Research Seminar: Professor Robert Adlington (University of Huddersfield)

‘The most democratic of composers’? Elliott Carter and the idea of democracy
At the time of his death, Elliott Carter was lauded by his obituarists for his commitment to democracy. Yet critics of Carter often advanced the opposite view: this his commitment to musical complexity was elitist and implicitly rejected the popular voice. My paper attempts to bridge these contrasting views by analysing the numerous references to democracy in Carter’s writings and interviews, in terms of the schisms affecting the idea of American democracy in mid-twentieth century. Particular attention is given to the diverse appropriations of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/40) – a text known by Carter – in the service of divergent models of democracy. The ‘polyvocalism’ of Carter’s scores relates to Tocqueville’s account of early American direct democracy, an account enthusiastically deployed in the 1940s and 1950s as part of cold war intellectuals’ arguments for ‘a world made safe for differences’. Carter’s anxieties about the free preferences of audiences, on the other hand, can be traced to Whitman and his twentieth-century advocates, who amplified Tocqueville’s concerns about the future of art under democracy. Carter’s appeals to democracy consequently disguised multiple positions on the questions of freedom and equality in American society.
Robert Adlington is Queen’s Anniversary Prize Chair in Contemporary Music at the University of Huddersfield and before that, Associate Professor in Music at the University of Nottingham. He has written books on the composers Harrison Birtwistle and Louis Andriessen, and is editor of the volumes Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties (2009) and Red Strains: Music and Communism outside the Communist Bloc (2013).