Is the idea of government support for the arts un-American? On the contrary. It is as American as apple pie. In the early years of the republic, were our political leaders rubes when it came to music and other arts? Look again. Our iconic founding fathers Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and many of our subsequent presidents had signal public relationships to music and the arts.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of an article like the Wall Street Journal‘s “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,” which purports to explain why Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You” makes people cry. Unfortunately, the article is marred by a number of scientific, musical, and aesthetic misconceptions, some glaring and some more subtle.
From our earliest encounters with music, we are told tales of extraordinary accomplishment by musicians: stories so magnificent that no musicologist could hope to put them into context. It is absurd to think of Mozart applying for graduate school, but we scarcely question a cinematic portrayal of him dictating the Requiem from his deathbed.
At any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky.
As a child I spent hours banging on the piano while holding down the sustain pedal, played with the sounds my voice could make, and, when I eventually took up the cello, spent more time experimenting with it than learning proper technique. It wasn’t until I went to college—where I learned about the many composers creating works using sounds not traditionally considered by the mainstream to be “music”—that I learned I wasn’t completely crazy.
The crux of the matter in grasping Elliott Carter’s difficult and satisfying music lies not in conquering its inherent and unavoidable technical issues. What’s crucial is finding the broader context in which those challenges can be seen not as obstacles to successful performance, but rather as essential musical materials that upon close investigation reveal important information about the nature of Carter’s music itself, its structure, aesthetic, and intent.