June 19, 2017

When smart people say stupid things IV

... chaotic, unpredictable... There are no themes and no 'form'.
David Schiff on Elliott Carter's Partita for Orchestra (1993), The Music of Elliott Carter, 2nd ed., Cornell U. Press, 1998, p.318.

Musicologists... the forensic pathologists of music who dissect musical works, examine the innards, and describe their findings in reports the general public never reads.  Except, that is, for occasional voyeuristic freaks like myself.  In our case, however, the motivation is not some morbid obsession of a man perusing reports from the Coroner's Office, but a harmless (if not particularly healthy) obsession with the music we find exceptionally rewarding.
     Given my well-documented obsession with the music of Elliott Carter, it was only a matter of time before I would turn my attention to David Schiff's book on the subject.  With few exceptions, the book is a good starting point for exploring the theoretical, aesthetic, and historical backgrounds of Carter's music.  As for the exceptions, the one I found disappointing enough to vent my disappointment in public is Schiff's discussion of Partita.[1]

If the orchestral music of Carter's late period is characterized by its greater transparency of textures and more lucid organization, Schiff's remarks on Partita suggest the view of this work as a throwback to Carter's intimidatingly complex orchestral works from the 1960s in which densely packed textures, layered complex rhythms, and rapid successions of competing and colliding musical ideas pose considerable challenges even to experienced listeners.  And since no other late period work is described by Schiff in similar terms, the reader may be left with the impression of Partita as the sole (if lovable) 'compositional mutant' in the family of stylistically similar works of Carter's late period.
     Unless, of course, the reader knows Partita reasonably well.  In that case Schiff's remarks would lead him to think that innuendo is an acceptable tool of musicological analysis.  Here is why:

To single out Partita as a work with no themes is to make a statement as vacuous as one asserting that there were no helicopters in Napoleon's army.  There are no themes in any of Carter's orchestral works after Variations for Orchestra (1955).  There are, to be sure, identifiable 'melodic materials', sometimes of considerable prominence [2], but they do not function as themes, i.e., as material for constructing musical continuities.  Carter's musical continuities are constructed by more abstract means [3], and those employed in Partita are not different in kind from those in other late period orchestral works.  This much Schiff's own book makes reasonably clear.
     Some musicologists have taken a charitable approach to Schiff's view of Partita by granting him that there are no themes in this work so long as the claim is qualified to be about "classical" (or traditional) themes.[4]  To me, this approach is entirely unhelpful to both parties.  To begin with, even so qualified Schiff's statement remains as vacuous as the original one for the trivial reason that there are no 'classical' themes in any of Carter's mature works either.  Second, the suggested classification of themes as 'classical' is itself vacuous in the absence of a theoretically well-grounded alternative concept of a 'non-classical' theme. As of now, no such alternative has been developed.
     In the end, however, none of this carping is really necessary.  We only need to note that if there were themes in Carter's mature orchestral works other than Partita, this would make Schiff's book on Carter's music grossly inadequate because not a single such work is discussed in terms of its thematic content.

Now the question of form.  As far as I can tell, significant musical forms in the musicologist's toolbox - those which involve more than the superficial aspects of the work's organization - are still understood and explicated in ways which make them inextricably linked with the notions of a theme and thematic development (variation, transformation).  Consequently, such forms are not applicable to music which, like Carter's, does not rely on thematic processes.  If Schiff thinks that only significant forms are worthy of attention, this explains why his book does not identify the form (with or without scare quotes) of any Carter's mature work. But it also makes unintelligible his denial of form to Partita alone.
     What would be intelligible is for Schiff to admit that, given the present state of musicology, the only form that can be meaningfully attributed to at least some of Carter's mature orchestral works is the rather superficial episodic form: a sequence of linked (and possibly overlapping) musical episodes.  Not surprisingly, descriptions of episodic form turn up in Schiff's book whenever he finds himself with little else to say to say about how a work is organized.  A good example is the chapter on the Clarinet Concerto (1996), a work written three years after Partita and nearly identical to it in duration.  After a few general preliminaries, Schiff tells us that "The concerto is played without a break but consists of seven sections with linking interludes" (p.272).  And that's all he has to say about that work's organization. (The rest of that short chapter consists of the list of individual sections followed by a few remarks on the instrumentation and the mood of a few selected episodes.)

Why, then, not do at least this much for Partita which, like Carter's late concertos, is organized as a sequence of linked episodes?[5]  The only difference is that the episodic form of Partita is not given indicators as readily audible as, say, the ritornellos in the ASKO and Boston concertos or the transitional orchestral interludes in the late solo concertos.  Transitional materials in Partita tend to straddle (or split between) adjacent episodes, which blurs the audible boundaries and thus the identities of individual episodes.  (The sole exception is the first episode which is separated from the rest of the work by a relatively long silence.)  This makes the episodic form of Partita elusive, but not so elusive as to justify Schiff's description of this work as chaotic, unpredictable, and formless.  A somewhat longer exposure is all that is needed for the contours of individual episodes and the 'fusion joints' between them to imprint themselves on the listener's mind.  (Or so it was in my case.)  Which is a good deal less, I believe, than what is demanded from the listener by Carter's orchestral works from the 1960s.

At this point you probably want to interrupt me with a one-sentence observation known to be capable of  refuting 90% of everything ever written about music, literature, and the visual arts.  Namely,
                                                          That's what you say!
If so, I understand why you feel this way.  After all, the alleged episodic organization of Partita (unlike that of the late concertos) is neither explicitly indicated in the score nor mentioned in the accompanying composer's notes.  With this in mind, whatever musical divisions I claim to hear in this work may have no more objective reality than the images one sees in the passing clouds.
Obviously there is nothing more I can say to make you accept my view of Partita.  But what I can do is to offer a recording [6] of this work divided into tracks corresponding to what I hear as the work's constituent episodes. In line with Carter's preference for Italian designations of tempo, mood, and character, I gave these episodes Italian titles.  If the title of Episode 8 sounds goofy, so be it.  It was meant only as a very crude indication of what goes on in that episode: the violins struggle to maintain a lyrical melody against the increasingly belligerent interruptions from the orchestra.  Some episodes have the title 'Concertino' which I used to indicate only that the episode is dominated by prominent melodic material given to a solo instrument. 
     Here is the complete list of episodes:

01. Introduction: turbulento (tutti) - calmo (woodwinds, brass)
02. Energetico (interplay of orchestral sections)
03. Concertino I (English horn)
04. Misterioso (sustained strings punctuated by brass, percussion)
05. Concertino II (piccolo, flute)
06. Concertino III (clarinet)
07. Giocoso (piano & percussion vs. strings & woodwinds)
08. Lirico (violins) contro belligerante (orchestra)
09. Concertino IV (bass clarinet)
10. Finale

If listening to Partita as this (or a reasonably similar) sequence of linked episodes will make musical sense to you, that's the only kind of independent evidence I can have in favor of the proposed episodic form.  If it won't, I will be interested to know how you make this work's overall organization intelligible to yourself.

To end with a couple of caveats: First, given what I said earlier about the blurred boundaries of individual episodes, the musical divisions corresponding to the above list are to some extent arbitrary.  What one listener may hear as the beginning of an episode, another listener may hear as the ending of the preceding one.  But then so what?  Blurry episodic structures have always been a fact of life both in and outside music.  Everyone agrees, for example, that the Liszt Sonata contains a 'development episode', but there is no agreement on where exactly this episode begins and ends.  Everyone agrees that people go on trips, but there is no agreement on when exactly the 'trip episode' begins (when you lock the front door? get into a taxi? take off in an airplane?) or ends.
     Second, descriptions of episodic form give only superficial knowledge of a work's organization, but this doesn't make them worthless.  Superficial knowledge is still better than ignorance, which is something musicologists ought to keep in mind when writing a book intended as an introduction to the music of this or that composer, especially when the music is as challenging as Carter's.  When they don't (as is the case with Partita), we music lovers are left to our own devices.  The above recording of Partita is simply one such 'device'.

1.  This work later became the first movement of Carter's Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei.
2.  Examples include the trumpet solo which opens A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), the oboe solos which begin and end the Oboe Concerto (1987), and the English horn solo in Partita.
3.  E.g., when diverse materials are related by referencing a common 'source collection' of pitch classes or intervals. Such abstract continuities need not be identifiable through listening alone because their job is not to communicate knowledge of formal relations in the score but to induce the feeling of a cohesive and coherent musical narrative.
4.  Arnold Whittall, "The search for order: Carter's Symphonia and late-modern thematicism", in Elliott Carter Studies, Cambridge U. Press, 2012, pp.57-79. 
5.  In his notes on the late concertos Carter uses the terms 'episode', 'section', and 'movement' as interchangeable names for a stretch of music expressing a distinctly individual mood or character.
6.  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ryan Wigglesworth (cond.), 29 May 2014, City Halls, Glasgow (live broadcast recording).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Boom for continuing to share your love of Mr. Carter's work!