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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Concerto for Orchestra, by Elliot Carter

November is almost over, and we would be remiss if we failed to note the passing of the composer Elliot Carter on the 5th.

Before he was a composer, he was an English Major at Harvard, and later in life set music to many poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. Carter’s music sounds like a lot of other 20th century music (as Bach sounds like a lot of other early 18th century music), in that it is typically atonal and rhythmically complex.

The Concerto for Orchestra is considered by many to be his finest work; in the comments you’ll even see comments “this is indeed the greatest musical composition ever.” Ever! It is great, but it is also fairly tough going for the uninitiated—much, much more difficult than even Bartok’s great concerto, or Lutoslawski’s.

As Carter himself says about harmonic patterns in his work, “a chord, a vertical group of pitches either simultaneously sounded or arpeggiated, like a motif, is a combination to be more or less clearly remembered and related to previous and future chords heard in the same work. Whether the composer is conscious of it or not, a field of operation with its principles of motion and of interaction is stated or suggested at the beginning of any word. The field may be tonal, employ traditional harmony, or it may be unrelated to traditional harmony, as my music seems to be nowadays …”

There is also something about the rapidly changing rhythms that makes it sound chaotic and dramatic at the same time, and being difficult, it demands repeated listening many times over. But as it becomes more and more familiar, new discoveries are in store for the listener. The flip side of the demanding nature of the music is that it bears up to repeated listening very well.

It moves quickly, and if it sounds as if each of the instrumentalists is doing his own thing, that’s because they are. As Carter himself said, “I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble.”

Elliott Carter, December 11, 1908 – November 5, 2012. Requiescat In Pace.


  1. As I listen to this I’m recalling a discussion I’m having with a friend on beauty in music. Compared with (the best of ) rock or house (both of which I love), (good) classical music alone would appear superior and worthy of the title “beautiful.”
    Could this piece be called beautiful? That is if we hold beauty to be objective and not subjective?

    It’s making me think it could have served as background music to Bioshock (best game ever made, Ever!) That quality of being “chaotic and dramatic” is quite fitting.

    • Quin Finnegan says

      Wow. I watched the video … shooting zombies and robots with tommy guns and crossbows in a mall that—judging from the view through the skylights—somehow ended up at the bottom of the ocean. All to the accompaniment of the waltz from the Nutcracker suite, as run through an echo machine. Wild stuff. Decadant; the way the sound has been mixed is vaguely remeniscent of some of Fassbinder’s finest, like The Year of 13 Moons and Lola. Many, many times more violent, of course. What’s up with that spiky fist at the beginning? At first I thought it was club; then I realized that it was either subpar animation, or maybe very good animation of a zombie hand made up of dead flesh that therefore looks like a club was … in the end he opened the hand and flung out the spikes, which means that it was real, or at least that it wasn’t a club. Is that about right?

      I’m intrigued by video games, as they now seem to be replacing movies as the most popular form of extended narrative. Problem is that I never even mastered Asteroids or Ms. PacMan, and I just don’t have the skills to even imagine how one would put one of these things together. Over Thanksgiving I spent four or five hours keeping an eye on my nephew play the latest version of Halo while I was reading Aquinas. Surreal. But compelling, obviously, for my nephew.

      I can see Alphonse as a video game. Lickona could probably make a major fortune writing that.

      As to whether Carter’s Concerto is beautiful, I think it certainly is. Although I wouldn’t worry too much about whether beauty is objective or subjective; the polarization of objectivity and subjectivity is only one more form of dualism that needs to be overcome by recognizing the truth of the Holy Trinity.

      Believe me, I understand the attraction of all that Objectivist stuff, or at least the economics that usually goes along with it, but ultimately it’s pretty thin gruel … I recommend more Aquinas. And as I said, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your Bioshock or World of Warcraft or whatever … in fact, you’ll probably come to develop an even greater appreciation for all of that after reading Aquinas or Boethius’ De Trinitate.

      That is all. I’m having one more drink and then I’m going to hit the sack … thanks for commenting, Paul S.

      • A lot to get at there hmmm.
        For now, 2 things:
        One: Believe it or not, bioshock is a fable about the aftermath of a failed objectivist utopia built under the ocean. I’ll take Aquinas over Rand anyday!
        Two: f**k world of warcraft.

        Thanks for your time in responding. I love reading this blog and posts like this are part ofthe reason why.

      • Quin,
        Don’t think we didn’t look into that. You start off playing as a sperm cell in FPS mode.

        • Quin Finnegan says

          Paul S.: I believe it! And I’ve never seen WoW, let alone play it … I just know the title as one of the more popular video games. Thanks again for posting; comments like that help keep me in the loop.

          Matthew: “FPS mode”: I thought that might be Family Planning Something until I looked it up. But First Person Shooter; yep, that ought to have a certain appeal, given the context. If they aren’t calling you every week to get that set up, they’re fools!

        • Believe it or not, but Steam (the PC vending platform for computer games) has seen a great deal of “indie” titles in recent years. See also “Steam Greenlight.”
          You just need to find an out of work developer and you’d be set! It could be something so simple as an arcade style puzzle game, just 2D animation. The creepy “binding of isaac” comes to mind(haven’t played it, just watched the trailer), but with more backstory and longish cutscenes.
          Polygon, one of the most insightful gaming websites out there did this story: Of course you wouldn’t want to be thrown into the “christian game” ghetto but the point is that people are out there actually trying to make “good” games that can compete with the best of the (admittedly indie) secular titles.

  2. Really good. It would make good movie music too. Marvelous post, Quin.

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