What makes a great American composer?
The death of composer Elliott Carter on November 5 at age 103 brought forth many tributes and assessments from the classical media, including NEPR. It also, unusually for a classical music story, made the general media, at least in a small way. Here, for instance, is a nice remembrance on All Things Considered.
Well, news of Carter's death may have penetrated the general culture. But his music sure hasn't. For all his longevity, accomplishment and accolades, I doubt that Carter's name was recognized by more than 5% of All Things Considered's listeners, if even that many. Far fewer had ever encountered his music, and only the tiniest fraction could name of single piece by him. Not unlike the proverbial tree in the forest, Carter's music makes a grand sound, which only a very select few have ever heard. Part of this, of course, stems from the alarming current absense of classical music from our national soundtrack. But a large part also stems from his music's near-total lack of popular appeal, even by classical standards. Of complexity, nuance, eventfulness, and intelligence, there's a-plenty. Of recognizable melody, toe-tapping rhythm, easily discernible pattern — of anything that makes music immediately graspable, there's nary a note. This is not a disparagement; Carter wrote as he pleased and did rather well by his muse. But if you're going to go about assessing Carter's overall place in the American musical landscape, it matters.
Or does it? Here are two contrasting views, the first coming from Lloyd Schwartz, classical critic for the Boston Phoenix and NPR's Fresh Air. From Schwartz's effusive tribute in the Phoenix:
Some might say (and I would agree) that (Carter) was America's greatest classical composer, though he was far from its most popular.
Having read his reviews for many years and being well-acquainted with his advocacy for austere classical modernism and disdain for popular appeal, I may fairly ask whether Schwartz elevates Carter to this lofty stature despite his lack of popularity or because of it. But like his favorite composer, Schwartz writes as he pleases and has done well by his viewpoint. On the other hand, so has critic Justin Davidson, currently with New York magazine. In a 2008 article, Davidson goes against the critical consensus, and outs himself as a Carter skeptic, if not outright Carter denier:
After the first minute or so of his mazelike music, I lose all sense of how deeply I have wandered in. Each passage blots out its own past, and at any given moment the possibilities for what the ensuing few bars might hold are virtually infinite. Carter creates no expectations, and so he cannot defy expectations, either. I will accept any dénouement, but I do so without investment in the outcome. A single blinding moment might be worth a standing ovation; a long chain of them gets only an irritated shrug.
Even if you're the world's biggest Elliott Carter fan, you have to notice that here we have a very serious critic, also an accomplished composer, and even he can't make head or tail of Carter's music. No wonder the general public says "no thanks!" If I may out myself here as well, I think Davidson nails it. And to give my own answer to the question I posed above, I do think that at least a reasonable level of accessibility is a hallmark of greatness. You don't have to be a pandering populist; in fact, shame on you if you are. But what does your genius really amount to if only a tiny sliver of the classical audience — itself a small and shrinking minority — has even the slightest idea what you're trying to say? And how could a composer with such a microscopic following qualify as America's greatest?
If you're going to be on my personal Mount Rushmore of American composers, you have to speak a language I understand, honor my sensibilities at least as much as I'm supposed to honor yours, and tell me something about what it means to be or have been an American in a particular time and place. Charles Ives did it. Aaron Copland did it. Duke Ellington did it. And though it may be too early to confer greatness upon them, any number of living American composers — and not just classical — are doing it today. Elliott Carter? He may indeed have been America's greatest modernist composer. But overall greatest? Sorry, but no one who didn't write a single note that entered the American musical vernacular could be the greatest in my book.
(Photos: Duke Ellington, top left, Aaron Copland, top right, Charles Ives)