Elliott Carter is one of the foremost modern American composers. He was born in 1908 and continues, at more than a hundred years old, to write music of technically daunting, yet lyric and ebullient music. The sound and structure of Carter’s music has always tended toward the neoclassical, in the spirit of (and with the direct inspiration of) Igor Stravinsky. No matter how complex the pitch-sets or rhythms, there is never an absence of the sense of musical play.
In the Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord, written in 1952, this sense is most clearly supported by the strange, time-sensitive, and quasi-anachronistic presence of the harpsichord. On paper, the instrumentation of Carter’s Sonata — with two treble instruments, keyboard, and cello — is close to that of a conventional trio-sonata (see Telemann, above), but the sound of the work is utterly mid-century modern, as though the old keyboard instrument had awoken to meet its old friends again at MoMA, after several hundred years. It is complex, humorous, bizarre, lyric, and clearly, squarely, American.