A great composer you rarely hear on WFCR
A giant of American classical composition died yesterday, at the gigantic age of 103. Not only did Elliott Carter enjoy tremendous longevity, his keen mind and good health allowed him to compose well into his last year, each new work further burnishing his sterling reputation among musicians, critics and a coterie of fans. Carter's sonatas, concertos, symphonic and vocal works and especially string quartets constitute extremely significant additions to their genres, like all great works speaking for their time, place and creator as well as honoring their great tradition. Here, clearly, was a composer to include on any list of America's most important.
Yet despite all of the above, you will rarely encounter any of Carter's music on WFCR. Not to make it "all about us," but I thought this would be a good time to explain why this is, and why it indicates no disrespect for Carter or his work.
Listeners come to WFCR's classical music from many angles and for many reasons. Our audience includes a small (but vocal!) percentage of trained musicians, a few utter neophytes and, mostly, folks who really like classical music, wouldn't claim expertise, enjoy hearing their favorites, and are also fairly open to new sounds and new information. For most, the music accompanies some other activity, such as working, driving or even talking, though the music is also there for concentrated listening when something catches their ear.
This affects how we decide what music to play and what music, despite its quality, we don't play as much or at all. A reasonably degree of accessibility, while not sufficient, is a necessary quality for a piece of music to make it onto the playlist. Music that demands close listening and repeated hearings is going to get neither from most listeners (a fact of life and radio, not a criticism), so is not going to be shown at its best even if played. This goes for the old masters, which is why Beethoven's otherworldly late sonatas and quartets, or brainy Bach anthologies like "The Art of Fugue" make only rare appearances. And it certainly goes for contemporary works, where we make no bones about choosing for airplay those of both high quality and potential immediate reach-out-and-grab-you appeal.
When it comes to Elliott Carter's music, or at least that following his remarkable stylistic shift in the late-1940s (read the obits in the NY Times or Washington Post for a description of his music), there is little question about its quality. The craft, the scope, the creativity, the originality, the personality, the seriousness, the playfulness, the stamp of genius — all there in great abundance. What are not there are any of the normal signposts that allow a listener to understand where he or she is upon first entering Carter's dense and confusing aural landscape. Recognizable melody? The emotionally satisfying interplay of consonance and dissonance? A sense of harmonic direction, of departure and return? Moments of rest and repose? Well, it's not as if they're not there. But they're there the way they are if one was attempting to read "Finnegans Wake" translated into Tamil. These are not works made for chance encounters on the radio, between Mozart and Chopin. One selects Carter's works for oneself, knowing full well what one is in for and what is demanded. The rewards can be many, which is why musicians will continue to explore his music for years to come. But Carter is not and likely never will be accessible enough for radio programming, at least on this station. Like other subcategories of the wide, wonderful world of classical music, Elliott Carter is going to have to be one that those with the desire to explore will have to do so on their own.
So, some recommendations, each with a link to the CD as available at ArkivMusic.com:
Symphony No. 1, Holiday Overture, Piano Concerto. Mark Wait, piano, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor. Two splendid works from Carter's early neo-classical period, along with one of his densest from the 1960s.
The Complete Piano Music. Ursula Oppens, piano. Along with several short works from Carter's last decades, this superb album features the 1946 Piano Sonata, a brilliant transitional work of gripping power, and the 1980 "Night Fantasies," one of his best-known and oft-recorded later works.
String Quartets Nos. 1 & 5. Pacifica Quartet. The Quartet No. 1 of 1951 is the work in which Carter found his unique voice — a worthy successor the the Second Quartet of Charles Ives.
Cello Concertos by Carter and Elgar. Alisa Weilerstein, cello. Staatskaplle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, conductor. An amazing example of Carter's creativity at the end of his ninth decade, with a highly expressive account of the Elgar Concerto coming along for the ride.