Yesterday the music world lost one of it’s longest lived citizens. Elliott Carter died aged 103.
Many obituaries and appreciations are being written at this moment for this man whose creative career spanned some 80+ years and includes two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards as well as influence on a great deal of students. Admittedly he is hardly easy listening and a book length conversation with Carter written by one Allen Edwards was appropriately titled, “Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds”. Outside of musicians and the limited audience of fans of new classical music such as myself are likely to be familiar with this man. And a moments reflection told me that I cannot make him more familiar by citing any one of his musical works.
But his lack of familiarity is a product of his style and vision, not a commentary on his value as an artist. That said I know of only a handful of friends and acquaintances who would be willing to sit through any performances of his music. Like his contemporary Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) he pursued his own vision and succeeded very well in establishing himself as a major, if underappreciated, composer.
Carter whose early interest in music was encouraged by Charles Ives was present at the American premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. Along with a great deal of 20th century composers he studied with the venerable Nadia Boulanger in Paris of the 1930s. Boulanger’s circle included the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and numerous others of that fascinating period.
Curiously there is yet to be a comprehensive biography of this man and I look forward to reading one when it becomes available. Anybody know of anyone working on this?
Born into a wealthy family Carter had little reason to be concerned about things financial. Carter focused on the composing of music. He was not a performer. His style initially owed a great deal to Stravinsky and had a neo-romantic sound not unlike that of fellow Boulanger student Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.
In the 1950s his style began to take on what would become his mature style. It was characterized by methods related to Schoenberg’s twelve tone system and an idiosyncratic approach to tempo which he called “metric modulation”. His style was challenging for both performers and listeners but this did not prevent him from twice winning the Pulitzer Prize (for the 2nd String Quartet in 1960 and the 3rd String Quartet in 1973). His work has been embraced by many of the major performers and orchestras of our time and he was a fixture among the musical cognoscenti of New England. He was appointed to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981.
His 5 String Quartets (1951, 1959, 1971, 1984, 1995) are likely the most significant development in that genre since Bartok. Those along with his Variations for Orchestra (1954-55), Concerto for Orchestra (1969), Piano Concerto (1964), Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), Violin Concerto (1989), Piano Sonata (1945-6), Symphonia (1993-96) and Double Concerto (1959-61) all make my shortlist of his best work.
And there are a great deal more pieces with which I am less familiar which Carter wrote in his remarkably prolific later years. He added about 54 new works to his catalog from age 90 until his death just short of his 104th birthday. No doubt many of these will also claim a regular place in the repertoire.
Sometimes characterized as one of the “three C’s” of American music (Copland, Cage, Carter) he influenced many composers, performers and, in my case, listeners. Though difficult at times I find his work ultimately rewarding. His passing is truly the end of an era and his legacy is rich.