“He had a phenomenal ear!”

On November 5, 2012, my friend Elliott Carter died in New York at the age of 103. For me he was and remains one of the most interesting figures of music history in the past century.

The historical importance of a composer does not always go hand in hand with the quality of their work. To understand Carter, one must look at where he came from and the way he reacted to what came before him. He began to compose in the 1930s and 1940s. Between the 1950s and 1970s what little he wrote was highly complicated. In the 1980s he began to write much more material that was much less complicated. Carter came from two different realms of influence: on one hand he learned from Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who was very conservative (I know because I was also a student of hers, albeit 20 years after Carter), and on the other hand he worked on pieces by Charles Ives, a modernist.

The predominant American composers at the time were Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. Carter was very conservative then, much like American music was at the time. Carter somehow steered it in another direction. Europe’s Stravinsky and Schönberg held Americans’ interest, though certainly never as a pair. Carter managed to unite them. For his cello sonata he wrote that the cellist should play Schönberg and the pianist Stravinsky. Carter must have been a highly complex figure at the time. He brought together two totally different worlds, without attempting to synthesize them! That is precisely what I find so fantastic: he let himself and his music be influenced by both worlds at once; he lived in both worlds simultaneously. In that respect Carter is an important historical figure.

Even the non-musical influences on his personality were an unusual mixture: Eisenstein and his film Battleship Potemkin, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. We normally don’t find these influences within a single person all at the same time. To me that makes Carter especially interesting and attractive. The fact that he involved himself in so many different worlds simultaneously is perhaps also the reason – to put it bluntly – for the unnecessary complexity in his music in the 1950s through the 1970s.

Elliott Carter was also a physical phenomenon. For the first time in history we had a composer who was over 100 years old – and still writing! I know of no other great composer who lived so long, not to mention one who kept working at such an age. In the 1970s people were already talking about Carter’s “late style” – then in the 1980s he went in an entirely different direction. In some sense, Partita, the first movement of his Symphonia, set yet another new course in the 1990s, certain elements of which he retained.

For me personally, Elliott Carter was and remains one of the most meaningful composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries because he represents substance. He was the living proof of uncompromising, complex music, which at first seems inaccessible. But it becomes accessible if one digs in and sees the development through. I believe that is Carter’s great lesson: to always stay uncompromisingly focused on the substance of the music – and not to try to incorporate popular elements, like so many composers today. That’s why his music remains, as complex as it may be, always “in good humor.” Sometimes I think if Haydn were alive today, he would compose like Carter did in his last years.

Carter did in fact invent the musical modernism after Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism. I believe he became a symbolic figure also because he brought America and Europe together. I am convinced that 100 years from now people will talk about Elliott Carter as one of the most important figures in the second half of 20th-century music.

Carter exhibited unbelievable culture, pertaining to music and much else. He was outstandingly well versed in musical literature, in Bruckner and Debussy, Stravinsky and Bach, Beethoven and many others. Thus everything that he said was well founded. I came to know him personally through conversations about Richard Wagner. When I met Carter for the first time, I had just conducted the “Ring” in Bayreuth, and he began to comment on the orchestration in the prelude to the second act of Siegfried. He knew all of the lyrics – he knew everything and had a phenomenal ear! I can only hope that many other people will have a life as long and rich as he had – and that they continue creating, as well.