Elliott Carter interviewed by Mario Di Bonaventura (February, 1964)
The “Congregation of the Arts” at the Hopkins Center of Dartmouth College was part of the college’s Summer Term, designed to be “a coming together of students and teachers in the arts.” It combined classes and studio work with theatre productions, concerts, and art exhibits, and ran from 1963-1969. For the inaugural congregation in the summer of 1963, the director of music, Mario di Bonaventura, invited Elliott Carter, Vincent Persichetti, and Walter Piston each to be a composer-in-residence for two weeks. Carter’s visit took place in May, and this interview was recorded the following February. Other composers-in-residence over the years included Cárlos Chávez, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Werner Henze, Roberto Gerhard, Ernst Krenek, Zoltan Kodály, Witold Lutosławski, Gladys Nordenstrom, Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions, and Walter Piston.(*)See Raymond John Buck, “Summer Term Close to Count-Down,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 55, no. 7 (April 1963): 20-21. The editors would like to thank Dartmouth College Library for making a recording of this interview available to us.
[ 1 ] Mario Di Bonaventura: Elliott Carter, we are very honored to have you participate in Dartmouth’s Congregation of the Arts program at the Hopkins Center. I know that you have come directly from Rome, where you are at the American Academy. And so your impressions of the contrasts in American and European musical life and academic atmosphere are especially vivid. At one of your lectures in the Hopkins Center, you pointed out that many contemporary compositions in advanced medium [sic] have become standard repertoire with European orchestras, whereas in America the orchestras seldom play new music which is not written in a fairly conventional style. Would you comment on how this situation has affected the American composer?
[ 2 ] Elliott Carter: Mario, I think this has affected the American composer bit by bit, like a kind of creeping paralysis. That is, during the war, and right after the war – the Second World War – America was in advance of all other countries in the field of contemporary composition. Many of the important European composers came over here to live, and they trained many young American composers. However, shortly after the war, the Europeans decided that it was important to make all young European composers know what had been done in America during the war and to catch up on every latest thing. Within about four years this had been accomplished by a very vigorous program carried out by the radio, by schools, and in particular in the school of Darmstadt in Germany, which originally was started by the American army to educate the young American musicians. After four or five years, this was accomplished and the Europeans continued on, where Americans had left off, and [in America] unfortunately it continued to stay and has stayed pretty much [the same] since that time, while the Europeans have continually progressed in every conceivable direction with the help of the state-supported radio; they’ve been encouraged to develop all kinds of new techniques in music, both electronic and instrumental. They have worked very hard to develop audiences, and there are in many different cities programs of modern music which play to houses that are completely sold out. I’ve been to concerts in Paris, for instance, the Salle Pleyel, which is as large as Carnegie Hall, that was entirely the most advanced music and the house was sold out, with standing room only. This is a thing that is inconceivable nowadays in the United States.
[ 3 ] Elliott, when referring to your catalog of works, one is struck by the fact that the bulk of your production in the last ten years has been chamber music. Could there be an underlying economic reason for this?
[ 4 ] Well, it’s not…
[ 5 ] …as well as aesthetic, of course…
[ 6 ] …(chuckles) Mario, it’s not an economic reason as far as I’m concerned. It makes very little difference what the composer writes; he gets paid almost nothing for it. The only payment he really gets is a good performance, and in America the cost of orchestral performances is mounting so fast because the rise in the standard of living makes wages grow and grow. Hence, rehearsals become fewer and fewer over the years, and therefore one is more and more hesitant to write works that make any kind of demands or present any kind of problems to the orchestral musicians. On the other hand, soloists and chamber music performers are in the perhaps unfortunate position of having to rehearse their pieces over and over again without pay until they learn how to play them very well, and then they can present themselves because their career depends on the quality of their performance in public. Nobody pays them to rehearse for these performances. Hence I have found that I invariably get far better performances in chamber music groups than in orchestra ones, no matter how good the orchestra is.
[ 7 ] Now, this is only one side of it. The other side of it is, these chamber music groups have shown such interest in my work – my works get played so often by them, and they’re so enthusiastic – that I naturally have a good deal of fondness for this. Aside from anything else, it gives me great pleasure to give other musicians pleasure. When I have a piece by the orchestra they all seem to complain bitterly about how difficult it all is and how you can’t understand anything in it. And that rather makes one feel that it’s not a very pleasant kind of situation, especially when half the audience is infuriated [at] the conductor who programmed the work in the first place.
[ 8 ] The economic reason was: thinking back to the inception of L’Histoire du Soldat, in which Stravinsky arbitrarily selected a very small ensemble for economic reasons, so that he could tour along with Ansermet in Switzerland, and so on. And so I wondered if history was repeating itself in view of the, as you said, the standard of living going up, and costs of rehearsing huge orchestras that makes it almost imperative that the composer select a smaller ensemble.
[ 9 ] I would like to say one more point, though. I’m not really concerned about the financial side of this or the economic side at all. There is another side, and that is that the orchestra itself seems to me to be a rather routinized group of instruments. It’s very difficult to write for the orchestra in any way that sounds rather novel, or interesting, or even to have new conceptions for the orchestra, because it was set up in such a way to produce just the kind of music that we now hear at symphony concerts. If you start trying to do something that doesn’t sound like that, it really violates this particular assemblage of instruments, and it takes a terrible lot of imagination and a terrible lot of work to think of ways of dealing with a group of instruments that’s so completely preset and preorganized. This is not the problem in chamber music, where you can pick up any old group of instruments, and can combine the flute and the trombone and the xylophone in one piece and make something out of that, and this I find far more attractive in itself.
[ 10 ] Regarding the special affection you feel for performances of your music, like all composers, I was reading the other day about the Webern Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24, and I was startled to learn that his Concerto was performed once between its composition and 1946. And since ‘46 to ‘56 it was performed eighty-three times. And I’d like to ask you, how often has your Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord, and two chamber orchestras, which Stravinsky called a masterpiece, has been performed here and elsewhere since it was written in 1961.
[ 11 ] Well, let me go back to Webern first. I believe I was the first one to organize an entire concert of Webern’s music, in 1952 in New York City, when I was the President of the International Society [of Contemporary Music], American Chapter. We gave it at the YMHA auditorium; the Juilliard Quartet played the three different quartet pieces; Bethany Beardslee sang a lot of the songs. We gave this Concerto for Nine Instruments, and I don’t remember the rest of the program; it was a long and very representative program of Webern’s works. There were, I should say, between fifteen and twenty people in the audience. One of them was Igor Stravinsky (chuckles), and Mr. Stravinsky came with all the scores. He sat in the front row and cheered so much that we had to repeat quite a number of the numbers. But the rest of the house was completely empty; I always find it a very touching kind of a story.
[ 12 ] I should say that in a sense the Webern picture is of course very different now. For one thing, music and times have changed so much that the kind of life that Webern led would never repeat itself in the same way. Webern was very unlucky, let us say, in having so few performances of his works; many of them were never played during his lifetime. On the other hand he had the enormous luck to live in a society, in a small society of people, who were very, very intelligent and very interested in the music that he was writing. He learned an enormous amount from Schoenberg, who encouraged him, and from Alban Berg, who encouraged him. He wrote articles on Schoenberg’s music, Schoenberg wrote articles on his music, and his entire life until the time of the Nazi period, when he began to retire from the musical world, was one surrounded by a small group of friends who were very, very devoted and very interested in his music. To me, this may be even more important than having a number of performances. He was able to carry on his life work, [to] develop from one work to another, under the criticism and discussion of each one of those works with these eminent composers who were well-equipped to understand what he was doing. I feel that very few people have this opportunity nowadays, and particularly in America, where each one of us feels as though we were living in total isolation even when we get our works played. And I must honestly say that my Double Concerto, which was written in 1961, has been played, I must say, quite a lot of times; a good many more times than a number of my other works that were written somewhat earlier. In fact, my first ballet Pocahontas has only been played twice: once for a recording and once at its original performance. But the Double Concerto was played – here it had the extraordinary good fortune of being played not for an American audience in the United States but for an international audience of musicologists. And these musicologists were apparently very much impressed by this work, and when they all went back to their various countries they asked for performances of this, and the word that this was a work that some people thought interesting spread around throughout the world, and while the work wasn’t played throughout the world there were people that seemed to know about it everywhere. I’ve gotten letters from Japan about the record that came out. The work has been played actually twice in the United States, twice over the BBC in England. It was played twice in Italy – once at the Venice festival of the year before last and once this year in Rome. And it will be played again next year in Rome over the Rome radio, and also it will be played in the United States next year, twice. So it’s received six, I think, performances, and I have the clear promise of four more in the near future.
[ 13 ] That’s wonderful. When discussing the musical scene of Europe one invariably has to speak of the radio stations and the role they play in the cause of contemporary music. Do you think that eventually there will be the equivalent in the United States, or how could we arouse this passion or desire to play what is written today, not fifty years ago?
[ 14 ] Mario, I cannot answer this question because I’ve spent my entire life, that is, ever since I’ve been active in professional music, since 1939, working to produce performances of contemporary music. I’ve been on the board of the League of Composers and the International Society [for Contemporary Music]. I have organized concert series and seasons. Ever since 1939, up until around 1955, it was a madhouse; we were like concert managers, my wife and I, for years and years and years. I’ve been on the International Society’s board in Europe. I’ve gone, when the international delegates have voted me a member of the jury for these international festivals, I’ve gone at my own expense to Europe to be a member of the jury thinking all of this would help contemporary music, and now I have no more ideas about this; I refuse to think of it anymore. I feel I’ve done far more than my share and more than most of my colleagues and most of the young people that I know.
[ 15 ] I’m certain you have. You’ve mentioned serving on international juries. I know recently you’ve been to the Warsaw Festival. Would you care to comment about the activities there and the intellectual thaw, artistic thaw that has happened in the Iron Curtain countries, or bordering Iron Curtain countries?
[ 16 ] The Warsaw Festival is not really a thaw; they melted long ago (chuckles). Warsaw and Poland is a very special place in its relation to the Soviet Union. I’m not able to say anything about the influence of the Soviet Union, of the Communist party in Poland. It is not at all self-evident except at the border when they want to know how much money you’re bringing in, and when you leave, when they find out you haven’t spent enough money, they get rather angry. In my case my bills were all paid for by the Polish government, and by the end of it I could see that the Kommissar looked at my passport and found that I had spent no American money at all and was very cross indeed (chuckles).
[ 17 ] In any case, the Polish Festival, which occurs every year in October, has been going for six years, and it is by far the most elaborate modern music festival in the world, and also in many ways the most advanced one. They give two weeks of concerts, some twice a day and sometimes three concerts a day. More than three-quarters of them are orchestral concerts involving works of a difficulty which I’ve never heard played in the United States at all. These are all farmed out to orchestras all over Poland, hence audiences in Krakau and Pomerania and various other places are all familiar with very advanced contemporary music because their local orchestras practice this music, schedule it, and then come to Warsaw for the festival at a certain time. So there’s a general widespread knowledge of this. But what’s far more interesting is that all of these – what is it, fourteen or twenty-eight concerts? – are absolutely jammed; audiences come and they cheer, and the wilder the music is the more they cheer (chuckles), and it’s absolutely extraordinary; you can’t believe that works that even when they’re played even in Europe, or in America, cause dismay and horror, in Warsaw (are) absolutely gobbled up as if they were the most amusing and interesting or delightful or, I don’t know, or exciting or inspiring works. It’s something absolutely astonishing.
[ 18 ] Have you heard at the Warsaw Festivals any electronic music? And also, may I ask you, what is your attitude towards electronic music?
[ 19 ] People always ask me about that. One of the questions I’m always waiting for is, “What is your attitude about instrumental music?” But that never seems to be asked (chuckles). Or, “What is your attitude about vocal music?” Apparently it’s assumed that I like these but that I don’t like electronic music. But I would say that, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t believe there is such a thing as electronic music, because I don’t believe music starts to exist until there are compositions that are interesting to hear. It doesn’t matter what they’re written for – whether it’s a lot of percussion instruments, or other kinds of noisemakers, or flute, or anything else. If you asked me what flute music was interesting I would say there’s a beautiful work by Debussy.
[ 20 ] If I may go back in time a bit, could I ask you what composer or composers or teachers have had the greatest particular influence on your development?
[ 21 ] Well, this is very difficult. Each one of the teachers that I’ve studied with has had both a positive influence on my development and a negative, and also a certain, well, I should say, what always seemed to me a rather negative influence: there were always certain things that I wish that I had never studied with these people. And on the other hand, there are always things that I prized very much. When I was a student of Walter Piston, I was very, very grateful to be able to study with Walter Piston at that time because of all the students at Harvard around 1930 when I was a student of Walter Piston, and of all the teachers, I was the only student that was interested in contemporary music and Walter Piston was the only teacher that was really interested in it. And it was a very nice thing to have somebody that saw some sense in what was being played weekly at the Boston Symphony but which somehow never seemed to be able to cross the Charles River and get over to Cambridge.
[ 22 ] Would you care to comment on the recordings that are now made, not in terms of their stereophonic capabilities, but in terms of what is produced in the way of contemporary music? Is there any difference between the European recording production and the American?
[ 23 ] Well, yes, there’s a very great difference in the European and American production. That is, in America, the actual notion of recording is entirely different. For one thing, in Europe – I can’t explain exactly why this is technically, or physically – but in any case recordings cost a great deal more in Europe, and they’re something for an elite class of people. They’re produced on the whole in rather small amounts, and they have not been half so adventurous as we have in the production of all kinds of records. They now gradually begin to import American records and records from all over the world. But up until fairly recently, the Italian record market, or the French or German record market, has been severely limited, particularly in contemporary music. None of my Italian colleagues have any records at all of their music; they hardly exist. And I would say that the same thing is true, to a less extent, in Germany, and certainly there are very few records of English, Scandinavian, or Dutch music. On the other hand, a small and very energetic group in Paris around Pierre Boulez have organized a specific record club of advanced music which represents just the particular tastes of the group that Boulez heads, the Domaine Musicale. They’ve produced a lot of very interesting and very well-recorded works. On the whole, therefore, the American composer is far better represented in recordings than almost any other composer in the world – we have far more American recordings. Sometimes I’m not altogether convinced that this is a good idea. It seems to me that in some ways this chokes the market. It would be better to allow the most important works to be recorded, and not have the other ones that are less interesting confuse the issue. But of course, one of the things is that no one understands about recording in America anyhow: records of contemporary music sell surprisingly little in the first place, and it’s a mystery why companies do record so much music when they sell so little of it.
[ 24 ] Yes, I was astonished the other day when you quoted a figure that, I think it was two or three thousand records is a best seller when it’s a serious contemporary work.
[ 25 ] This is particularly true of twelve-tone music, which in the United States is still very much out of the picture. Of course, in Europe there’s hardly one composer, even old composers, who don’t write twelve-tone music – everybody writes twelve-tone music. And among circles where contemporary music is listened to, this is the only kind of music anyone will accept. The kind of neoclassic music which Americans still continue to write seems like something a thousand years old.
[ 26 ] I know that you are presently writing a piano concerto on commission from the Ford Foundation. There has been a great revival of interest in opera in recent years. Are you at all inclined to explore this medium?
[ 27 ] Well, first to talk about the opera and then the piano concerto: I find that opera is such an expensive and complicated medium as we know it – grand opera is, in any case – that I don’t see how it’s possible for opera to develop in the United States no matter how much money is spent on it. I find that the audiences themselves need a good deal more education than they have in order to really be able to understand any developments from the opera after the time of Puccini. The very fact that Puccini and Strauss have represented the limit of opera, and that there’s been so little interest in contemporary opera of any kind, is to me absolutely a sign that there could be no interest in contemporary American opera. There are quite a large number of very important generally recognized and great works of contemporary opera outside of America that don’t get played here. If people are not interested in the important works, it’s surprising that they should be interested in the unimportant works, many of which the Ford Foundation has commissioned. I mean, you have to have a soil, a substructure of real interest and of knowledge of audiences that are fascinated by this and wanting to find out what is happening everywhere before a real operatic tradition can develop. You just can’t say, we’re gonna have some opera here, and give people a hundred thousand dollars, or five thousand dollars, or whatever it is they are given to write an opera and expect them to come across with Madame Butterfly.
[ 28 ] As far as the piano concerto is concerned, the Ford Foundation commissioned me to write a piano concerto. It was one of those plans by which they chose a pianist, in this case Jacob Lateiner, and then gave the pianist the possibility to commission a composer that he liked, or whose music he liked, to write it. As a matter of fact, I did not know Jacob Lateiner before I was commissioned by him to write the piece. And I’ve been working on it; it’s a work that European radios are clamoring for performances of, and Americans seem a little bit cool about it, even before it’s written.
[ 29 ] Would you care to comment, Elliott, on the difference in the American society of the young composer of 1930 and the young composer of 1960? Is he at a disadvantage, or are there more open doors for him?
[ 30 ] Well, let me say, to talk in an egomaniac way, when I came to music in 1934 and 5 in New York City, the young composer was a man, when he wrote a piece of music, who had to sign away all his rights to a radio station in order to get the work played. The radio station was considered an organization that was doing him a favor to play his works. This was also true of the New York Philharmonic. It was true of all performing organizations – the composer was that mad, self-indulgent person who couldn’t be prevented from writing these works, and if he was insistent and annoying enough, he got them played. A number of us, of whom I was one, and Aaron Copland and a few others of us who lived in New York, started an organization to try and combat this. We formed a kind of composers’ union and got almost all the composers in the United States to join, and bit by bit we established the fact that the composer should be paid something for his performances – the radio stations had absolutely no right to force us to sign away the rights of our compositions so we could never collect any royalty on them. And we worked on this patiently over many years, and with a great deal of legal advice, in order to establish just these little points. Similarly, we worked on all the ideas of finding ways of supporting musicians and encouraging them – working out prize contests; developing rules for how they should be run. And as a result, the position of the young American composer is now very much better than these earlier stages. I don’t see that it’s any better when he gets older. Before, they encouraged him up until he was eighteen; now they encourage him up to the time he’s thirty-five with fellowships. But then after that there isn’t anything; it all stops (chuckling).
[ 31 ] Well, thank you, Elliott, I’ve enjoyed tremendously our conversation.
[ 32 ] (chuckling) You’re very welcome, Mario. Thank you.
*. See Raymond John Buck, “Summer Term Close to Count-Down,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine 55, no. 7 (April 1963): 20-21. https://archive.dartmouthalumnimagazine.com/issue/19630401#!&pid=20 The editors would like to thank Dartmouth College Library for making a recording of this interview available to us.