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Elliott Carter (b. 1908)


Holiday Overture

Elliott Carter is one of the greatest American composers of the late 20th century, but his music is not played much in Europe, and even less in America. There are probably two main reasons for this - with a few exceptions, his music is extremely difficult to play, and is equally challenging for audiences to listen to. (But don't worry - the Holiday Overture is one of the exceptions.)

Born in New York in 1908, Carter was much influenced by Henry James and read English Literature at Harvard University before switching to music. Like many American composers, he spent three years studying composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He is one of the few composers to have been significantly influenced by the experiments of Charles Ives, in which Ives assembles apparently unrelated musical lines into a collage of sound, which can seem both fascinating and bizarre. This and his internationalism, together with his obvious intelligence and a slightly ironic outlook have made him rather suspect to American critics.

However the Holiday Overture is altogether more simple, bright and breezy. He wrote it in 1944 to celebrate the liberation of Paris (of which he had many fond memories) at the end of the Second World War. Aaron Copland was staying with him at the time, writing Appalachian Spring, and there are some echoes of that work in the Overture - so it was rather unfair of Copland to describe the Overture as "another complicated Carter composition".

Lasting only ten minutes, the overture starts energetically in C major, with a jazzy tune in the Copland / Bernstein mould. Although it stays in 4 in a bar throughout, the music gradually gets more complex, playing different themes in different keys and speeds against each other. Intricate sections alternate with simpler ones, but always in the same driving jazzy tempo, and the density builds up to a great crunchy climax. The exuberant final bars restore C major, combining 5 different versions of the main tune in their tumbling dash to the end.

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