I cannot begin to explain how privileged I feel to have known Elliott Carter. He was my great friend, my mentor, and an inspiration for much I have done in my life. Of course, as a musician and as someone who cares passionately about classical music, the insight I received and the brilliant musical perspective I came to understand from him was invaluable and not at all limited to the 20th and 21st centuries. Here are just a few of the many discussions I remember: contrast in Mozart, rhythm in Brahms, what made Rossini’s operas funny, essential conservatism in Ravel’s compositions.
Knowing Elliott Carter, however, was more than just knowing the greatest composer of recent time; it gave me a link to history which only his exceptional longevity, his phenomenal memory, his acute sense of observation, and his humanity could offer. From his telling of his father taking him to see the devastation of World War I, to his account of his wonderful time in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, to his descriptions of old New York (more detailed and thorough than those of any tour guide), to vignettes such as while dining with Stravinsky of their chance meeting with Frank Sinatra, that link was both tremendously broad and precious.
What I found most remarkable about Elliott Carter was his perpetual youthful curiosity. Living well past his 103rd birthday, Elliott Carter led a life of remarkable productivity, and throughout that life he never lost his insatiable thirst for knowledge not only musical, but from every field of inquiry and aspect of life. In music, his youthfulness manifested itself in the fact that just about whenever he set about to compose he ended up redefining the form of the composition he was working on, whether it was a duet or an opera. Outside of music, his interests were all encompassing. Our conversations would range from the pronunciation of Homeric Greek to exotic plant species to contemporary politics. He was interested to know about everything from the space/time continuum to the recipes of the various courses of the virtuoso birthday dinners that my wife, Ayako Oshima, would prepare for him and his friends.
In looking back to our wonderful times together, my thoughts turn as well to Elliott Carter’s brilliant wife, Helen, who passed away nine years ago. They were an inseparable couple and so much of Elliott Carter’s sensibility I felt was informed by her great sense of taste and her incredible perceptiveness. I also thank Helen for bringing us together and for helping forge the bond that has been so important for me.
It was Elliott Carter’s perpetual youth that made his passing at the remarkable age of 103, while expected, so unexpected. His loss will touch me for a long time to come, but I will carry his influence and vision in everything I do.