Remembering Elliott Carter

Our friendship must have started in the late sixties. I can’t remember precisely when or where we met and whether it was In France or in America. At the time, we were both constantly hopping back and forth the Atlantic…

What I do recall however, most fondly, are those many wonderful evenings spent here and there with Helen and Elliott, including frequent dinners at my Paris home. Being with Elliott was always a special treat. I loved his wit. He was also extremely well read and could deal with many topics besides music. I remember in fact that, although I was well aware at the time of his fast growing reputation, we hardly ever brought up that subject in our conversations. It was as though he had decided to keep secret his relationship to music – his own as well as others. Yet I was soon going to discover that behind this secrecy, Elliott concealed a perfect knowledge of the musical scene of his time. I thus found out a little later that without letting me know, he had taken the trouble to listen to much of my own music and liked it enough to suggest an award, then my nomination at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am extremely proud of a photo taken there in 1973, which shows little me standing between two American icons; Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland no less!

Among other favorite recollections of this period is the celebration in Paris of his 75th birthday.

This was in 1983. I had composed for the occasion a little piano piece built on the letters of his name, E-C, which in music spell thirds and sixths. The title of this piece, calling EC, was supposed to evoke our common experience of airport paging.

When Elliott turned a hundred, in December 2008, I rewrote this piece for 2 pianos and named it Calling-ec.calling-ec in email style. He was unfortunately unable to attend the premiere at Harvard but seemed happy with the music when I called him from Paris on THE big day. I remember him saying then, with his usual sense of humor, “Ah Betsy, I’ll never be able to eat all the cake I received, why don’t you come and help me.” I wish today I could have hopped over the Atlantic just to be with him that evening.

I guess the last time we actually saw each other was in 2006 at Tanglewood. It was great to watch him at 98, in such good shape and enjoying wholeheartedly the well deserved success of What Next?, his first, marvelous, amazingly youthful opera (as are indeed, beautifully, all his late works).

A few days later, in good Tanglewood tradition, Elliott was gallantly performing the soldier part in Stravinsky’s Histoire with Milton Babbitt as the devil. I can still picture the scene vividly.

Milton – the devil had just asked Elliott – the soldier to sell him his violin. But then… silence! What was going on? Oh nothing serious: Elliott was just having a little nap. And soon enough he woke up and shouted out an angry NO, setting off an endless standing ovation.

I can still hear his voice….