On Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

November 16, 2012

On Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

It really did seem like Elliott Carter would live forever. My apartment in Greenwich Village is just a few blocks from his home on West 12th Street, and now and then I would see him taking a stroll. Even though moving carefully, usually with the help of longtime friend Virgil Blackwell, he seemed to maintain remarkable mobility for his age. At concerts, even when speaking from a wheelchair in the last few years, he exuded robust spirits and an optimistic air, offering a few choice words on his latest creation. My last glimpse of him was in June, when he appeared for a pair of concerts with the New York Philharmonic in his latest, Two Controversies and a Conversation; now I feel lucky to have heard it twice.

Carter was a unique phenomenon; at no other time has a composer lived so long yet remained so productive. French composer Henri Dutilleux is still with us at 96, yet his most recent work is Le temps l’horloge (2007-2009), written for Renée Fleming. Milton Babbitt, born in 1916 like Dutilleux, wrote two pieces around age 90, and died just last year. Neither maintained the creative pace that Carter did so effortlessly in his final two decades, and even he could not have predicted that after age 90 he would add over 50 new pieces to his prolific output.

Perhaps surprisingly, given my love of contemporary music, I came late to Carter’s music—despite the fact that a college pal gave me an LP of the Juilliard Quartet in the first three quartets (at the time) from 1951, 1959 and 1971. On first hearing the music seemed impenetrable. Years later I decided to choose one of his shorter works, applying multiple hearings “until I got it,” and Esprit rude/esprit doux (1984) won the coin toss. (It’s only four minutes long, not like putting Parsifal on repeat.) Thanks to flutists Jayn Rosenfeld and Patricia Spencer, and clarinetists Jean Kopperud and Meighan Stoops, I had heard it live a number of times, and there were a handful of recordings, too.

The strategy worked, and I found myself becoming more attuned to Carter’s mercurial outlook on sound—more comfortable confronting a flow of brief, unfamiliar musical events, none of which appeared to have (on initial hearing) any relationship with those encountered previously. For an ear trained to recognize patterns, the idea of that instinct being slightly thwarted was a mystery, a challenge, a dare—and somehow I sensed some humor behind it all. That humor—both in his work and in real life—was another quality that made Carter unusual among composers, who sometimes avoid comedy for fear of not being taken seriously. The reality is that it takes acute skill to be funny, though Carter’s version is more like a twinkle, rather than a joke with a punch line.

Later, the Arditti Quartet premiered his Fifth String Quartet (1995), which captured my ear even more securely—more immediately—than the previous four. Only then did I realize that Carter’s esthetic was beginning to work its magic. Other milestones: Lorin Maazel conducting Variations for Orchestra with the New York Philharmonic in 2006, and James Levine leading the MET Orchestra in Three Illusions and Dialogues in 2007; Levine returned a year later with the Juilliard Orchestra for Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei. Levine has also programmed some of Carter’s song cycles on his MET Chamber Music series (which I hope will return). Perhaps the apex was Carter’s actual 100th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, when James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave a gala concert lasting almost three hours, complete with a huge cake.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I became immersed in New York’s contemporary music scene, Carter’s chamber music was played everywhere, albeit for somewhat smaller audiences, and he and his wife Helen were often on the premises—sometimes in the company of just a handful of fans. So in the last 15 years or so it has been fun seeing him adored by audiences who normally wouldn’t give a standing ovation to a living composer. I wish I could advance myself a century from now, to see what audiences in 2112 will be saying about him then. It seems clear that Carter’s unprecedented run will be celebrated far into the future.

Bruce Hodges

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