A Birthday of Two Mavericks

By James David Jacobs

Dec. 11

Two important composers share a birthday of December 11. Both of them were born over a hundred years ago. One of them is still alive and composing.

I tend to associate Elliot Carter and Hector Berlioz together, probably because a couple of years ago I attended a New York Philharmonic concert which opened with Carter's then three-year old work Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra and closed with Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. (In between was Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Winds, an excellent choice, as its composer can be considered the stylistic link between the other two.) All three composers write music that is uncompromising in its commitment to push the boundaries of their respective eras and produce sonorities that are fresh and bracing, and yet all three use these sonorities in the service of communicating to a general audience, not just making an avant-garde statement to impress their musical peers. In the case of Carter, whenever I hear one of his works live it's always surprising and delightful to witness how even his thorniest works command an audience's attention and keep them engaged. When Carter hobbled out to take a bow on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall to take a bow, he received a hero's response, a long and adoring ovation that expressed not just respect but love - and this for a man and a body of work that is anything but cuddly. Carter turns 102 today; he was born in New York City and still lives there. He wrote his first opera three years ago at the age of 99. Today we'll hear his ballet score from 1947 (which the liner notes refer to as his "second and last ballet" though there's no reason to think that he couldn't still write many more if he wanted to) called The Minotaur. While the ballet was conceived in collaboration with George Balanchine for the Ballet Society (which in a couple of years would transform into the New York City Ballet), the actual choreography was composed by Balanchine's assistant John Taras. The entire ballet is 33 minutes long; here's a list of its episodes, with timings, in case you want to follow along:

Overture 0:59
Scene I: King Minos' Palace in Crete: Queen Pasiphaë prepares for a tryst with the sacred bull 3:49
Entrance of the bulls and the sacred bull 0:38
Dance of the bulls and Pasiphaë with the sacred bull 2:37
Interlude—Pasiphaë's heartbeat becomes the pounding of hammers used in building the labyrinth 1:18
Scene II: Before the Labyrinth: Building the labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur who destroys men 2:00
Entrance of King Minos 1:39
Selection of Greek victims to be sent into the labyrinth 1:09
Ariande, princess of Crete, dances with Theseus, a Greek victim 4:23
Greek victims are driven into the labyrinth 1:40
Theseus' farewell to Ariande as he enters the labyrinth 1:54
Adriadne unwinds her thread as Theseus, entering the labyrinth, pulls the thread after him 1:19
Theseus fights and kills the Mintour (as his movements are transmitted to Ariadne who is holding the other end of the thread) 1:15
Adriane rewinds the thread to lead Theseus out of the labyrinth 1:55
The thread breaks. Adriadne is greatly dismayed 1:32
Theseus and some of the Greeks emerge from the labyrinth and rejoice 1:03
The Greeks and Thesus, forgetting Adriande, leave Crete 3:31

We'll hear this in the 10:00 hour on Saturday as a birthday tribute to the person many consider to be the world's greatest living composer - and is certainly its longest-living composer.
As for Berlioz, we'll wait until Sunday at 10:00 to hear his Harold in Italy. While this is a piece of program music like The Minotaur (and just about every piece Berlioz wrote), in this case it was the musical form that inspired the program and not the other way around. Paganini commissioned a viola concerto, and Berlioz, instead of concentrating, as Paganini expected, to find ways to make the viola sound impressive and flashy, created a literary analogue for this musically awkward situation. There's a reason there aren't many viola concertos: it was designed to be an instrument of harmony and ensemble with a dark melancholy tone not associated with extroverted solo writing. So Berlioz cast the viola in the role of Lord Byron's Childe Harold, who wanders around Europe as the Romantic Outsider, an observer rather than hero, making this something of an anti-concerto (or, as several disgruntled viola players characterize it,"the world's longest viola joke" - echoing Paganini's own initial dissatisfaction with the work.) Its movements are titled:

I. Harold in the mountains: scenes of sadness, of happiness and of joy. 16.55
II. March of the Pilgrims singing their evening prayer. 8.29
III. Serenade of an Abruzzi mountaineer to his mistress. 6.58
IV. Orgy of the Brigands: memories of past scenes. 12.28

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