Elliott Carter’s angle on the world was original, bold and compelling. In his works, opposites combine and collide; the multiplicity of human experience is represented in music whose expressive viewpoint is volatile, often full of ambiguity and contradiction. But this music also abounds in a teeming sense of invention, bubbling with fantasy, and in particular his sense of narrative structure – influenced as much by contemporary literature and cinema as music – was extraordinarily audacious and potent. These attributes are typified in his Concerto for Orchestra, premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in 1970; one of the great orchestral works of recent decades, its exuberance and dramatic energy are uniquely thrilling. An extraordinary performance of this work, given by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen over twenty years ago, remains emblazoned on my memory.
His individual style – which took an arduous and lonely struggle to come into focus – owed as much to the European post-war avant-garde as it did to the American modernist tradition, though it is utterly and fundamentally the vision of an American. His music is challenging to the ear and extremely difficult to play, but also has a huge amount to offer both performer and listener.
I first met him as a teenager, in the late 1970s, and remained in contact till shortly before his death, last visiting him in August 2012 when his conversation bubbled with the same degree of vitality and erudition as it must have over eight decades before. Courteous and kind, his formidable intellect was balanced by an endearing, even impish, sense of humor. He shared an exceptionally happy married life, lasting more than six decades, with his wife Helen, who seemed – on the surface – a waspish presence, though below was a heart of purest gold. Carter was a visionary and powerfully independent figure on the international music scene and he will be deeply missed.