For those who are familiar only with Carter's later music-a body of works, mostly for chamber ensembles, characterized by rigorously devised rhythms, meticulous gestures, and watertight post-serial harmonic processes-a piece like Elegy comes as a great surprise (and, for those with more post- than high-modernist leanings, perhaps a relief). In fact, the works Carter composed during the 1930s and 40s were mostly choral and vocal works, written in a sophisticated but lyrical harmonic vein and exhibiting an ear for clever programmaticism, a soft spot for lush tonal indulgences, and a gracefully maintained balance of elegance and experimentation.
Only four instrumental chamber works dating from 1948 or earlier survive (not including the pivotal Sonata for Violoncello and Piano): The Canonic Suite from 1939, Pastoral from the following year, Elegy from 1943, and the Woodwind Quintet from '48. The sonorities in three of these can be attributed at least partially to the teachers for whom they were written or to whom they were dedicated. The Canonic Suite originated as an assignment for Nadia Boulanger, and the Woodwind Quintet is written self-consciously-even caricaturistically-in a style she would have encouraged; Carter refers to the Pastoral as his "Walter Piston piece," after his professor from Harvard. Arguably, then, While Carter himself can of course be found in all four works, perhaps the most stylistically "unencumbered" work of the four is Elegy. Still composed in the gregarious idiom of the other works of the period, Elegy nonetheless exhibits a sense of simple grace and accessible introspection that stands out even among the early works and contrasts starkly with his later output.
Elegy had a gestation period of over twenty years, and went through several transformations along the way. The original 1943 conception was for cello and piano, but Carter was unhappy with the resultant sonority. An alternative plan for the piece occurred to the composer during a 1946 vacation in Maine, when he became acquainted with the Lanier string quartet. Carter prepared an arrangement of Elegy for the quartet to perform at a concert given in Eliot, Maine in the summer of that year. David Broekmen conducted in a New York concert of the 1952 revision for string orchestra. Finally in 1963, violist George Humphrey and pianist Alice Danady performed the final incarnation of the piece for a concert in Cambridge, Mass.
A comparison of Elegy and the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano shows a breadth of contrast that would suggest a longer gap than the five years that separated the two works. Besides the drastically different harmonic resources employed, and the difference in surface complexity, the philosophical subtexts of the two works vary greatly. While the later work defined a relationship of opposition, the attitude symbolized by the instruments in Elegy (particularly the duo versions) is one of unity. A melody-with-accompaniment texture predominates throughout, and the dialogues that occasionally take place are almost always characterized by assent rather than dissent. The lines are lyrical and sometimes rhapsodic, and the piano buoys the dramatic contours of the dominant voice. In this regard, the last version is particularly well-crafted. Notated rubato in the viola part adds a sense of fluidity to the line; also, the viola version ends with a subtle but poignant gesture in which the traditional harmonic roles of the players are vertically inverted: rather than giving a solid tonic root to the low piano, Carter leaves it suspended above in the viola, while a beautifully ambiguous chord quietly fills the sonic space below.