Elliott Carter Studies Online

VOLUME 2 (2017)

A Letter to Jean Smith (May 8, 1974)

Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter, letter to Jean Smith, May 8, 1974

Editors’ Note: Jean Smith was a participant in the Composers Conference at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts in the early 1970s, when Elliott Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy was performed. She evidently wrote to Carter with questions about the piece to which Carter replied in the letter published here. In it, he implies a degree of pride in the skill with which he wrote several of the etudes “on the spur of the moment as they now appear” on the classroom blackboard, and claims that his “one note” etude (number 7), performed by the Dorian Wind Quintet in Warsaw in 1962, inspired “a whole school of music.” At the same time he emphasizes the occasional nature of the etudes, which he calls both “examples... for orchestration students” and “a sort of private amusement” for his friend and colleague Richard Franko Goldman. Carter’s ambivalent attitude about the piece is characteristic of his attitude towards much of his earlier music during this period, when he had achieved his greatest career success with his most complex compositions. His letter is dated one year to the day after the announcement of his second Pulitzer Prize – for the String Quartet No. 3.(*)John Corry, “Pulitzers Go to Washington Post, Frankel, ‘Championship Season’,” The New York Times, May 8, 1973.

The editors thank Carol Archer and Fred Sherry for bringing this letter to our attention.

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Dear Ms Smith,

Thank you for your interest in my 8 Etudes. As some program notes which I once wrote (but never seem to be printed) said – the work was partially composed in front of an orchestration class I was teaching at Columbia in 1948, when the four instruments were brought in to play examples the students were to have written. What they had done was quickly read through and not very illustrative of the possibilities of combination and tone-color of the instruments. So I wrote examples on the blackboard which I thought would reveal more about these. This formed the nucleus of the Etudes – some – like #7, #8, parts of #1 and #5 & #6 were written out on the spur of the moment as they now appear, others were developed from short fragments. The entire set was then developed in the hope these examples would be useful to orchestration students, and a concluding Fantasy was written including bits of the Etudes. The whole was dedicated to Richard Franko Goldman who was then teaching ensemble wind-playing at the Juilliard School and whose students the four players were. At the time I completed this piece I had no idea of having it be publicly performed and it was in 1952 that Mr. Oliver Daniel of BMI persuaded me to have the work played on a program.

As far as I can tell it has never served the purpose for which it was written – since it seems to be one of my most successful and most frequently publicly performed pieces but never has been used to illustrate what I intended. In fact some of the pieces like the 'one note' piece and the D major chord piece (written in 1948) became the basis of a whole school of music – Many works of Polish music, Penderecki, Gorecki and their followers in Japan, Germany, France, and America have used this one note idea over and over again – many of my students who have never heard my piece bring in examples of this type of writing they learned from the Polish. This style became particularly prevalent after the Dorian Wind Quintet played the work in Warsaw in 1962. This, of course, was not at all intended...

The notes in the front of the score tell how the work may be performed, and were written after the work began to be played publicly in 1952. Rhythmically and harmonically the work is quite closely related to my 'Cello Sonata written just before it, and my String Quartet #1 written shortly after. Of course, I have never written a fugal piece since 1945, except the Fantasy of this work – and I did this because the work was a sort of private amusement for Dick Goldman and myself.

Yours sincerely,

[signed] Elliott Carter

May 8, 1974

* John Corry, “Pulitzers Go to Washington Post, Frankel, ‘Championship Season’,” The New York Times, May 8, 1973.