Elliott Carter Piano Sonata: A View from the Twenty-First Century

Dr. Douglas Rust

From an early review of Elliott Carter’s piano and cello sonatas:

Among artists, aware of the smothering nature of today’s mass audience, the temptation unquestionably exists, as strongly as ever before in history, to exploit cleverness as a defense or refuge, by emphasizing the separation of creativeness from mass-mindedness. [. . .] One may be sure that any composer whose music shows thought has at times explored the abstractions of disembodied sound, in the remotest detachment from expressiveness or even from considerations of utility. But he comes back, if he is a composer, to apply whatever gains he made in this flight, to the more prosaic, but also more human, problem of performable music sufficiently within a tradition to be understood.

There is every evidence in Carter’s music of something like this process as an underlying artistic and intellectual practice. There is a niceness of detail and a care for proportion, both serving a total plan always held in view, that bespeak thought more than intuition.1

These words, quoted from a 1951 review of Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1945–46) and Cello Sonata (1948) by the critic Richard Franko Goldman, communicate the isolation felt by classically trained composers in the United States during the years after the Second World War. The advent of sound-recording technologies and long-playing records, along with the growth of television and radio networks, led many to question whether these innovations encouraged the general public to participate thoughtfully in the arts or if the nationwide proliferation of media primarily conditioned listeners to become consumers of a mass culture.2 As public awareness of cultivated artistic traditions waned, a concomitant anxiety was felt by American composers of the 1940s, who increasingly relied upon universities and specialized performance venues that programmed new classical music to find audiences for their work. Goldman wrote specifically to that audience in his review, identifying Carter as an artist who recently had developed new musical ideas worth hearing. These new ideas were the fruit of intellectual effort, but they nonetheless communicated in human terms using a musical language “sufficiently within a tradition to be understood.”

Goldman’s review boosted Carter’s reputation in the early fifties, announcing to the musical community that a developing artist had achieved a newfound sense of maturity deserving of their attention. Looking back from a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to credit Goldman for his insight: these sonatas did become a turning point for an important composing career was about to blossom.3 Elliott Carter lived another 61 years to write many more distinguished works! The resulting catalog of over a hundred compositions earned more than enough international recognition to position Carter among the most significant composers of modernity.

The arrival of this initial turning point in his career was long awaited by the composer. Already 40 years old at the time he published the Cello Sonata, Carter had invested many years into his education at the Horace Mann School and in graduate school at Harvard, followed by two years of private study overseas with Nadia Boulanger from 1932–1935. At the conclusion of these studies, Carter remained active as a composer but did not support himself solely through those means. He wrote reviews and articles for music journals, became music director of the Ballet Caravan dance company, taught for two years at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and then served in the Office of War Information until the end of the Second World War. During these years, he actively volunteered with the League of Composers and the International Society for Contemporary Music to keep his professional networking going. By 1945, Carter had devoted such sustained effort to educate himself and to build his career that he was ready to make the most of any opportunity that might come his way. 

After his studies with Boulanger, Carter did more than just pursue career opportunities, his main focus during these years was to develop his own distinctive musical voice—a sophisticated and cosmopolitan style that expressed something genuinely American. 

A grant from the Guggenheim Foundation supported his composition of the Piano Sonata, and he used the time to work some of his newest ideas into its musical fabric.4 Some of these innovations were highlighted in Goldman’s review (quoted below):

Life Elliott Carter excerpt
Elliott Carter, Piano Sonata (1945–46): mm. 134–137, excerpted in Goldman (1951: 86).

Here we have a bar with sixteen 16th notes (apparently equal to 4/4), divided into patterns of seven, four, and five: and a bar of twelve 16ths (apparently equal to 3/4) divided seven and five. The divisions in the following bars are indicated with equal definiteness. Clearly the effect desired by Carter—emphasis on duration of note rather than pulse—is not new except in terms of 18th- and 19th-century thinking, but this realization of it is more rational than those one usually finds. The bars are not 4/4 or 3/4 and cannot be played as such without total distortion. The barring and grouping of the 16ths in the rapid-running sections of the movement (marked legato scorrevole) show the attention to detail that is characteristic of Carter: each fragment of phrase seems carefully thought out, but continuity is thereby achieved rather than impeded, and the visual presentation is the most helpful possible to the player.5 

In the absence of time signatures—a notational innovation of Carter’s score—Goldman observes five- and seven-note groups within the stream of 16th notes played by the right hand. The five-note groups, marked by slurs in the second system, coalesce into repetitive two- and three-note contour shapes whose initial attack often is doubled in the left hand. The nearly constant stream of 16th notes is grouped by contour and accent into irregular divisions.

Combining two- and three-note contour groupings into sequences thus becomes a key process in the formation of phrases.6 In most of the tempo scorrevole [flowing, gliding] passages heard in this sonata, repeated contour patterns emerge either at the midpoint or at the beginning of a phrase. This insight makes it possible to hear four levels of rhythm interacting between (1) the individual note to (2) the contour group to (3) the repeated contour patterns to (4) the formation of an entire phrase. Phrases end using one of two possible strategies. Either the musical organization of the phrase is interrupted by the unexpected intrusion of a different motive,7 or the melodic contour simplifies into repeated two-note contours (as shown at the end of the Goldman’s excerpt, above). 

Beyond the perception of the individual phrase, larger patterns of rhythmic organization occur between phrases. Lengths vary and the relative size of the component contour pattern also varies from phrase to phrase, producing an ebb and flow of contour sequences and phrases that unfolds over longer spans of time. For example, between the phrases of the second scorrevole section in this piece (mm. 33–70), repetitive contour patterns grow in size—creating an overall impression of gradually increasing organization. Meanwhile, larger contour groups of four and five notes emphasize important junctures in the form. Subtle but audible relations such as these provided Carter with contemporary means to recapture the scope and expression of 19th-century pianism.8

Another innovation in this piece can be heard in the presentation of its main theme. Unlike the Symphony No. 1, the Holiday Overture, and other Carter compositions of the early 1940s in which the theme is presented at or near the beginning of the work, the main theme of the Piano Sonata does not occur until m. 36. The theme evolves from smaller motivic components projecting an associative path from the first ascending-step motif of the piece to the ascending fourths that begin the tempo scorrevole music, to the arrival of the syncopated ascending fourths that Carter (in lecture notes prepared for Varèse’s music class 9) labeled as the main theme.10 Thus, the music rewards a less-traditional listening strategy that attends to the gradual emergence of this theme from the momentum of its own rhythmic and motivic processes set into motion at the beginning of the piece. 

In conclusion, Carter’s Piano Sonata has acquired an enduring status in the repertoire of musical modernism, not only for its pivotal role in the career of a pre-eminent composer, but also—as pianist Paul Jacobs described it—as “one of the strongest pieces of American music of the forties.”11 Stephen Soderberg reckoned the sonata as “unquestionably one of the landmark piano works of the twentieth century.”12 With more than 20 recorded versions and countless concert performances to its credit,13 this piece continues to inspire pianists from many different parts of the world, for despite its age, the music retains enough of its original vitality to challenge the twenty-first century listener.

Biographical Resources and Discography for Further Reading and Listening:

While several biographical and critical books are devoted to the work of this major composer, David Schiff’s The Music of Elliott Carter, 2nd Ed.(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) and Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler’s Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008) are recommended as good places to start.

The most-recent edition of Carter’s Piano Sonata recommends three recordings: The original recording by Beveridge Webster, Elliott Carter: Sonata for Violincello and Piano; Piano Sonata (American Recording Society ARS-25, 1952), Charles Rosen, Elliott Carter: Pocahontas (Suite from the Ballet); Piano Sonata (Epic LC 3850, BC 1250, 1962), and Paul Jacobs, Elliott Carter: Night Fantasies; Piano Sonata (Nonesuch 79047, 1983).

1 Richard Franko Goldman, “Current Chronicle” Musical Quarterly 37:1 (Jan. 1951), 83–89. See pp. 84–85 for this quotation.

2 For a brief introduction to the impact of the recording industry on American culture, see William Brooks “The Americas, 1945–70” in Modern Times: from World War I to the Present, ed. Robert P. Morgan (Hoboken, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 311; a more thorough consideration of this topic appears in Max Paddison, “Post-Modernism and the Survival of the Avant-garde” in Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. Irène Deliège and Max Paddison (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2001), 205–228.

3 Although Carter’s principal biographer, David Schiff, recognized the Sonata for Violincello and Piano as the beginning of the composer’s first maturity in The Music of Elliott Carter (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 20. Carter himself identified the Piano Sonata as the first piece in which he “began to work with the rhythmic procedures which have proved to be so interesting for me in my later music.” See his 1965 article “The Time Dimension in Music” reprinted in Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Writings, ed. Jonathan Bernard (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 226.

4 The composer probably was working on several compositions at this time, as documented in his correspondence. For an example of his methods during this period, see Felix Meyer, “Left by the wayside: Elliott Carter’s unfinished Sonatina for Oboe and Harpsichord” in Elliott Carter Studies, ed. Marguerite Boland and John Link (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 218–222.

5 Goldman (1951), 86.

6 With regard to melodic phrasing of this kind, Carter acknowledges the influence of jazz where “the metrical units are grouped into irregular (or regular) patterns, in melodic motives whose rhythm runs against the underlying 1, 2, 3, 4 of dance rhythm.” in his 1955 article, “The Rhythmic Basis of American Music” reprinted in Bernard (1997), 58.

7 Schiff gives a few examples of these interruptions in his analysis of the sonata, stating that “The device of unexpected interruptions gives the music its improvisatory quality.” (1998), 209.

8 A few commentators have observed this affinity with the Romantic style. Charles Rosen, for example, recognized the influence of the Liszt B Minor Sonata in this piece. See Rosen, “The Musical Languages of Elliott Carter” in The Musical Languages of Elliott Carter, (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1984), 1–19, especially p. 3. See also Schiff (1998), 203.

9 Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler, Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 77–79. Carter sent these lecture notes to Varèse, who presented them to his music class at Columbia University in July 1948.

10 Local elements also draw attention to the main theme, whose entrance is emphasized by a simplification of the musical texture in m. 36, and whose importance is highlighted by imitative entrances in different voices in the measures that follow.

11 Paul Jacobs, liner notes to Elliott Carter: The Minotaur; Piano Sonata; Two Songs, New York Chamber Symphony, cond. By Gerard Schwarz (Elektra Nonesuch 79248-2, 1990).

12 Stephen Soderberg, “At the edge of creation: Elliott Carter’s sketches at the Library of Congress” in Elliott Carter Studies, ed. Marguerite Boland and John Link (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 240. (Soderberg, at the time of this writing, was Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music at the Music Division of the Library of Congress.)

13 Find an informal discography on the composer’s website: https://www.elliott

Elliott Carter Piano Sonata: A View from the Twenty-First Century