I am listing this very interesting release under Elliott Carter's name rather than as a vocal collection because it is Carter's name that appears, alone, on the spine of the jewelbox, and hence it is under his name that this disc will probably be filed in stores. Moreover, it was his four works that provided me with the musical revelations the disc offered; though I love Carter's music and know it fairly well, I had never (so far as I recall) heard a single one of his choral works.
This turns out to have been a grave error on my part, which I am now happy to have corrected. Not only are these and Carter's other choral works superb pieces of music; they are also most important to his career and development as a composer. AsRead more the chronological catalog of works in David Schiffs excellent The Music of Elliott Carter shows, for the first decade of his composing career (1928-38) Carter wrote only one small, unpublished instrumental work; the other nine were all vocal works, and of these seven were for chorus. The dates of the four choral works offered here are as follows: Heart Not So Heavy as Mine: 1938; The Harmony of Morning: 1944; Musicians Wrestle Everywhere: 1945; Emblems: 1947. Thus they span the period from Carter's very first instrumental works to the 1946 piano sonata, which most listeners (including this one) count as the first work in which Carter became the instrumental composer we have known for the past half-century.
It is convenient to violate chronology slightly and consider Heart Not So Heavy As Mine and Musicians Wrestle Everywhere together. Both are to poems by Emily Dickinson, and both are presented here a cappella—though Musicians Wrestle Everywhere can also be done with string accompaniment. Moreover, Musicians Wrestle Everywhere is subtitled a “madrigal,“ a term that fits both works.
The workings of Heart Not So Heavy As Mine are best understood if one first looks quickly at Dickson's poem:
Heart, not so heavy as mine
Wending late home—
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune
A careless snatch—a ballad—
A ditty of the street—
Yet to my irritated Ear
An Anodyne so sweet—
It was as if a Bobolink
Sauntering this way
Carolled, and paused, and carolled—
Then bubbled slow away!
It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a dusty way—
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why!
Tomorrow, night will come again—
Perhaps, weary and sore—
Ah Bugle! By my window
I pray you pass once more.
The poet, heavy-hearted and alone at night, has suddenly caught the sound of a cheerfully whistling passerby. Her ear is “irritated“ by this jarring irrelevancy, and yet it comes as “An Anodyne,“ soothing and comforting her almost against her will, and touching off the pleasant fantasy about the bobolink (with the playful pun on “bubbled“) and the one about the brook, which suddenly turns grim and almost grotesque with the talk about setting “bleeding feet to minuets.“ The poem ends rather lamely with a wish that the whistler—now become a “Bugle“ to rouse and invigorate—will pass the poet's way again tomorrow.
This is certainly better than many of Dickinson's better-known poems—1 am not, you will have gathered, one of her numerous fans—and Carter makes it better still. To start with, he dramatizes musically the conflict between the two “hearts,“ that of the poet and that of the passerby. The very opening sounds like a Monteverdi madrigal of lost love: the words “Heart not so heavy as mine“—we scarcely notice the “not“—are set in a slow tempo to phrases that center on the pitches Bb and Db, implying the key of Bb Minor. But then the lines of the poem associated with the passerby—“Wending late home,“ “As it passed my window,“ “Whistled itself a tune“—are set to cheerfully rhythmic, balladlike phrases that center on Gb, pulling the tonality toward Gb Major, though the Bb Minor suggestions are maintained in the other voices as they repeat the poem's opening line.
At “It was a bobolink“ the tempo speeds up and the rhythm shifts to a dancelike alternation of 2/4 and 3/4; but the music gradually becomes sadder, more leaden in movement as we approach the piercingly dramatic repetitions (in G Minor) of “Set bleeding feet to minuets.“ Carter, however, shifts our attention away from the bathos of that line by making the climax of the whole piece come on “Without the knowing why“: it is the passerby's unawareness of what he has done, rather than the juxtaposition of bleeding fast and minuets, that becomes the focus of our attention.
It is just at this point, as we reach the climax in D? Major, that Carter brilliantly brings back the poem's opening line—“Heart not so heavy as mine“—in the original Bb Minor in three of the four voices, as David Schiff puts it, “The climax is thus at once a point of arrival and a point of departure; instead of stopping the musical motion it transforms and redirects it.“ And Carter continues this transformation and redirection—which does not of course occur at all in the poem—by also bringing back, in their original tripping rhythm and major tonality, the lines associated with the cheerful passerby (lines 2-4 of the poem). They punctuate the poet's concluding hope that the passerby will reappear tomorrow, and help to head the piece to an unexpected (yet beautifully prepared) upbeat ending in a luminous Bb Major. The lameness of the poem's conclusion has vanished.
In “Musicians wrestle everywhere“ Dickinson tells of hearing a strenuous yet gloriously uplifting music (a “silver strife“). One after another, the possible sources of this music are dismissed: it is not bird nor band nor tambourine nor man nor hymn. The poem concludes:
Some—think it service in the place
Where we—with late—celestial face—
Please God—shall Ascertain!
“Ascertain“ is here used in the obsolete intransitive or reflexive sense of making (oneself) certain: this is the music with which we shall (“Please God“) pay homage to God in heaven, the place where everything will at last become clear and sure.
As a poem this seems to me less interesting than “Heart, not so heavy as mine.“ Obviously, what attracted Carter to it was the mention of music, and the opportunity to mirror the different sorts of music through which the poet moves to the triumphant conclusion. The musical idiom is as much advanced over the simple elegance of Heart Not So Heavy As Mine as we should expect from the fact of the seven-year interval that separated the two works.
The piece opens with a burst of polyphonic, syncopated energy, the voices exchanging a constant rapid crossfire of conflicting accents to the words of the first line: “Musicians wrestle everywhere.“ Even as the stanza moves on, speaking of the “transport“ brought on by the music, which seems to represent “that 'New Life,' “ and as the voices that are singing those words change texture accordingly, Carter brings back the first line, with all its rhythmic energy, in other voices. Thus we have what the poem cannot give us: the simultaneous conjunction of the poet's increasingly detached speculation on the music's significance and the continuing rhythmic energy and involvement of the music itself.
That energy continues to be heard, in a somewhat calmer form, in the playful dismissal of various possibilities (“It is not bird, it has no nest“), until at last we reach the climactic raising of the possibility that the music is divine service as heard in heaven. Having moved through a dizzying variety of keys, all voices now sing together traditionally in the same measured rhythm—there is even a witty piagai (“Amen“) cadence on the words “celestial face.“ Yet the repetition of the phrase “Please God“ forces us to hear it not only as a familiar verbal formula (equivalent to “God willing“) but also as an urgent plea. There is thus a simultaneous increase in wit and urgency not found in the poem. The close comes quietly on a simple triad in C Major—the one key, as Schiff points out, that the piece has not yet traversed.
The 1944 The Harmony of Morning takes as its text a poem by Mark van Doren, “Another Music,“ which appeared in A Winter Diary and Other Poems (1935). This poem too deals with music, but with music in relation to “another music,“ the music of words and ideas. It consists of three six-line stanzas. The first of these sums up the music of nature as heard in wind, rain, and birdsong, concluding: “There is no word melodious as those.“ the second stanza does the same for the music of instruments, similarly concluding: “Words in the wake of these are scrannel gongs.“ But then the final stanza takes the poem off in a new direction:
In them another music, half of sound And half of something taciturn between; In them another ringing, not for ears, Not loud; but in the chambers of a brain Are bells that clap an answer when the words Move orderly, with truth among the train.
Verbal music, it turns out, has it worth and its uses after all. The truth that results when words “Move orderly“ receives its deserved applause in the mind's grateful response, the “bells that clap answer“ in the brain. (Note the rather too-easy pun on “clap“: hands clap in applause; bells have clappers.) There is a good deal more dignity in the sound and movement of this verse than there is interesting significance in the words that compose it. But no matter—once again Carter improves upon his source.
The Harmony of Morning, which takes its title from the first line of van Doren's poem, is for women's chorus and chamber orchestra. The music, which at several points unexpectedly evokes Stravinsky's neo-classical pieces of this period and somewhat earlier, is complex and beautifully integrated. David Schiff has noted that the form of the piece is that of cantus firmus variation, dominated by a seven-note motif that recurs in ever-new guises. There is very little of the close attention to the appropriate setting of individual words and phrases that we saw in the two settings reviewed earlier. One feels that Carter's interest in van Doren's admittedly very slight poem was highly abstract: what drew him was not so much the poem itself as its subject, the relation of music to words, or of the kinds of significance embodied in musical sound to those embodied in verbal discourse. Hence his response was also highly abstract: an intricate and satisfying formal design with only the most general relation to the words it set.
Finally, we come to the longest and most ambitious of these four works, the 1947 Emblems, set to a 1931 poem of that title by Allen Tate. Like the poem, the setting has three parts: the first is for male chorus alone, the second and third for male chorus and piano. But the piano plays two different roles in the second and third parts. In the former, it stands out on its own, like the soloist in a concerto; in the latter, it assumes something closer to the traditional role of accompanist. One's general sense of the piece is that the two forces, chorus and piano, become increasingly integrated as it progresses.
Part I is the best part of Tate's poem. Its opening lines movingly evoke the places where the poet's dead “fathers,“ presumably casualties of the Civil War, lie buried:
Maryland, Virginia, Caroline Pent images in sleep Clay valleys rocky hills old fields of pine Unspeakable and deep Out of that source of time my farthest blood Runs strangely to this day Unkempt the fathers waste in solitude Under the hills of clay He then tells us that he is leaving them, moving ' ' Far from their woe . . . To a river in Tennessee, ' ' to “an alien house.“
In Part II, which is less effective, he asks not to be buried “By the far river . . . flowing to the West,“ but rather to be taken “East where life began“ and laid “In the depths of an eastward river“ near the dead “fathers.“ The eastward river is of course the Potomac, near which so many of the great battles of the Civil War were fought and which flows south and east along the west coast of Maryland and the east coast of Virginia, emptying into Chesapeake Bay a little above the northern border of North Carolina. The westward river must be the Cumberland, which flows through Nashville, home of Vanderbilt University, where Tate spend several years. The Cumberland begins in Kentucky, flows south and west into Tennessee, then winds back up into Kentucky, continuing west until it empties into the Ohio River at Smithland. (Thank goodness for the World Book.) In this section there is a good deal of tiresome, rather soppy rhetoric about how “Men cannot live forever" but they nonetheless “must die forever,“ and so forth.
Section III, which pays tribute to the dead “forefathers,“ is somewhat better, and it ends very well indeed:
And the long sleep by the cool river
They've slept full and long, till now the air
Waits twilit for their echo; the burning shiver
Of August strikes like a hawk the crouching hare.
Though I admire those closing lines, I am not sure exactly what “echo“ is expected here. Perhaps some genteel agrarian revolution of the sort advocated in the early 1930s by the Southern Fugitive Movement, of which Tate was a prominent member.
At any rate, Carter's setting once again far outstrips the poem, giving it far more depth and solidity than it possesses on its own. The very opening is louder and more forceful than one might expect—in the poem the names of the states, and all that they conjure up, seem to be returning gently, as in a dream. But Carter's male chorus declaims the names proudly and grandly. As the poet tells of his move to “alien“ Tennessee, the textures soften and the music becomes somewhat more lyrical. At the end of Part I Carter brings back the three state names, but this time very softly, the memory of his heritage that the poet will carry with him into “alien“ territory.
Part II begins with a blast of virtuoso preluding from the solo piano—the last thing one would have expected! And the rhetoric of the poetry, which on the page seems rather feeble and self-pitying—“When it is all over and the blood/Runs out, do not bury this man/By the far river“— suddenly becomes grandly authoritative, sung with strength and passion to the continuing vigor of the far-flung piano octaves. These opening lines are then repeated and elaborated upon, before the music softens and calms for the poet's prayer to be taken back east. The piano writing, reminiscent of that in the recently composed Piano Sonata, is absolutely dazzling and uniquely Carterian. Even “Men cannot live forever,“ also strongly declaimed, comes off without a hitch.
The soft ending of Part II leads without pause into Part III, which is unexpectedly lively, filled with dancelike syncopations and imitative counterpoint. Thus the power of the poem's ending, which seems on the page to come almost out of nowhere, is given a sure and solid preparation. Whatever that “echo“ may be, we had better watch out for it!
Emblems, which lasts close to a quarter of an hour, is not only the most ambitious of the four Carter choral works presented here but is also the finest. The use Carter makes of the piano helps us to bridge the gap between these early choral works and the later instrumental ones, and the way in which piano and chorus join forces in Part III creates a satisfying blending of present and past, which is surely what the poem is partly about—even though Tate did not handle it so effectively as Carter was to do for him.
If my repeated insistence that Carter has made these poems better than they are in themselves seems perverse or picky, or smacks of special pleading, just recall what Schubert did for Wilhelm Müller's poetry in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Like Augustus, who is said by Suetonius to have claimed that he found Rome brick and left it marble, composers often transform poems for the better. It is, however, worth noting that when Carter finally returned to writing vocal music in 1975—he had written none since Emblems in 1947—he chose the very distinguished verse of Elizabeth Bishop for A Mirror On Which to Dwell. And for/n Sleep, In Thunder (1981) he used six poems by Robert Lowell.
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