1908-2012) needs no introduction in the world of new music. Considered one of the most challenging and innovative American composers of the twentieth century (not to mention its longest lived), Carter's career has been celebrated by critics and scholars, and his work widely performed and recorded by prominent conductors and musicians. This special issue, however, introduces Carter's life and work from a new angle of focus: his lifelong devotion to American poetry. Carter was a capacious reader of modern literature, seeing in the underlying principles of poetic and narrative structure-sequence, rhythm, and voice-a companion art form that could serve as a resource for his most significant compositions. At various stages in his career, Carter chose texts for his song cycles from the main lineage of American modernism: Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, Bishop, Lowell, Ashbery. These are difficult poets, attesting to Carter's good taste as well as his sense of artistic iconoclasm. In setting the works of these poets to music, Carter carries on the legacy of literary modernism and also challenges it by raising important questions about its social and aesthetic value: Are lyric poems public or private? How do inflection, tone, and quality of voice contribute to poetic meaning? What are different ways we experience the suspension of time in lyric poetry? What is the value of historical allusion in a poem, and can we appreciate a poem without knowing its sources?

After an early bout of short song cycles and choral pieces covering the classics-Greek drama, Herrick, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost-Carter dropped the genre altogether in the mid-1940s, only to pick it up again in the 70s. The critical essays and documents of "Elliott Carter: Settings" focus on the reengagement with voice in the middle and later period of his career. Carter's own letters and brief writings on poetry and music form the feature's backbone. Essays on his trilogy of works for contemporaries Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and Robert Lowell, and on his later settings of modernism's first generation, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky, offer new readings and claims for his influence. Poems dedicated to Carter celebrate in verse his technique and legacy. A checklist of Carter's choral and vocal works ends the feature.

Carter's program notes and commentaries to selected vocal works illustrate his sensibility in using written sources. "Voyage" (1943) and Concerto for Orchestra (1969) describe the work of composition as the staging of a poetic problem: the role of the voice among the world's elements. Sometimes the presentation of text is dramatic, a dialogue between conflicting elements; sometimes the music casts a poetic line with a new emotional tenor. "Voyage," which sets the third poem of Hart Crane's "Voyages" to piano, is Carter's most accomplished early song. Carter's commentary praises the layered elements in Crane's poem that achieve "disintegration and reorganization"-an early characterization of the structural and rhythmic qualities distinct to his own work.

Carter's lecture titled "The New Ancients and the Old Moderns," appearing here for the first time, was given at the 1981 Venice Bienniale, delivered in Italian for an audience familiar with his work (Carter visited Italy often) and eager to understand its motivations. Touching on a theme common to his talks, Carter focuses on the problem of musical time, and particularly the concept of continuity and sequence challenged by the European modernists. …

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