Elliott Carter - Piano Sonata (w/ score)




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Published on Sep 9, 2017

Piano Sonata (1945/46) (rev. 1982) by Elliott Carter
Performed by Paul Jacobs

00:03 - I. Maestoso
11:39 - II. Andante

Elliott Carter's output from the 1930s and '40s, in contrast to the almost exclusive devotion to instrumental music in later years, is dominated by choral and vocal works. Nonetheless, the Piano Sonata, composed during 1945 and 1946, stands out as presaging the textural and coloristic spectrum that would characterize Carter's later oeuvre. The piece stretches nearly to the breaking point the envelope of Carter's early Copland- or Milhaudesque pan-diatonic language, and, along with the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano from two years later, marks a pivotal point in the composer's compositional development.

The work explores and exploits the various sonic possibilities afforded by the mechanical and acoustical properties of the piano, and certain sonorities themselves take on generative or thematic roles alongside more "modular" gestures. The introduction that begins the first of the work's two movements serves as a sort of scaled-down version of the piece, containing thematic and textural elements that will return throughout the sonata: broad, sustained octaves; thirds leaping across octaves; flitting arpeggios emphasizing intervals of fourths and fifths. The first movement alternates between competing and contrasting textures. After the maestoso opening full of expansive, elongated gestures, the score suddenly indicates a shift to "scorrevole" ("scurrying"). A rapid torrent of un-metered sixteenth notes ensues. By un-metered, I refer to the lack of time signature; the flurry of angularly ordered notes groups themselves into units of ever changing length, creating a kind of melodic stream full of whirlpools and eddies. The maestoso reasserts itself, but is once again overrun by the scorrevole material. These two ideas, along with a third topic -- more expressive than the maestoso but much more restrained than the scurrying sixteenth notes -- circulate throughout the remainder of the movement.

As in many of Carter's early works, the first movement of the sonata is built upon a harmonic foundation that pits tonalities set a half step apart. In this case, a tension is created between the pitches B and A sharp (enharmonically B flat) and the major triads built upon these to pitches. Another important harmonic element is combined with this idea, that of natural overtones as they emanate from the piano and decay. This harmonic approach hinges upon the arpeggio figures, which bridge the divide between clashing harmonies and between diatonicism and chromaticism by leaping through series of fifths. In the scorrevole sections, the overtone series informs the counterpoint: sporadic notes in the left hand underscore pitches in the upper voice that have a natural overtone relationship -- that is, the upper notes are found among the natural overtones of the lower pitch. This idea is made even more explicit elsewhere in the piece, when certain high strings are to be sounded solely by the sympathetic vibrations from lower pitches. This is executed by depressing the higher keys softly enough that the dampers for those strings are released but that the hammer doesn't strike the string. Undampened, the strings are set into motion by the overtones of the lower pitches.

The most striking feature of the second movement is an elaborately crafted fugue, in which the fugal subject is alternated with a variant episode that fills out the subject's same rhythmic contour, creating a dense contrapuntal web that is at once variegated in its melodic content and homogenous in its gestures. The fugue is book-ended by sonorous tintinnabulating material that utilizes special pedaling effects and overtone manipulations, eventually concluding with a hushed, sustained harmony that spans several octaves and slowly decays to reveal the sustained B's that began the work.

Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

This video is for educational purposes only.
© Copyright Disclaimer, Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for 'fair use' for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.


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