Focus: Elliott Carter

Classic Arts Features   Focus: Elliott Carter
Critic Paul Griffiths talks to the nonagenarian composer, whose music is performed several times by the New York Philharmonic this season starting September 29.

The season's Philharmonic focus on the American composer Elliott Carter is a celebration of an immense composing life. Mr. Carter, who turns 97 in December, remains active, creating music of restless energy, intelligence, and wit. The Philharmonic will perform four of his works, three conducted by Lorin Maazel and one, Allegro scorrevole, by Christoph von Dohnányi. The composer spoke in a recent interview about each piece in turn.

"Holiday Overture, which is 61 years old, was written to mark the liberation of Paris. It shows the beginning of many of the concerns I developed in later years having to do with making music that works simultaneously in different speeds. Most of this derived from jazz, from what I heard at a place on 52nd Street, where Fats Waller and others used to play.

"Variations for Orchestra has to do more with sonority than rhythmic streams, and with making one big flying thing out of a sequence of variations. The piece was a favorite of Georg Solti, who took it to Japan, where a critic said it would never have been played if I hadn't been a relation of President Carter‹which I am not!

"Allegro Scorrevole is based on the bubble as a symbol of life's fragility. I was thinking both of Chardin's painting of a boy blowing bubbles, and a 17th-century poem by Richard Crashaw, where he imagines a bubble floating over the earth, seeing life's joys and sorrows, and finally disappearing in the sky. The piece suggests the flow of things. It was a very interesting problem to have, to maintain the impression of speed without having all the music go fast‹having different kinds of character as it goes along.

"Dialogues is a work for large chamber orchestra with solo piano. My idea was that the piano would dialogue with various members of the orchestra, particularly with the English horn, and that there would be contrast between the broken-up interventions of the orchestra and the long line of the piano."

Paul Griffiths's most recent works are The Penguin Companion to Classical Music and The Substance of Things Heard: Writings About Music.

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