CARTER: Piano Concerto / Symphony No. 1 / Holiday Overture

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Elliott Carter (b. 1908)

Holiday Overture Symphony No. 1 Piano Concerto

While no one will ever agree on who is the most importantliving American composer, Elliott Carter is often called the most eminent,which is difficult to dispute. Now 95 years old and actively composing foreight decades, Carter spans nearly the entire twentieth century and thebeginning of the 21st. Famous for highly demanding atonal scores usingextraordinarily sophisticated rhythms, Carter is a prime architect of modernistmusic in the United States. Among his most important works are: the Double Concertofor Piano and Harpsichord with Two Chamber Orchestras, which Stravinsky hailedas a masterpiece, a Concerto for Orchestra which Bernstein championed, aGrammy-winning Violin Concerto, and five string quartets, often hailed as themost important works in the genre since Bartok, two of which were awardedPulitzers. His most recent compositions include his first opera, What Next?,and a Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma. 

The three orchestral works presented here span only twodecades, a seemingly insignificant time frame considering Carter's longevity,but the Holiday Overture and Symphony No. 1, both composed in the 1940s, andthe Piano Concerto from 1965 initially feel universes apart. However, thisunprecedented combination of two works from Carter's little-known earlier\populist" style with one of the most seemingly forbidding works from hismature difficult style reveal that the young Carter nonetheless composed highlyindividual complex works and that later Carter is more approachable than mostpeople think. 

Each work emotionally captures an important moment inCarter's life. The Holiday Overture celebrates the Allied liberation of France.The symphony conjures up Cape Cod seascapes and the natural landscapes of NewMexico where the music was written. The sonic divisiveness of the pianoconcerto was a direct response to the then newly-built Berlin Wall. Deeperlistening reveals many common threads such as creating larger structures fromlinking episodes rather than traditional development, chamber music approachesto orchestration where the orchestra's many voices often function asindividuals, a love of elaborate polyphony engendered at least in part fromcompositional studies in Paris with the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger,and music that no matter how rigorous is not afraid of occasionally beinghumorous. Many of Carter's compositional devices also hark back to Carter'sboyhood mentor Charles Ives, whose maverick works no matter how complicatedalways had a direct impact.

The Holiday Overture was composed on Fire Island (NY) duringthe summer of 1944 and reflects the general uplifting spirit of most Americanconcert music composed then. France's liberation, while especially meaningfulfor Carter who spent three years in Paris, was a decisive American victory andan early harbinger of the Allied triumph ending World War Two the followingyear. A triumphant attitude permeates the overture, perhaps Carter's mostbravado music. Yet, even though it sounds almost antithetical to theintrospective multi-layerings he would embark on only a few years later, Carterconsiders the overture transitional. In his 1970 essay The OrchestralComposer's Point of View (reprinted in Collected Essays and Lectures,University of Rochester), Carter claims the overture was his first composition"to use consciously the notion of simultaneously contrasting layers of musicalactivity, which characterizes most of my more recent work". Syncopated themes,while nowhere near his later staggering rhythmic complexity, already situncomfortably within measures of common time and already become a tangled webof cross rhythms and dissonances. Although the overture celebrates a majorGerman defeat, it ironically received its first performance in Germany.

Winner of the 1945 Independent Concert Music Publisher'sContest, which was to have insured a Boston Symphony premi?¿re underKoussevitzky (one of the judges), the overture was instead first performed inFrankfurt under Celibidache, conducting musicians reading from parts photostattedby Carter, who in frustration, smuggled the originals out of the Symphony'slibrary after many months of waiting in vain for the premi?¿re. Carter revisedthe score in 1961, and the Boston Symphony later on more than made up for theirnegligence by commissioning and giving the first performance of the PianoConcerto.

Though completed in Santa Fe in December 1942, parts ofSymphony No. 1 date to the mid-1930s and were originally part of the earlyballet score Pocahontas, among the earliest music by Carter that he stillacknowledges. Other parts of the symphony, such as lush string chords openingthe first movement, date to the work's revision in 1954 after Carter's musichad already undergone a radical transformation. Although called Symphony No. 1,to date there has never been a Symphony No. 2. "Symphony" appears in only twoother Carter titles: A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977), and his recentorchestral triptych, Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-96). Comparedwith these massive works, Symphony No. 1 is much humbler. Scored for a smallorchestra and employing mostly diatonic harmonic vocabulary, it also sounds farremoved from Carter's subsequent musical interests. Yet, as in the HolidayOverture, there are hints of the later Carter.

In the first movement, two basic pulses occur simultaneouslythroughout creating cross rhythms in a 3/2 ratio. Tempos also changeconstantly, a technique Carter later refined into his trademark metricalmodulation where speed is transformed by superimposing differing tempos andthen removing one. The second movement presents a long expansive melody whichgrows without developing, foreshadowing the extremely long development-lessmelodies throughout Carter's later music. The finale, probably the earliest ofthe three movements to be composed, is the most populist, containing a jazzyclarinet solo and square dance-tinged violin lines.

Carter's Piano Concerto, dedicated to Stravinsky on his 85thbirthday, was composed a full generation after the Symphony and the HolidayOverture. Though the earliest of his solo concertos, it is in many ways theleast concerto-like. By the mid 1960s, Carter had already built the foundationsof a brand new music through chamber works where different musical strands werepresented simultaneously for the sake of contrasting rather than blending,where differences between instrumental lines became more emphasized thansimilarities. Carter was eager to expand this idea to orchestral music but theorchestra's institutional nature greatly discouraged his experimentation.

Between the Holiday Overture and the Piano Concerto, Cartercomposed few orchestral works, a ballet, The Minotaur; the Elegy for Strings,orchestrating a chamber piece, the Variations for Orchestra which employed adissonant harmonic language but with relatively straight-forward rhythms andorchestration, and the revolutionary Double Concerto which completely revampedthe way orchestra members were distributed as well as how they interacted withone another, resulting in music that more closely resembles a large scalechamber work than an orchestral piece. The Piano Concerto refines the approachinitiated in the Double Concerto. Rather than pitting the piano directlyagainst the orchestra which Carter refers to as "a society of sounds", thepiano is protected from direct confrontation with the orchestra by a concertinogroup of seven musicians, flute, English horn, bass clarinet, solo violin, soloviola, solo cello, solo double bass, which Carter describes as "mediators". Thatgroup share
Item number 8559151
Barcode 636943915127
Release date 02/01/2004
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Wait, Mark
Wait, Mark
Composers Carter, Elliott
Conductors Schermerhorn, Kenneth
Schermerhorn, Kenneth
Orchestras Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Producers Newble, Peter
Newble, Peter
Disc: 1
Piano Concerto
1 Holiday Overture
2 Moderately, wistfully
3 Slowly, gravely
4 Vivaciously
5 I.
6 II.
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