The Kennedy Center

Musicians Wrestle Everywhere

About the Work

Elliott Carter Composer: Elliott Carter
© Richard Freed

Carter composed this setting of a brief poem by Emily Dickinson in 1945; the first performance was given in New York on December 12 of the following year, and now appears for the first time in concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The work may be performed by five singers (two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass) without accompaniment, or with a small group of strings; the latter option is taken in the present performances. Duration, 3 minutes.


Neither age nor his heavy accumulation of honors and awards has dulled Elliott Carter's creative drive: his productive output since turning 90 has been impressive in respect to both quantity and substance, and less than two years ago, in his 95th year, he accepted a commission from the Pacifica String Quartet for a new work that will be his Quartet No. 6. All of his choral music, however, is from a much earlier period: the madrigal setting of the Emily Dickinson poem we hear in this week's concerts was composed 60 years ago. It is from the same period in which he produced such works as his First Symphony, the Holiday Overture , the music for the ballet The Minotaur , and the Woodwind Quintet. The great cycle of string quartets would begin in 1951, to be followed within ten years by such works as the Second Quartet, the Variations for Orchestra, the Double Concerto, the Piano Sonata, and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord.

Carter is not the only composer to respond to this poem. Some 30 years after he composed his setting, Peter Mennin produced one as part of his cycle Reflections of Emily , for boys' chorus, harp, piano and percussion, and there have been others as well, though Carter's is the one that has commanded the most attention. As already noted, is the form of a madrigal, which seems to suit Dickinson's own style especially well. The text itself, in fact, might strike is us now as having been almost specifically designed for such treatment.

Musicians wrestle everywhere: All day, among the crowded air, I hear the silver strife; And - waking long before the [morn] - Such transport breaks upon the town I think it that "new life"! It is not bird, it has no nest; Nor band, in brass and scarlet dressed, Nor tambourine, nor man; It is not hymn from pulpit read, - The morning stars the treble led On time's first afternoon! Some say it is the spheres at play! Some say that bright majority Of vanished dames and men! Some think it service in the place Where we, with late, celestial face, Please God, shall ascertain!