Ives, Foss, Carter and Gershwin at Carnegie Hall, December 5, 2005

by Takuma Tanikawa

At Carnegie Hall on Monday, October 11th, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Three Places in New England (1912–29) by Charles Ives (1874–1954), Time Cycle (1960) by Lukas Foss (b. 1922), the New York première of Three Illusions (2004) by Elliott Carter (b. 1908) and George Gershwin’s (1898–1937) Piano Concerto in F Major (1925) with James Levine conducting, Dawn Upshaw (soprano) on Foss’s Time Cycle and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) on Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. Lukas Foss and Elliott Carter were in attendance at the concert and there was a pre-concert talk with Ara Guzelimian, the Artistic Advisor at Carnegie Hall.

Carter is programmed with Ives again this year as in last year at Zankel Hall where his Night Fantasies (1988) and Two Diversions (1999) were programmed along side Ives’s Concord Sonata (1911–12). The two composers had a complex relationship in which Carter was initially a young student of about 16 or 17 who had the opportunity to study with Ives, and then many years later—after having received his masters from Harvard University and having returned to New York from his training with Nadia Boulanger in Paris—harshly criticized his former mentor and teacher. Regarding the Concord Sonata, Carter at 30-years-old writes that it is, “full of the paraphernalia of the over-dressy sonata school, cyclical themes, contrapuntal development sections that lead nowhere, constant harmonic movement which does not clarify the form, and dramatic rather than rhythmical effects.” [Bruce Hodges, “Ives’s Concord Sonata Played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard” S&H International Concert Review (accessed 12 October 2005).]

Some of these aspects of the Concord Sonata are also evident in Three Places in New England, where the rhythm characteristically for Ives, seems staggered for the sake of blurring the barlines. This may be, as Carter points out, not much more than a dramatic effect, but it is nonetheless effective in creating a sense of confusion and otherworldliness especially when juxtaposed against a steady bass drum of a marching band, as in the second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding Connecticut. Also, the macho character of Ives’s music—Ives was once the captain of the football team at Yale, according to Guzelimian—the directness of his music, provides its charm.

While having written such a critical remark about the Concord Sonata, Carter has also made it clear that he admired Ives personally and very much valued his friendship. However, as recently as 2002, he stated that:

"The thing that bothers me all the time about Ives is, as far as I'm concerned, I don't like his quotations from other kinds of music because from my point of view if you want to express let's say something about America, you don't do it by quoting "Yankee Doodle". You do it by writing by what you feel about it. You don't take somebody else's music and stick it in there. Of co[u]rse we have vast numbers of moving picture scores that do this all the time. This is something that when I was young, we all criticized composers who did this sort of thing, because it was just movie music." [Allan Baker, “An Interview with Elliot Carter,” American Mavericks (accessed 12 October 2005).]

This seems a valid criticism. It is interesting that he also touches on how culturally, at the time, among his circle of colleagues, this was a widely held standard, which helps to explain his public break from his former teacher. From this perspective, Ives’s evocation of a marching band in Three Places in New England, however effective dramatically, would also seem to be little more than a crude effect, akin to expressing something about America by quoting “Yankee Doodle.”

The first bar of Three Places in New England introduces a chord built on an A-minor triad and a descending minor-third theme that can be heard throughout the first movement. The interval, by evoking a blues sonority, presumably expresses the African-American aspect of the title of the first movement, The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), which seems superficial and if not overtly racist, at least seems somewhat stereotypical, even if the movement’s intention may be to honor the “Colored Regiment.”

At a tempo of “Very slowly” (eighth-note = 60–69) and over the initial chord held as a whole note by the strings, the piano introduces this theme in a triplet rhythm over two beats, but after an eighth-note rest, rhythmically staggering the figure which ends on a dotted quarter, followed by a fermata before the barline. All of this makes it impossible to hear a pulse. This seems to set up the rhythmic staggering that can be heard throughout the piece, which is an exciting aspect of Ives’s music, but this staggering is a surface feature of the piece and does not seem to connect to the large-scale form.

Incidentally, this opening chord—an 8-note chord containing an A-minor triad in the lower register, and the notes D# A# and F# above it, with the descending minor third theme of D to B—contains a hexachord that Carter later began using as the basis for his harmonic language, around 1990. [Elliott Carter, Elliott Carter Harmony Book, eds. Nicholas Hopkins and John F. Link (New York: Carl Fischer, 2002), ix. The hexachord is pc set [012478], or 6-z17, according to Allen Forte’s classification of chords, at transposition 2, or t2 = [23469t]. Carter calls this chord “6-note chord no. 35,” according to his own classification of chords in his Harmony Book.] This six-note chord, also includes two all-interval tetrachords, which has interested Carter since around 1960; they formed the basis for his String Quartet No. 2 (1959) and his Double Concerto (1961), for example. The connection between Carter’s use of the hexachord and the fact that it can be found in the opening of his former teacher’s piece may be coincidental, but it was surprising to me, as I didn’t expect to find such a harmonic connection between the two composers in the very first bar of the piece.

Carter first met Ives as a young student through his high school music teacher who was also an enthusiast of contemporary music. According to Ara Guzelimian’s pre-concert talk, Ives subsequently introduced Carter to many influential pieces, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which they heard together in the early 1920s at Carnegie Hall where Ives was a member and had box seats in the second tier, “right up there,” Guzelimian pointed up from the stage, highlighting the cyclical sense and the connection with history behind the evening’s programming. Another connection made during the talk was that the Gershwin Piano Concerto was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1925, offering a sense of what was going on musically in New York City right around the time when Carter was studying with Ives.

Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle also had its première at the hall, in 1960 by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein liked the piece so much that he repeated the performance of it at the première. Stylistically the piece seems quite far from both Carter and Ives. That Time Cycle comments on themes having to do with time through its lyrics and dramatic effects in the percussion section for example, suggesting the ticking of a clock, or the brass imitating the tolling of bells in the opening of the second song of the cycle, When the Bells Justle, do not necessarily relate well to Carter’s conception of the complex way in which we experience time, which is multi-layered. The effect of the song cycle was rooted mostly in the performance of the lyrics by Dawn Upshaw, who embodied the drama of each song and gave not a very subtle performance, but one to which she was fully committed.

The third song, Sechzehnter Januar, based on excerpts from the diaries of Franz Kafka about his struggle with a sense of isolation and fears that he may be losing his mind, evoked a sense of Expressionism, and at the same time seemed to echo the more Romantic aspects of Schoenberg, or Berg.

Carter’s Three Illusions was remarkably clear—a hallmark of the composer’s late style—despite its complex rhythms and sophisticated harmonic language, and manageable for the audience, at around 3 minutes per movement.

The first movement, Micomicón—which I had the opportunity to listen to the Boston Symphony rehearse last October—was by now very much under control of the orchestra. The fanfare-like aspect of the movement with its crescendo in the brass is as jarring as it is somewhat broad and exaggerated, perhaps illustrating aspects of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, from which the title is drawn. In his program notes, Carter explains, “Micomicón, invented by Sancho Panza and his friends to cure Don Quixote’s ‘madness,’ is said to be a kingdom near Ethiopia stolen by a giant from its queen, Micomicona” [Concert program notes]. The brass, while suggesting fanfare in the kingdom of Micomicón, feels more like raucous laughter, perhaps a way for the composer to express something about Micomicón by writing “what [he] feels about it.” [Allan Baker, “An Interview with Elliot Carter,” American Mavericks.]

Levine’s interpretation seems to accentuate the shimmer in Carter’s orchestration of Three Illusions. The conductor also has an ability to draw out the dramatic tension between the temporal sections—between the strings and brass in Micomicón for example—but smoothly, through a relaxed but assured handling of the polyrhythms.

The second movement, Fons Juventatis, characteristic of Carter’s lighthearted side, especially in the understated way in which it ended with what sounded like a single staccato attack on the harp (?), was repeated after all three movements had been performed, in effect ending the Carter section of the program. Anthony Tommasini in his review writes, “Something must have gone not quite right in the second piece, for Mr. Levine asked the audience if the orchestra could play it again.” [Anthony Tommasini, “The Growing Impact of the Levine Era” The New York Times (accessed 12 October 2005).] I understood the gesture as Levine paying tribute to the composer who had just received enthusiastic approval by the audience and to show Levine’s affinity for the particular movement of the Carter piece. Also, it seems more likely that this was a comment on the evening’s program—on the fact that Bernstein had repeated the performance of Foss’s Time Cycle at its première. In any case it was a treat to get to hear it again for me personally, and the audience seemed even more enthusiastic at its conclusion, asking the composer to take another bow.

However, crowd enthusiasm for the Gershwin Piano Concerto was overwhelming. Many were enthusiastically bopping their heads to what seemed like somewhat stereotypical and outdated rhythms, especially when played just after the Carter piece. As John F. Link, editor of the Elliott Carter Harmony Book said to me, it was an “anticlimactic” end to an otherwise interesting program. Nonetheless, a man sitting across the aisle from me stomped his feet loudly to the “walking” bass line, although it walked over the same predictable path over and over again—an inauthentic approximation of a Jazz bass-line. Some verbally expressed their relief at the “difficult” portion of the program being over. As Dr. Link described, several audience members sitting behind him sighed “finally” as the Gershwin Concerto began. Despite the ovation for Carter, the message behind the noticeable difference in crowd enthusiasm seemed like a judgment on his music by the portion of the audience who disapproved. However, Carter seemed not to mind and he sat through to the end of the concert.

Carter has written much on the subject of new music throughout his career and how some have had a difficult time accepting or even understanding new music. For someone my age who hasn’t lived through the early portion of his career, these writings sometimes seem a little bit exaggerated, but to witness an example of this at a Carter concert today was surprising, especially in view of his stature and reviews in the press which are mostly positive.

At the rehearsal of Micomicón (along with Carter’s Symphonia) last year, the audience grew increasingly impatient and began talking so loudly among themselves that Levine had to raise his hand several times to signal to the audience behind him to quiet down. One man in the audience boasted to me that having sat in the row behind the composer, and seeing that Carter was reading the score along with the orchestra, the man asked, “hey, composer, what’s the score?” I had attributed this lack of respect to the fact that it was a rehearsal, but the sense of hostility towards his music Monday night at the concert, even after much of the audience had applauded his work, and the fact that Carter seemed to take it all in stride was an interesting aspect of the dynamic between his recent mainstream success and the traditional resistance to new music by audiences, which is well documented in 20th-Century Music literature and apparently still exists to some extent in the concert hall today.

(Note: I sent this review to John F. Link and he noted that the chord at the beginning of Ives’s Three Places in New England is also one of the 8-note chords that Carter has been using in everything from around String Quartet No. 5 (1995) onward. [Carter, Harmony Book, p. 32.] Dr. Link also pointed out that the complement of this 8-note chord is the tetrachord [0137]—or 4-note chord no. 23, according to Carter’s classification of chords—one of the all-interval tetrachords that Carter has been using since around 1960.)