For British musicologists and university music teachers an invitation to address the Royal Musical Association was – and perhaps still is – an important Rite of Passage, often with useful professional outcomes. In the 1960s, papers about contemporary music were extremely rare, so it now seems to have been brave, even foolhardy, of me to present a discussion, awkwardly entitled “Post-Twelve-Note Analysis,” that dealt with some of the most recent and challenging compositions that seemed to me to have moved on from conventional twelve-tone technique, while not necessarily rejecting everything that the pioneering exponents of that technique had stood for.
In that discussion, Elliott Carter’s then quite-recent, and still more recently recorded, Double Concerto was given a central role. These were years when one of Carter’s leading British advocates, William Glock, was a major influence on the contemporary music scene, and it soon became possible to feel – rightly or wrongly – that Carter’s music was more warmly appreciated in Europe in general, and England in particular, than it was in America. On the single occasion, a few years later, when I met Carter briefly in London, it was clear that this was no honorary Englishman – even if his qualities of stoicism, allied with a sharp sense of humour, could (respectfully) be thought more prevalent on this side of the pond than States-side. Nevertheless, as the years passed and it became possible to appreciate the full power of such mighty conceptions as the Concerto for Orchestra and Symphonia alongside the wit and wisdom of those smaller and shorter compositions that came to the fore later on, it was clear that Carter’s music could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. The combination of toughness and joyousness, of depth with positive thinking – even when darker moods were touched on – always stood out in an age when complexity and intensity could so easily be made to seem cumbersome and defeatist alongside their postmodern alternatives.
In lectures introducing “Music Since 1900” I have often pointed to the contrast between Carter and his younger English contemporary Benjamin Britten. Ironic, perhaps, but also strangely poignant, that the latter’s centenary year of 2013 is also the first “post-Carter” year. Somehow, it was all the more magnificent to see Carter at the Festival in the Britten town of Aldeburgh in 2009, given how different his music is from Britten’s, and how vital those differences are in helping to define what still really matters about music composed since 2000. How appropriate it will be if Carter’s music continues for the next thirty years and more to enjoy as much exposure and appreciation as Britten’s has had since his death in 1976….