In one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” facts, he was born on the same day, same year, as the great Portuguese film director Manouel de Oliveira—on December 11, 1908. Not only are they both alive, they are both still working. Tempting as it is to write about Oliveira, it is the redoubtable American composer Elliott Carter that I want to focus on: this December 11th. the classical music world will celebrate his 101st birthday.
Within a few weeks of his birth (for those of us who chart years by film references) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were gunned down in Bolivia and the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi ascended the throne at age two. In the industrial world, Henry Ford rolled out the first Model T; and in Carter’s own chosen profession of music, both Mahler’s Seventh and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony were premiered. It was the height of Edwardian England and the First World War was still six years in the future.
Carter attended the American premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall in 1924; it was conducted by Pierre Monteux, who had also led the notorious Parisian premiere a decade before. And in another of those fortuitous congruencies, Carter heard the Rite again, the evening of his 100th birthday, again in Carnegie Hall, conducted by his friend and musical champion James Levine.
Here is the opening section of Stravinsky’s Rite in a dazzling performance by the LA Phil under Esa-Pekka Salonen, at the inaugural, October 2003, concert of Disney Hall. The camera work picks out each soloist’s turn as the melodic lines weave around and through each other. Imagine the effect of this “swimming sound” on the ears of a 16 year-old boy whom nature seems to have destined for this moment.
Carter’s family was well off enough that shortly after the end of WWI the boy visited the French battlefields with his father. This was the start of his life-long Francophilia. Back in the USA, he was befriended by eccentric amateur composer Charles Ives, who headed a respected insurance agency, Ives and Myrick. He sold the Carters lots of insurance.
At Ives’ behest, Carter entered Harvard in 1924 intent on becoming a composer. Unlike his fellow students, many of whom were performing musicians already well schooled in theory, he had little theoretical background. The still teen-aged Carter composed a quite dissonant piece for his Beginning Harmony class. He was laughed at for the music’s lack of “sophistication”; Carter abruptly changed his major to English,though he continued to study composition outside Harvard's curriculum . Discussing it years later, he said that he wanted his music to sound like that. He was, even then, not interested in traditional harmony. Today, Carter insists that he started to listen to and think about music from the “wrong end.” From the very start he was attracted to modern music. And his vision never wavered. Beethoven became “bearable,” he says, only much later in life. And in case you are tempted to think an artist mellows with age like a great Scotch, have a listen to this excerpt from a piece that was premiered at his centennial concert. He was only 98 when he wrote it. It’s called Interventions and is for piano and orchestra. (In the box below Carter’s picture, click the link.)
As a Harvard major in English Carter became enamored of American modernist poetry. Throughout his career he turned to the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashberry, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost to express thoughts and emotions beyond the non-verbal beauties of music alone.
In 1932, Carter returned to Paris and began studies with the eminent theorist Nadia Boulanger, mentor to several generations of American composers from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass. In 1935, he received a doctorate from the Ecole Normale in Paris. Later that year he returned to the United States. Fluent in French, his love of French culture has never abated.
The mid 30s was a period of strong nativist accents in American concert music. Even Copland, who had begun as a spiky modernist in the early 20s, adopted a populist voice of the time with pieces such as Appalachian Spring. Carter made few forays into this accessible, even tuneful style, the singular example being music for the ballet Pocahontas in 1939.
From about 1950, Carter’s music found its roots and he began to develop a unique voice; while never embracing the Second Viennese School's 12 tone method, his music became ever more rhythmically complex, atonal, and structurally adventurous. A technique he called “metric modulation” placed extraordinary demands on musicians to keep apace of the ever-shifting time signatures. His most daring experiments in time coalesced in his string quartets, the mode of chamber music most often associated with a composer’s most intimate thoughts—from Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and Shostakovich—to Elliott Carter. His first string quartet was completed in 1951 while on a Guggenheim Grant making a personal retreat in the Arizona desert. The second quartet appeared in 1959 and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the first of two he received. The next three quartets followed at intervals of about a decade. The five quartets, which span his mature career, are one of the landmarks of 20th century music, even though they are just now finding an impassioned audience.
On November 2, 2002 the young Pacifica Quartet performed the complete string quartet cycle at Columbia’s Miller Theater. I was there, as was Mr. Carter; he signed my program. For my generation of classical music lovers this would be akin to having Beethoven sign your program at a concert in Biedermeier Vienna:
Six years later the same quartet, now veterans in the thorny intricacies of Carter’s music, performed the cycle again as part of the Juilliard and Lincoln Center Carter Centennial—and again I was present. Shortly afterwards the Pacifica Quartet released the full set on CD for Naxos:
At the end of every January the music school of Juilliard presents a weeklong series of concerts, an in-depth journey into the music of a country, style, or composer. Last year, this series, Focus, was dedicated to Elliott Carter. The opening night's program included music of Carter, Boulez, Stravinsky, and Varese. Boulez was the conductor. At the conclusion of the program, the 83 year-old Frenchman descended the podium and walked to the stage left apron to shake hands with the near 100-year-old American, who was walking slowly towards the stage from his sixth row aisle seat. Flashbulbs exploded out of nowhere, a veritable frisson of light. To see these two titans of 20th century music, who had first met at a music festival in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1952, embrace, was a moment I will never forget.
Carter spent most of the 60s composing just two pieces, the Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra. These large scale works, as well as the string quartets, were so demanding of his time and energy that he decided to now commit more of his time to small scale commissions for voice or for solo instruments. Always involved in tonal color, his dedication to the single instruments allowed him to explore the full range of each and to work in close collaboration with the soloist who had commissioned the work; it was a further distillation of his already intense concentration on chamber music. Especially in the past decade, these works have become extremely popular with musicians. Here is a short piece, Canaries, for solo tympani, yes, solo:
Here is a piece for flute and cello called Enchanted Prelude from 1988:
I know this is not the easiest music on the ears if you are not familiar with the demands of Carter's style—but it’s tonal and rhythmic variation may sound more hospitable to you if you can think of something like “free jazz.” Cecil Taylor, anyone? Or maybe John Cage or Frank Zappa?
What comes as a surprise to most people on first meeting Carter in person, or on hearing him in an interview, is how charming and friendly he is. Here is a brief interview with Carter conducted by Frank Oteri, in the Greenwich Village home where the composer has lived for 60 years:
Surprised? Could anyone think such spiky music would come from such a sweet man? And it’s not that his recent work is any more “listenable” than what he wrote 50 years ago. Maybe, though, we are finally starting to catch up with him. When I was a college student I listened to his music from the ballet Minotaur, a sort of modernist, but accessible, work for orchestra, from 1947. Then I heard the Double Concerto and the Piano Concerto and decided that, not being a musician, I could never understand or enjoy this stuff. I don’t remember how I was able to come to terms with Carter’s music; maybe it’s a kind of creeping geriatric synesthesia—you know, how it is that many people tend to not want sweet food as they age; maybe an aversion to aural sweetness is contributory, or maybe just the years spent listening to so much classical music, it has made my ears more open, even though I don’t know much about music theory or play an instrument.
In late October of 1998, Columbia’s Miller Theater celebrated Carter’s 90th birthday. This was the first time I heard Carter’s music “live". He was there, sitting in the row in front of me. Just before the concert began, and after well wishers retreated to their seats, I leaned forward with my program and a pen and asked him to sign it. He paused, looked intently at me as though I had just shouted, “fire,” but he did sign it and gave it back, smiling.
Maybe that was the turning point for me. Just those few seconds of human connection—from then on, so much of the thorny late 20th century music whose charms had eluded me, suddenly seemed not only approachable but enjoyable. The first piece on the program that night was for solo guitar. It is called “Shard” and here it is:
And if you want to rock—here it is “electric”:
The Piano Concerto is Carter’s most tragic work. He finished it in 1964 in Berlin. The Cold war tensions over the building of the Wall were fresh; according to his biographer, David Schiff, there was a US Army target range near Carter’s Berlin studio; the sound of the range's gunfire seems to echo through the second movement. Critic Michael Steinberg wrote that “ Carter’s Concerto established the most dramatic confrontation of soloist and orchestra since Beethoven.” Pianist Ursula Oppens has recorded the concerto twice. She is an inveterate champion and performer of Carter's music. Here she is, playing a solo piano piece from 2000 called Retrouvailles. Carter was 93 when he composed it:
Carter is such an amazingly articulate and witty person that he needs no critical champion. But the composer and critic Steven Stuckey, who has been composer-in-residence at the LA Phil and a frequent speaker at its pre-concert discussions, interviews Carter, again in his home. It opens with a shot of Carter composing on hand-ruled paper with a pencil, the way he has done since his student days. He talks about his time at Harvard and of his abiding love of American poetry:
This interview is in 4 parts; it is a personal walk through the arts of the 20th century by a man who was in the thick of it. As you listen to him, be aware that he was well past his 99th birthday when this conversation took place. If you want to watch all four parts, the screen should show an icon for next part when the previous one ends.
While Carter may not have needed an amanuensis, his wife, Helen, was a soul mate. Here is a photo from 1987. Two years later, they celebrated their 50th anniversary. Carter wrote a short piece for orchestra for the occasion called Anniversary that “compresses fifty years of partnership into six minutes.” (Schiff)
David Schiff was a student of Carter’s; in 1983, he published a book about his teacher that is part critical exegesis and part biography. The 2nd edition from 1998 includes Carter’s more recent work, though at the rate he continues to compose, they will need a 3rd edition by the end of next year:
Before the Pacifica Quartet became the current “go-to” group for the Carter string quartets, the venerable Juilliard Quartet had recorded them.
Here is a video that shows Carter giving the Juilliard players notes as they rehearse the last, 5th Quartet. His detailed notes on dynamics show a man in complete command of his own vision. The camera work for this historic video is, sadly, amateurish. Also, look at the comments posted below the video. I am so used to seeing nothing but the most inane abuses and the expressions like “douche bag” turned into a mantra on these YouTube sites. Even though one guy referring to the quartet opined, “It’s just a bunch of messing around,” most of the comments are way more literate put downs between advocates and dissenters and show a degree of passion not unlike that of pop music fans:
It is no surprise that a man so articulate and detail oriented is also an engaging writer. A collection of his writings that dates back to the mid-40s includes essays on the state of American concert music, lectures, memoirs of major musical figures, and events in his career, as well as reflections on his own work. His essays on the life and music of his mentor Charles Ives are especially enlightening:
I have saved one “goody” for the end of this ramble. On December 10, 2008, the day before his 100th birthday, Carter appeared on the PBS Charlie Rose show, along with conductor James Levine and conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim, in a freewheeling talk. Wearing suspenders and a flaming red sweatshirt, Carter tells Rose that even though it is his birthday tomorrow, he will be a his desk in the morning, as he is every day, composing. Levine adds, “He is still in his prime.” At about 6 minutes in, Barenboim talks about the concept of “late style” in the work of an artist’s last years. “But I don’t dare say this is Elliott’s late style.” He speculates that Carter could write another 20 years, always moving toward a new horizon. He says that Carter is creating a new style, one that contains all the complexity that has been his hallmark, but which is becoming ever more “distilled.”
For almost a decade Carter’s works have become shorter, scored for fewer instruments, more reductive in structure, yet more vibrant, quicker in time—more and more the essence of what it is that he wants to say. Maybe even he feels time nipping at his heels. But at the rate he is going, Elliott Carter will, within another decade, attain that most sublime state of distillation that all music aspires to—pure silence. And he will carry us there with him. Lenny Bernstein is somewhere in the empyreum waiting for him.