SPRING BREAK – MUSICIANS GONE WILD…FOR ELLIOTT CARTER!
You know you are in a doctoral program when your “Spring Break” translates to “finally, a chance to do research at the Library of Congress!”. But this is no ordinary library. If you have not had the chance to visit in person, imagine the equivalent of a musical amusement park, including the largest collection of flutes in the world, five Stradivari instruments and manuscripts of incredible importance – to name just a few:
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra and Fifth String Quartet Berg: Wozzeck and Violin Concerto Brahms: Violin Concerto Britten: Peter Grimes Copland: Appalachian Spring Mozart: Gran Partita
The Library holds collections of some of the most influential American composers such as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and of course, Elliott Carter. This is just the tip of the iceberg; the Library of Congress is recognized as one of the most important research institutions in the world and is an especially unparalleled source of inspiration and knowledge for musicians. So in other words, it’s high time to make a trip to Capitol Hill.
Our flutist, Laura Kaufman, wrote a great blog entry about the trials of rehearsing one of Elliott Carter’s earlier works, his 8 Etudes and a Fantasy for wind quartet. Having spent many hours rehearsing this work and studying the score, I now wanted to see what the early draft looked like. Knowing that the Carter collection was finally at my disposal, thanks to Spring Break, I made my appointment to see the original manuscript for this work. Or so I thought…what would be awaiting me was not one manuscript but in fact 150 pages of sketches!
Carter produced music with a kind of compositional fervor that one rarely sees; the fact that he produced over twenty works after the age of 100, well, that should start to give you an idea of just how active he was. As one of the most important American composers, his music developed considerably over his many decades and one could easily devote many blog entries to the topic of his contributions. The wind quartet was composed in 1950, just two years after his first wind quintet, when Carter was 42 years old.
So I began imagining what these sketches would be like. Having played other Carter chamber works, my initial theory was that this would be an orderly collection of sketches. What surprised me the most upon receiving the large folder at the Library was just how many more pages were devoted to the Fantasy and Etude 6 over any of the others! Granted, I only had an afternoon to spend there and my research was hardly exhaustive, but my general impression was that these two movements seemed to give Carter the most trouble as they received more revisions than any of the other etudes, at least according to the sketches. There are many examples of measures that have been erased, rewritten or simply crossed out. Sometimes these bars are accompanied by a large question mark.
In true Carter fashion, there are countless math equations decorating these pages. Known for his use of metric modulation, it comes as no surprise that we would see evidence of his calculations. It looks like Carter drafted out a version of a particular section and then went back and edited, often leaving brief comments, goals or observations in the corner or margins. It is absolutely fascinating that composers have left behind such amazing documentation of their musical process.
I have included below as many notes and observations that I could decipher of different sections. Below is a list of words pulled from the many revisions of each movement. There were more words than what is listed here, but I will admit that I found his short-hand cursive a bit hard to read at times…though for sure, there were more notes about the 6th etude and Fantasy than any other. There are endless snippets of the Fantasy’s main theme throughout the sketches, at times even finding their way on to sheets otherwise dedicated to the various etudes.
I. “Majestic” “Energetic” “Jumps” “not static, slow but active” “make better” II. “Adagio” III. “Throughout slow” (also originally written as cut-time instead of the printed 4/4 time) IV. “large line!” (marked as quarter note = 152+ as well as 176 and 178) V. [no words found] VI. “short rises”, “Tighten motivic and rhythmic activity” “Augmented motive”, “avoid continuous motion! And too many scales” VII. [save a few missing dynamics and alterations to the ending, this one was very similar to the version we see today] VIII. “more continuity” Fantasy: “Sudden Bursts” “Fugue” “Episode 9” “Episode V”
There were many sketches associated with, as well as a complete draft, of Etude 4. Carter played around with octave displacements, especially in the flute and oboe lines. The changes he ultimately made reflect a choice to not have the flute in the highest register every time during climactic moments, though this draft would certainly have made these sections easier to accomplish. It would be quite interesting to play through this particular version! Another subtle yet major difference was in Etude 7. Any oboist who plays a Loree instrument will appreciate that in the draft of this “one-note” etude, Carter initially composed the piece on “F” and not “G” (one of our habitually low-pitched notes…at least he did not change it to low C#…).
Another interesting discovery was that this work was possibly not conceived as eight etudes and a fantasy.
There was an early title page in the sketches that documented the movements in this way:
1. – jumps ’84 (upward tendency) 2. *not sure what word is* 72 (downward) 3. – D chord static 4. semi tone 168 5. – adagio arpeg adagio 6. – repeated – 84 7. – one note 8. – octave scales 98 *drawing of 16th notes* 9. – fugue 84
*On another manuscript page, Carter writes “10 etudes and fugue”
I cannot stress enough the magnitude of resources that the Library of Congress can offer, especially to musicians. As we gravitate towards a greater dependence on electronic scores, I fear future generations will lose out on the incredible insights that hand-written manuscripts provide. For those not located near D.C., the Library has many of their collections available online, including this very chamber work! Eight Etudes and a Fantasy