Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. was born in New York City on December 11, 1908 and now divides his time between Manhattan and Waccabuc, New York. He completed his First Symphony on December 19, 1941 in Santa Fe (revising it in 1954) and the work was first performed by the Eastman-Rochester Symphony under the direction of Howard Hanson at the Fourteenth Annual Festival of American Music on April 27, 1944. The Symphony, dedicated to the composer's wife, is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, trombone, timpani, and strings.
At the end of the first performance of Elliott Carter's String Quartet No.1, at Columbia University in the early 1950s, a professor rose in a huff and was heard to say, "The man who wrote that must been the faculty here or it would have never been played," thereby dismissing the work with which, in Carter's words, "I decided for once to…say to hell with the public and with the performers too. I wanted to write a work that carried out completely the various ideas I had at that time about the form of music, about texture and harmony- about everything." That new attitude led to some of the most unique compositions of this century. Particularly in his orchestral writing- the Variations for Orchestra (1954); the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961); the Piano Concerto (1965); A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977); and Syringa for mezzo-soprano, bass, and chamber orchestra (1978)- Carter has tackled the very configuration of the orchestral body to devise new formations, masterfully juggled the resultant levels of activity, and made meter and tempo as much a structural component of his music as harmony.
There were different concerns when the Symphony No. 1 was written: those of a well-educated, well-traveled, well-connected young man. Carter's teenaged years had included piano lessons, sharing Charles Ives's box at the Saturday afternoon Boston Symphony concerts at Carnegie Hall, a 1925 trip to Vienna with his businessman father where he bought "all the scores of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern I could find," and going to Harvard "because of its proximity to the Boston Symphony." He majored in English, having found little sympathy among the faculty for contemporary music, but took a Master's in music there before making the pilgrimage to Paris from 1932 to 1935 for lessons with Nadia Boulanger. Returning to a United States in the throes of the Great Depression, he found "the musical world here had taken a new turn, toward a kind of populism which became the dominating tone of the entire musical life." Pocahontas (1938-9) was meant to be a "parable of cooperation" and his next orchestral work, this Symphony, was written "in a deliberately restricted idiom- that is, in an effort to produce [a work] that meant something to me as music and yet might, I hoped, be understandable to the general music public I was trying to reach…"
The first of the three movements has themes that sound Coplandesque, but the organization of phrases into irregularly patterned three-, four-, and five-bar groupings, the disorientation of the lilting waltz figure with off-the-beat accents, and the ductile manipulation of the meter from triple into duple are surely Carter's own tricks. A solo trumpet carries the hymnlike second movement for much of its expansive way, and one realizes here, as in the clarinet writing from the first movement, what Carter means by "orchestrally thought textures." The rambunctious third movement theme dates from Pocahontas, where Carter had discarded it as too diatonic. Rapidly shifting dynamics reveal precisely conceived levels of activity, especially in passages of deceptively simple texture. And again the sounds of individual instruments remain at the end, as the E-f1at clarinet and an obscenely high piccolo bring the Symphony to its giddy close.
-- Susan Feder, Copyright 1982