Remembering Elliott

One of the great irritations of a composer’s life can be other composers; more rarely one or other composer can be a great inspiration. For me, Elliott was a great inspiration, not only because I was the recipient of his friendship and not always favorable, but always understanding criticism, but more particularly by the example he was for me of what an artist should be. On one of the last visits I paid him before Helen died, I remember her saying reproachfully, “Elliott, stop always talking about music”. He was, I suppose until the end, music through and through.

He was not one of those all-purpose geniuses who can do anything and everything without apparent difficulty. He struggled and fought for what he achieved and to do that you have to have not just ambition but a kind of moral purpose. I don’t think Elliott viewed his own work or evaluated that of others as it were, stylistically. His modernist credo was linked to a strong sense of what he felt he had to do and if this may seem to some unnecessarily exclusive, it was also profoundly modest. He did what it appeared to him was possible for him to do. On the other hand, he was quite adventurous and broad minded. His culture, both musical and other, was wide and intense, so that in no sense could one say about him that he was stuck in his own groove. Even if musico-technically he appeared to be consistent in what he did (Helen said, “with Elliott’s music you can take certain things for granted”), he was open to all kinds of inspirations and viewpoints. There can be no greater contrast than the already middle-aged Elliott going out to the desert, as it were, to break through, to realize a Beethovenian ambition in his first string quartet, or the older Elliott, perhaps a little hedonistic, exploring and setting the poetry of so many American poets and filling in his oeuvre with all kinds of pieces for the most varied ensembles.

Finally he’s gone. But his pieces remain, my favorite among them the first two String Quartets, the Variations for Orchestra, the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, the Symphonia, the Concerto for Orchestra and many others. I am certain that “somewhere”, in some Darmstadt in the skies he is busy with his complementary chords and metric modulations.