If Elliott Carter hadn’t been so devilishly youthful right up to the end – rosy, unwrinkly cheeks and all – we would all call him our great composer “patriarch.” He was one of our finest and most important composers for the last half century or so, not only in America but as well as in Europe, particularly in Germany and England. Indeed over there they often called Elliott – amicably – the “un-American American.” In Germany he was for many years considered more or less the only American “avant-garde” composer worth performing and considering seriously. Be that correct or not, it is nice that that “centuries-old grand master” tradition regarded Elliott, hailing from that “young upstart” called America, so highly.
Elliott wrote all kinds of pieces, including a lot of wonderful and much-performed chamber music. But who else would write at age ninety an opera and then about an auto accident, or one of his most perfect works, the Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano (1959-1961), and then at age 99(!) a piano concerto (Interventions). I declared it at its Boston premiere in 2008 a veritable “masterpiece,” because there were – beyond his usual high-level creativity – form and continuity breakthroughs that neither he nor anyone else that I know of had ever achieved. (Incidentally, I have often said – jokingly – that if someone at age 99 wrote a bad or not-so-good piece it would still be an astonishing achievement.)
Of course for some, Elliott’s music, especially his earlier works, was too conventional; for others a lot of the later music was too complex, too dense, too unfathomable. I venture to say that would be mostly in the case of performances of his orchestral pieces, which often did not achieve the clear and accurate realizations that the music Carter had actually created really deserved. (If people want to hear orchestral Carter works played virtually perfectly, they should get Olly Knussen’s masterful recordings.)
Like so many of Elliott Carter’s generation – and I include myself, even though because of his amazing longevity I was always seventeen years younger – he too was inspired and wanted – nay needed – to be a composer after hearing Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Schönberg’s Ewartung, also the music of Ives and Varèse. In the end, Elliott said in response to a rather naïve question by an interviewer, as paraphrased: “How can you write such terrific music all the time and at your age?” To which Elliot answered “Look, I’ve been doing this for so many years, so that I really do know how to do this. It’s no mystery.” Like Babbitt and others of our generation had been saying for some time, Elliot too said many times in interviews during his 100th birthday celebrations: “I have just always written the music I wanted to write.”
It is interesting – and wonderful – that Elliott at his 100th birthday suggested “Now I’ve said everything that there is to say.” With a smile he added “Yes?” He was right; it is true. And yet he kept on composing – and very well – right up to the end.
On a personal note, I want to say that of the thousands of contemporary works I conducted over many, many years, among the very most exciting, most gratifying, most inspiring were the nearly thirty times that I was privileged to conduct Elliott’s Double Concerto – with, by the way, one of the greatest codas ever written.