Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Found the Quote

In taking the hacksaw to Elliott Carter, Daniel Asia says of the rehearsals for the Concerto for Orchestra, under Leonard Bernstein:

It should be noted that Bernstein wasn't impressed by the fact that Carter wasn't aware that the clarinetist was playing in the wrong transposition for much of the piece ... why, when certain pitch relations were important to Carter, and he apparently couldn't detect errant pitches, shouldn't this suggest serious reservations about the composer and his music?

As I noted earlier, one of my correspondents wondered where Asia got this story, since he did not attend the rehearsals, and another suggested it was an urban legend, since he had heard the same thing about Schoenberg. I, too, thought I recalled something of the sort, and, rereading Charles Rosen's indispensable monograph Arnold Schoenberg (1975), I found this (pp. 49-50):

From time to time there appear malicious stories of eminent conductors who have not realized that, in a piece of Webern or Schoenberg, the clarinetist, for example, picked up an A instead of a B-flat clarinet and played his part a semitone off. These recurrent tales, often true, do not have the significance given them by the critics who believe that music should have stopped at Debussy, as each individual line in Schoenberg's music and even in Webern's later pointillist style defines a harmonic sense that, even when transposed, can fit into the general harmony of the work as a whole. (Here we must remember that harmony is conveyed as powerfully along a musical line as it is by a simultaneous chord.) The attenuation of the traditional concept of dissonance gives a considerable freedom to the movement of the individual instrumental voices, and for this to take place the central position in the hierarchy of musical elements can no longer be given to pitch. What is clear, indeed, is that the simple linear hierarchy must give way to a new and more complex set of relationships in which pitch is only one element among others, and not by any means always the most important.

So there you are — Mr. Asia’s little gotcha moment has been addressed, and 35 years in advance.

And how stupid are clarinetists anyway?

Mr. Carter once said that while he could not, like Boulez, pick apart every detail of a performance, his music, when played correctly, sounded just as he imagined it. I will add only that for me, the reason Asia's story, true or not, doesn't suggest "serious reservations" about Mr. Carter's music is that the Concerto for Orchestra kicks neoromantic ass.

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