Carter: Saëta (Arrow)

Program Note

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)
Saëta (Arrow) from Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950)

Elliott Carter is one of the great voices of modernism of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Born into a prosperous New York family, Carter spent his childhood in Europe before returning to study with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst at Harvard University. During his developmental years, Carter was encouraged to compose by Charles Ives who often invited Carter to concerts, after which they would return to Ives’s home and discuss the evening’s program. At the time of this informal tutelage, Carter was more an enthusiast than a composer. In the letter of recommendation Ives wrote for Carter’s Harvard admissions application, he acknowledged Carter’s interest in music and literature, character, and sense of humor, but not his aptitude for composition. In fact, Carter had no composition lessons until a three-year period of study with Nadia Boulanger in the 1930s. 

By around 1944, Elliott Carter had become aware that “the interesting aspect in music par excellence was time, the way it passes.”  Acquaintance with the philosophy of Whitehead, literary works by Joyce, Eliot, Proust and Thomas Mann, Balanchine ballets, Eisenstein films and works by Charles Ives had a decisive influence on his thinking about time: "All technical or aesthetic consideration in music must really begin with asking the question of time."

The modulation of tempo, or metric modulation, was to ensure a continuity between the conceptions of time, and the musical flux could constantly unfold and evolve in an apparently natural way. The Eight Pieces for Four Timpani are a step along the way of this metric modulation. The origin of this writing technique is found not in jazz but in the music of Stravinsky and the theories of Joseph Schillinger, who suggested the possibility of beating a four-beat bar as if it were in three and inversely, so as to obtain a sort of polyrhythm—the musician uses his polyrhythms as the starting point for other polyrhythms, thereby obtaining a rhythmic dimension in constant evolution.  Carter reminds us that the rhythm of our breathing differs from the rhythm of our heartbeat, and that each of them is subjected to change.

Saëta, the first of the Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, is based on an Andalusian song of improvisatory character sung during an outdoor religious procession, and is said to be the descendent of a rain ceremony during which an arrow (saëta) was shot into the clouds to release the rain.

—Adapted from writings by Laurent Feneyrou