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Elliott Carter

His music struck me immediately. Because of my review of the March and Variations in Modern Music [1940], I came to know him. I never became a sort of disciple. I think that Wolpe was a figure who attracted people who were like disciples, terribly devoted to him, not only as a composer, but as a person. So it was always very hard for him to fit into the modern music scene in New York. Those who gave concerts in some way or other never wanted to play his music. He was a difficult man, trying, and often appeared rather confused and disturbing. This was something that was hard for many people to take. I think it was partly for that reason he had difficulties getting performances.

Over the years Wolpe's music actually changed a good deal. There was the Busoni-esque kind that he did in the earlier days. The Man from Midian is that type. Then it gradually developed into something very much more unique than that in the later years. He did all sorts of different things. He even continued to do disparate things simultaneously. The other night we heard Street Songs [? Street Music] of his that had many very interesting things, in the sense that it was rather uncompromising in the relation of the voice to the instruments. There was no attempt to make the voice shine. It was part of the instruments.

When we were living in Berlin in '64, I was surprised to discover that the Workers Songbook that you could buy in East Berlin had songs by Wolpe in it. They're on the whole better than some who were better known.

What makes him seem similar to some Americans is that there was a great element of intensity and vision. Not trying to get everything straight and highly organized and ordered, which is what the disaster was of Hindemith. For when he came here, he was put in the position of having to rationalize his method in order to teach to a certain extent. The same with Schoenberg. They both became rather systematic, partially perhaps to protect themselves from students. Wolpe was an authoritarian in my opinion in a different way than these. His was a kind of emotional authoritarianism rather than an intellectual one. It was characteristic of Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance. Although rather uncharacteristic of Americans, most Americans do like it, they're impressed by it. A rather frightening kind of character too. This was rather characteristic of certain kinds of people who were fanatic Communists. In fact, there was a whole morale that was encouraged by radical people to be that way, to have this complete commitment. It's a lot more interesting than many other kinds of attitudes, but it has its very disturbing side.

Paul Rosenfeld was a good friend of his, and we used to go up to the apartment that Irma still has on 110th Street and hear her play pieces of Wolpe. I remember hearing the Passacaglia, and the Battle Piece, and various other piano pieces played by her at various evening parties.

I was very fond of Wolpe personally and an admirer of his music, but I was not a close friend in the sense that we saw him more than maybe once or twice every year. We didn't see him all the time, and I don't think I could have stood it if I had, because he would come over to our apartment, and we would play pieces of each other's to each other, and he always said the very oddest things about my music. It disturbed me, and I really didn't like it very well. I didn't take to that, and so I wasn't that friendly. On the other hand, I admired him very much.

His music is terribly uneven, but some of it is remarkable. What it always has is one thing you like to have in music, and that is a kind of personal enthusiasm. It's always very lively, you feel it's always in touch with life. It isn't routine. It's unexpected in many ways. There are all sorts of different kinds of things that he tries to integrate into one thing, which sometimes don't go together so well in one piece, but in others they do. The whole question of the relation of the diatonic to twelve-tone or chromaticism, the combination of those is something he fought with. Sometimes he solved it, and sometimes he didn't, as in the Symphony. It seems to me to be extremely odd that a man as experienced as he should have written a piece that is so difficult for the orchestra that it is nearly impossible to get a good performance. It may have been as a result of his contact with musicians in Europe, since he went to Darmstadt in its early days, when composers were writing very advanced and very difficult pieces.

It's extraordinary that he didn't find a publisher, especially by the 1950s, because by then publishers were becoming more open-minded in this country. But I think he really did antagonize people very much in this particular field, as he did in the larger concert world. He wasn't the kind of composer the New York Philharmonic would be likely to play, but then finally Leonard Bernstein did want to play the Symphony. Lenny was very progressive, really eager to do new, unusual music, and was impressed by the very character of Wolpe, even though the performance didn't turn out very well.

His impact was more on his own circle of people. They were those who were just turned on by him. It was not a circle related to other circles. There were people connected with modern dance and with the abstract expressionist world. Wolpe was a man that actually attracted many outside of the music profession in the dance field, where there was still an expressionist vision. By the time he came here American musicians had gone through an expressionist phase and left it. They were writing what has come to be called neo-classic music, so Wolpe seemed like a hangover from another time. Composers had moved in a different direction by that time. He was another like Varèse ise in that respect. He was developing along the line that was no longer one that seemed to have any future in America just before the war. And it was only after the war, when a different approach evolved, that Wolpe began to be more widely respected and admired.

I can't say his music has any technical influence on mine in terms of something you can rationally speak about, because I'm not conscious of it. There may be an influence of another kind, and that is the sort of desire for a kind of human expression. An intense expression is something that I think we both shared.

I was invited to teach at the Dartington Hall Summer School in England in 1959. I felt very badly that I was teaching at this school, and he wasn't. He was relatively unknown at the time, and it was important for the students to know this man. I felt he should really be the one to teach these courses and not me. I felt quite badly that he was a sort of neglected figure then at the school. The fact that he came there and was just kept off in a room and didn't do very much seemed to me not right. I made an attempt to try and change that. I did, after all, respect and admire him, and I felt that he was an important composer who should be heard and known. I asked him to teach my class of young English student composers--feeling really that he at least would give the students one worthwhile class. He started talking about his Passacaglia, a piano work built of sections each based on a musical interval--minor second, major second, and so on. At once, sitting at the piano, he was caught up in a meditation on how wonderful these primary materials, intervals, were; playing each over and over again on the piano, singing, roaring, humming them, loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, short and detached or drawn out and expressive. All of us forgot time passing, when the class was to finish. As he led us from the smallest one, a minor second, to the largest, a major seventh--which took all afternoon--music was reborn, new light dawned, we all knew we would never again listen to music as we had. Stefan had made each of us experience very directly the living power of these primary elements. From then on indifference was impossible. Such a lesson most of us never had before or since, I imagine.

Born in New York in 1908, Elliott Carter studied at the Horace Mann School at Harvard and went on to the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. He returned to the U.S. and became music director of Ballet Caravan. He held teaching positions at St. John's College and Yale University and has written widely on music. Interview: AC, New York City, 10 December 1982.


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