Who was Elliott Carter? He was one of my musical fathers. He was a composer who felt that if he entertained his own ear he could engage the audience’s ear. He was a theoretician who thought that trichord number twelve (C, E, G-sharp) should be trichord number one because it is non-invertible. He was a kindly man who was known in his neighborhood and a public figure sometimes recognized by strangers: at the Met Museum, when he was approached by a young woman who asked if he was Elliott Carter, he replied, “I’m trying very hard to be.” He was socially conscious and voted in the last presidential election with an absentee ballot; he was one day short of finding out which candidate won. When the composer was pinned down to make a statement about his artistic credo during an interview at Carnegie Hall, he responded, “I think that my music is like the ideal form of American democracy – dissenting independent voices create harmony.”
He was interested in art, literature (particularly poetry), and the natural world, and he was lively and fascinating company. Carol and I shared many dinners at his apartment or ours, and we were fond of taking him on excursions to museums and to the Bronx Botanical Gardens. At the Vatican museum he guided us to a gallery which he remembered from a visit decades past containing some Raphael paintings. Surprised not to find them, he described from his memory not only their subjects, but their placement on the walls. A nearby guard was astonished and said Elliott was exactly right, and explained they had been moved some years earlier.
I first worked with Carter in 1967 when preparing his Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord for a recording. I was eighteen and he was fifty-eight. In those days he was quiet, intense, observant, and gave the impression that he could apply his mind to any subject. He spoke very little, but he was always friendly and asked even musicians who were forty years younger than he to call him Elliott. His ear was always on the music as he told us his specific thoughts about timing, balance, mode of execution, articulation, and character. He occasionally asked questions about how the performance could be improved. Through forty-five years of coachings and musical interactions, his ideas about composing changed dramatically and he became much more talkative.
There were numerous sessions on the Cello Sonata during which I asked about the first performance and how the fingerings and bowings came to be as they are in the printed edition. Eventually I understood that in 1947 Carter did not feel comfortable about notating all the intricacies of bowing and that he relied on the cellist for whom it was written to make the final version. Later I became bold and asked Elliott if he approved of certain changes that I had made in the original bowings. He accepted these changes, answering in a variety of ways:
“Yes, I like that.”
“I have never understood that bowing.”
“I don’t want to think about it anymore, you should do what you want and I will tell you if I don’t like it.”
During rehearsals for the premiere of A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Elliott sat with the score in what seemed to me like a trance, looking at and listening to the players, then looking back at the score. After finishing a difficult passage, he looked up and asked, “is that too difficult to play, or do you need to practice more?” After the rehearsal, chastened, we all agreed to practice more.
The first time I played Figment I for him, I felt confident that I understood what he liked to hear in a performance of his music. NOT SO: he stopped me after the first three notes! Then I asked him about the high “G” in measure 14. “Yes, that place. The first man who played it said he couldn’t get that note unless he played it softly, so I changed it from forte to piano.” Immediately a footnote went into my score “forte –E.C.C. told me.” One day in 1999 the fax machine started up and out rolled a message: “Fred, HELP! Elliott” and one page of an early draft of the cello concerto followed. I practiced this music and went to his apartment and played it for him. He asked why particular passages worked better than others and said he wanted to make some changes. I returned for a few more of these meetings, until at the end of one of them, Elliott said “don’t come back, these sessions are too exhausting.” But two days later he called and asked if I could please come back again. At our last session, he handed me a 9 x 12 envelope. Inside was Figment II. A few days later I went down to 12th Street to play it for him and he said, “You don’t understand this piece. The first section should sound ceremonial, like bells.” He explained that the second section was based on remembrances of Ives’s music, the Concord Sonata and Hallowe’en. Later some changes were made to the notation (not to the music) in order to bring his ideas more sharply into focus.
I also participated in the editing process of pieces that include a cello part such as Tre Duetti, String Trio, Tempo e Tempi, the new cello version of the Elegy; and although I play from the printed versions, I still like to see the scores in their original handwriting – it reminds me of Carter.
At the time of Concerto for Orchestra, Elliott was asked by an audience member whether he really could hear all of the complicated music that he wrote. The question was confrontational in tone, but Elliott answered coolly and thoughtfully, “I don’t have an ear that can pick out every error in a performance, like my friend Pierre Boulez, but I will tell you that when my music is played correctly, it sounds exactly as I intended it to sound.”