Carter: Variations for Orchestra

Elliott Cook Carter, Jr., was born on December 11, 1908, in New York City, and died there on November 5, 2012. He completed the Variations for Orchestra in 1955 on commission from the Louisville Orchestra, which, under the direction of Robert Whitney, gave the first performance in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 21, 1956. Enrique Jordá led the only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony, in January 1963. The score calls for two each of flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns; two trumpets; three trombones; tuba; percussion (two players); harp (two harps ad lib.); and strings. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

Carter was forty-seven when he completed these variations, yet his stature as a leading figure in his generation was just beginning to be felt. He had taken piano lessons as a boy, loathing Chopin, scales, and the rest of it, and not until high school did he really make contact with music. The music teacher at the Horace Mann School was Clifton Furness. His classes dealt with traditional matters, but after hours and on weekends Furness took his bright student to concerts of modern music and also to meet his friend Charles Ives. Carter sometimes went as Ives’s guest to the Saturday matinees of the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall, was immensely excited by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,andpracticed Scriabin. He heard Arabic, Indian, and Balinese music, went to the Chinese opera, looked at modern painting, saw the films of Eisenstein. With his father, a well-to-do laceimporter, he traveled to Europe, where he bought scores, particularly the works of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg.

After Harvard, in emulation of composers Walter Piston and Aaron Copland, Carter went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. From her, he received the technical and analytic grounding in new music for which he had hungered. When he returned to America in 1936, he wrote criticism, served as music director for Ballet Caravan (the first of several companies his Harvard friend Lincoln Kirstein started for George Balanchine), and joined the faculty of Saint John’s College in Annapolis, where he taught Greek and mathematics as well as music.

He found little time to compose, and he was discovering that he was a slow writer. In 1942 he took time off for composition exclusively, and his Symphony No. 1 is the harvest of that year. It is pure American pastoral, surprisingly removed from the works that had excited him in the 1920s. But he was for a time allied with the new populist movement in American music. It was the irony of his career that he made immense impact at last with a work he wrote only to please himself, and uncompromising in its demands on players and listeners—the String Quartet No. 1, first performed in 1953. With that, Elliott Carter had hatched as Elliott Carter, and he began his series of witty, dramatic, and masterful compositions.

Virtually every one of Carter’s major works involved an intensely imaginative reconsideration of traditional approaches to questions of rhythm, rhetoric and gesture, ensemble, and dramatic unfolding. Carter wrote that “the project of writing such a work [as the Variations for Orchestra] had interested me for some time, as I was eager to put into concrete musical terms a number of ideas I had about this old form. Traditionally, of course, this type of composition is based on one pattern of material, a theme or a succession of harmonies out of which are built many short contrasting pieces or sections of music….

“In this work I was interested in adopting a more dynamic and changeable approach: The general characteristics of the form are maintained—one pattern of material out of which a diversity of characters come, but the principle of variation is often applied even within the scope of each short piece. In some, great changes of character and theme occur; in others, contrasting themes and characters answer each other back and forth or are heard simultaneously. By these and other devices, I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character, uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists, in the life cycle of insects and certain marine animals by biologists, indeed in every domain of science and art. Thus the old notion of ‘unity in diversity’ presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago.”

The ground plan of the work is an Introduction, a theme with nine variations, and a Finale. In addition to his principal theme, Carter uses two others, which he calls ritornelli (a ritornello is a recurring passage played by full orchestra). One ritornello appears in the Introduction, three variations, and the Finale; the others appear in the theme, three other variations, and also the Finale. (The ritornelli also make fragmentary appearances in passing.) These ritornelli maintain their identity with respect to contour, but they change in register, instrumental color, and, most strikingly, speed. Thus, Ritornello I explodes in the Introduction as a brusque, rapidly climbing figure for strings with harp and a few winds. It becomes slower at each of its appearances so that, the last time we hear it in the Finale as a series of very long notes beginning in the basses and tuba, it takes nearly thirteen times as long to play as the first time. Similarly, Ritornello II, a descending line, speeds up by almost the same amount between the first time we hear it and the last.

The Introduction acquaints us with the harmonic and textural language of the work, and Ritornello I makes its first abrupt appearance.

The increase in speed, density, and general busyness ceases suddenly, leaving only two violins playing very high and very softly. This is the immensely slow beginning of Ritornello II, and no sooner has this begun its descent than all the other violins start the theme proper, a forceful and expressive melody. Its unfolding occupies the middle ground between the extreme slowness of Ritornello II and the rapid chatter of various accompanying instruments, both of which go on at the same time.

Variation I, which begins with an oboe solo, is in a quick tempo (Vivace leggero), and Carter described it as a “rapid [dialogue] of many contrasting motives in contrasting rhythms.”

Variation II (Pesante) brings the theme restated almost literally (though with brass and strings exchanging their original roles), but confronted by brief, partial variants of itself.

Variation III (Moderato) “contrasts textures of dense harmony and expressive lines with transparent fragmentary motives.” The variation ends with a forceful stalking upward of Ritornello I.

Variation IV consists of four-measure phrases, each slowing down to half its starting speed.

The chief element of Variation V (Allegro misterioso) is a series of dense chords. This is the point where internal contrast is virtually obliterated.

Variation VI is the obverse of Variation IV, a continual series of accelerations.

After four variations in a chamber-musical style, Variation VII (Andante) reverts to “real” orchestral scoring. From here through Variation IX, the lyric side of the piece begins to evolve.

What the woodwinds played in Variation VII is continued in Variation VIII (Allegro giocoso), with varied commentary and accompaniment.

Variation IX (Andante) continues to expand upon Variation VII, but now presenting all three of its ideas simultaneously rather than in succession as before.

Ever since the “neutralization” attained in Variation V, the music has increased in sharpness of characterization in contrast with each variation. The Finale is in this respect the counterpart of Variation I. This crescendo of diversity is cut off when the trombones call the proceedings to order by proclaiming the first half of the theme (with a bravura accompaniment on the timpani). The strings, muted, simultaneously join in with the second half of the theme. Basses and tuba begin the final, ultimately stretched version of Ritornello I. At the last, the music dissolves in the rapid skidaddle downwards of Ritornello II.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Michael Gielen conducting the Cincinnati Symphony (New World)  |  Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra (First Edition)

Reading: The Music of Elliott Carter, by David Schiff (Cornell University Press)  |  Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, edited by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Schreffler (Boydell Press)  |  Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995, edited by Jonathan W. Bernard (University of Rochester Press)