Those of us who love Carter’s music do so for its vitality, its invention and its overall seriousness. The vitality has always struck me as an American trait, something he inherited from Ives and that he shared with his colleagues Copland, Harris and Nancarrow. His staggering powers of invention, a gift that never failed him, came to the fore in the early fifties in the First String Quartet and the Variations for Orchestra, works that remain my personal favorites. In them the formal plans are bold and dramatic, and the personality that he accords individual instruments is vivid and full of piquant character. No wonder musicians love to play his music!
Carter’s seriousness is a product not only of his own musical pedigree but also of his particular historical setting. A composer who came of age during the period of Depression-era populism, he didn’t find his true voice until the postwar period, a time when American artists and intellectuals were coping with a new identity and sense of responsibility in the world. He abjured the Neoclassicism of his contemporaries in favor of a language of greater density and simultaneity. In this he demonstrated his exceptional musical literacy, his deep understanding of the repertoire and his high standards of taste, qualities that informed all aspects of his musical and overall cultural DNA.
His legacy is both a gift and a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. His are artworks that make no attempt to seduce or dumb themselves down for the listener. They were created during the same eight-decade period that saw American culture grow increasingly crass and overbearing. He composed knowing that his audience would likely be a small but sophisticated one, and he knew that his listeners would come to him, rather than the other way around. For this trait of pure Yankee stubbornness we owe him our deepest gratitude.