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Eliott Carter's Night Fantasies

Alex Klassen

In his preface to the score of Night Fantasies, Elliot Carter gives us a brief synopsis of the
work as follows
...I wanted to capture the fanciful, changeable quality of our inner life at a time when
it is not sominated by strong, directive intentions or desires... that I enjoy in
works of Robert Schumann like Kreisleriana, Carnival, and Davidsbundlertanze...
So when I initially got tired of trying to decipher the various streams of thought Carter was
leading me through I decided to listen to Schumann for a few minutes. This was interesting.
Without going into an extended and laborious attempt to decipher Carter's particular brand of
musical grammar the best analogy I can come to from this little experiment is that if you took
Florestan, Eusebius and all of Schumann's other shattered personality traits and bundled them
up in a patchwork you would have Night Fantasies. The finale, which carter describes as 'loud
periodic repetitions of an emphatic chord...' gives a nice contrast to Schumann's march of the
Davidsbundler. Carter however, in his obsessively ambiguous structures comes up with a less
fascistic tone than one hears in Schumann's tirade against the philistines. This is again quite
curious. There are no sharp divisions in Night fantasies. Everything overlaps without anything
resembling a cadence or structural guidepost. You simply find yourself in a new space every so
often. A microscopic enlargement of the areas between Schumann's carnival creations emerges
as you try and find these demarcation points. And you almost need to try. The metrical and
harmonic material is so diverse and divergent that you want to know how you got there. Have
some sense of where you are going. Another wonder of the piece is that it is in fact built of a
uniform logic. A solid creation from a singular artist content to explore and dwell in these
regions of his thought. It is tempting to think of Schumann's generally unstable and rather
persistently deteriorating mental state and wonder if his need to pull at and demarcate his
ambiguities was symptomatic of and(or) a contributing factor to this. Then of course perhaps
your night fantasies wouldn't be all that pleasant if they were persistantly accompanied by an
A440.

Apparently, Night Visions has come to be regarded as the final work of Carter's American
compositional period. What came before and after this period I have no idea. But in an early
interview (relatively early, that is, given that he was about 40 at the time), Carter does give an
interesting explanation of what being an American composer means to him. To wit it means
having the tools of European (for example) art music available at your disposal but not being
beholden to the cultural continuity of living within the cultural society. To him this is (was) the
freedom of American artists. To have no need to define a national school. That whatever comes
out of his pen is and will be inherently American Music.
Throughout the piece a few clear demarcations do exist. And these to a greater or lesser extent
are expressed in the score with metrical markings or expressive indications. The most
remarkable thing happens though at measure 346, about two thirds of the way through the
piece. We come out of a section of increasingly sparse and demanding chords the last of which
is held across a double bar into a section marked legato, scorrevolewhich takes off as a single
line of extremely high septuplet runs punctuated occasionally with triplet counterpoints. These
continue along until bar 353 when the chords return. At first in a rather imposing block chord
marked '[silent]' over a depressed pedalwhile the run peters out and we are back to the similar
shifting chord texture we had abandoned moments before.
All together its an impressive piece with endless corners for investigation and close listening. I
look forward to delving further into the music of a composer, the language of whom Boulez
said 'was among the most original of our time... and the most noteworthy.'. From this brief
introduction I would have to agree.