A coffee table book about Elliott Carter? Well, not exactly. But Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler is a relatively large format book of over 360 pages, filled with photographs, reproductions of musical sketches, transcriptions of letters, previously unpublished lectures and more. A publication of the Paul Sacher Foundation, the remarkable archive of so many significant 20th/21st century composers, the varied material here gathered has been meticulously annotated in great detail. I enjoyed it for its insights into Carter as a person and as an artist and for its glimpses of the history of 20th century music from Carter’s vantage point. There are some surprises as well. Did you know Carter considered writing a prequel to What’s Next?, his late-in-life first opera? Or that he planned a two-piano sonata in the mid-fifties?
Near this big book on the library shelf I found a volume much more modest in size, yet still of interest. Elliott Carter: A Centennial Celebration, edited by Marc Ponthus and Susan Tang, includes contributions from Pierre Boulez, Fred Lerdahl, Alvin Curran, Louis Karchin, Charles Rosen, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Wilson, John Ashberry, and Walter Zimmerman. These are mostly fairly brief, but there is a more substantive piece by Paul Griffiths. His discussion of Carter’s choices for text setting, plus an analysis of a song from Of Challenge and of Love, is tightly packed with meaning. Karchin deftly combines reminiscence with analysis of the first song from A Mirror on Which to Dwell. Rosen comments on Carter’s use of sustained melodic lines, drawing examples from the piano works for which he was an exemplary advocate.
Both these books did what writing about music should always do: they made me want to listen to the music.
Here’s a video with young singers from Songfest (the current edition of this remarkable event is in progress at the Colburn School in L. A.), each performing a song from Of Challenge and of Love. An excellent article on singing Carter by the extraordinary soprano Tony Arnold is here.