Elliot Carter’s Brass Quintet (1974)

Professor Manning asked the class to listen to Elliot Carter’s Brass Quintet and respond to some questions he had about it. The specific recording was Classic American Brass by the American Brass Quintet. Here are my thoughts:

1. What is the affect of this music? (How does it make you feel?)

Honestly, I am not big fan of the piece simply as listening and am not sure how I would say that it makes me feel. Academically, the piece is very well constructed, with very interesting use of very individualistic solo passages juxtaposed against sudden loud and full ensemble entrances. Carter does a good job of showing off various extended techniques and interesting tone colors, both with individual players and in ensemble. I am very impressed by the technical prowess of the American Brass Quintet in playing the piece.

I suppose that one definite feeling that I have while listening to the piece is one of being unsettled.

2. How did the Carter create that affect?

One musical elements that contributes to my feeling of unsettledness is the lack of a feeling of meter. It is not that there is no meter, rather that the meter is obscured by a lack of a constant, re-occurring downbeat, signifying the beginning of a measure and constant time. Thus, it becomes possible for one to feel rhythmically disoriented. Another musical element that contributes to this feeling (for me) are the quiet, eerie long notes played by individual instruments separately but at the same as different, rhythmic material. The pitches in the rhythmic passages do not fit with the long note in terms of tonal functional harmony, so to me, there is this unsettling feeling that makes me think, “This long note doesn’t belong.” It is not pitch alone that causes this feeling, though. It is also the dynamic level – very soft in comparison with the louder, rhythmic material. Also, the tone of the long notes is rather dead (no vibrance and little energy). For me, this creates a creepy affect, like something bad is about to happen. I am not sure if it was Carter’s intention to create that affect, also, I am probably just projecting ideas from film onto something that is probably not intended to serve as programmatic music. Another way the unsettling affect is created is by having the quintet suddenly enter together on very loud, but harmonically dissonant chords. To me, this is startling. At the same time, it does sound very impressive – sort of imposing, I guess.

3. What measure do you think would be the most difficult to perform and why?

I don’t think that there is any one measure that is the most difficult, however, there are many solo passages that are very fast and angular. I think that these are the most challenging for the individual player. As an ensemble, the greatest challenge would be keeping steady time so that parts that are played together have perfect precision.

4. Should this piece be studied in future ABEL classes as a landmark work? why/why not?

Often, I prefer not to listen to music like this, so in a way I would prefer not to study it as a landmark work (or have others study it). At the same time, it is clearly a well-constructed, thought out piece worth taking seriously. Also, it has clearly served as an influence for many other composers of brass quintets. These things justify it being studied as a landmark work.

5. Compare and contrast this to Davison’s Brass Quintet, also written in 1974. Davison studied with Walter Piston, Howard Hanson and Alan Hovaness. Who where Carter’s influences and how do you think that lead to his own style?

A few of Carter’s earliest influences were Stravinsky and Ives. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who taught him that every note was important, and that there should be no fluff in his writing.


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