A musical century ended yesterday when the MET Orchestra, conducted (from a wheelchair) by James Levine, presented the first performance of The American Sublime, a cycle of five songs by Elliott Carter. The composer died in 2012, and the music, from 2011, while not the last he wrote, is the last of his that will ever be premiered. For forty years I looked forward to every new work Mr. Carter composed. Now the long run is over, and with it, a large chapter of my life.
All the more wonderful to report, then, that Mr. Carter went out strong. The American Sublime, a setting of poems by Wallace Stevens (Carter’s second) ― for baritone, wind ensemble, piano and percussion ― is a beautiful piece, brief but haunting. I was particularly delighted by the choice of text for the last song, “This is the thesis …,”which ends thus:
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely living in living as and where we live.
In his book Music in a New Found Land (1964), Wilfred Mellers prefaced his chapter on Carter with just these lines, and Carter himself, in his program notes for the Nonesuch recording of his cello and harpsichord sonatas, quoted them and agreed they captured some of the “main aims” of his work.
“It is quite true,” Carter wrote, “that I have been concerned with contrasts of many kinds of musical characters ― ‘many selves’; with forming these into poetically evocative combinations ― ‘many sensuous worlds’; with filling musical time and space by a web of continually varying cross-references – ‘the air … swarming with ... changes.’ And to me at least, my music grows ‘out of what on sees and hears and out/Of what one feels,’ out of what occurs ‘Merely in living as and where we live.’”
I think of the song as Carter’s artistic testament ― an impression strengthened by the final measures, when the instruments drop out and the baritone finishes alone, as though the composer is addressing us directly. In context, the words “in living as and where we live” were also especially poignant: Carter is out of the game, and it is up to us, the living, to continue the task of inhabiting the sensuous world.
It was a beautiful moment. Even more beautiful was the second song, “The Woman in Sunshine,” which compares the feeling of sun and air to the “warmth and movement” of a woman who cannot be seen, only felt. (It’s a very erotic image. In setting the words, did Carter, a widower since 2003, feel the presence of his late wife, Helen?) The scoring is spare: piano, vibraphone, and oboe, which contributes a long, lovely line ― a gesture both Bach-like and typically Carterian.
The baritone, Evan Hughes, reminded me a little of old photographs of Rasputin ― rail-thin, dressed in black, with dark lank hair and a few days’ growth of beard ― but he proved an extroverted and sensitive guide to this small region of Mr. Carter’s world.
The rest of the concert, at Zankel Hall, NYC, was equally memorable, beginning with the refined wit of Stravinsky’s Octet and continuing with the raucous wit of Charles Ives’s Scherzo: Over the Pavements. The second half consisted of John Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis and Charles Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, a cantata for four voices and chamber orchestra to the oddball verses of James Tate. The last was perhaps overlong, with little real inspiration in the instrumental writing, but the vocal lines, which included spoken narration, were inventive, and they brought out the humor and the deadpan absurdities of the texts. There was a lot of laughter in the auditorium.
Wuorinen himself conduct after Levine bowed out, explaining from the stage that stage health issues and other commitment had prevented him from giving the music the time it deserved. At 76, five years older than Levine, the composer looked quite spry.