Elliott Carter was a humanist and an intellectual, with a profound belief in music’s place among humanity’s greatest achievements, and his powers of invention were extraordinary. To the end of his life he continued to apply his insatiable curiosity, his estimable technique, and his enviable memory to the search for new ways of revealing music’s powerful connection to our experience of our lives. He combined the skill and respect for craft of the conservatory with the literary ambition of the Liberal Arts in a way that reflects the unique cultural mix of the United States in the 20th and early 21st centuries – with its colleges and universities and its obsession with commerce, its powerful government and its distrust of elites, its stubborn independence and its deference to European artistic traditions. That he was able to make a name for himself here as a composer of concert music speaks not only to his incomparable artistic achievements, but also to his ambition, his political savvy, his flexibility, his persistence, and perhaps also his luck.
As the grandson of Eli Carter and the eldest son (and only child) of Elliott Cook Carter Sr., Elliott Cook Carter Jr. had to contend with a set of expectations imposed on him from birth. His grandfather started a business after the Civil War importing lace – an essential luxury good at the time – and sold the business to his son, Elliott’s father, who went into debt to buy it. The pressure on Elliott to succeed his father must have been enormous, but Elliott would have none of it. He gave up the society of the mercantile bourgeoisie and used the legacy he inherited from his family to support the cause of contemporary concert music and to live – comfortably but far from ostentatiously – as an artist in Bohemian Greenwich Village. He pursued his chosen career as a composer with single-minded determination, always holding himself to the highest standards of his profession.
Elliott’s actions throughout his life were based on his heartfelt belief in change. He is an unrecognizable statue in many music history books – frozen as we saw him in the late 1960s: an “uncompromising” and hard-edged Modernist, indifferent both to contemporary trends and to popular acclaim. But in life he took everything in, and accepted the constraints imposed on him by the changing musical institutions of his time (and later by age), as challenges to be surmounted with enthusiasm as well as skepticism, and with irony increasingly leavened with humor. And he kept on changing – continuing to invent his music anew long after many artists would have retired, or settled into a late idyll. His transformation of the post-War search for the new into an opera buffa in What Next?; his opening a bravura piano concerto with a morose English horn in Dialogues; his introduction of a concerto soloist as a guttural grumbler at the beginning of the Horn Concerto; and his portrait of himself and his wife Helen as a lumbering old pair at the end of Anniversary – these are the characterizations of a master dramatist with a flair for comedy, who isn’t afraid to skewer his own pretensions along with everybody else’s. Over the last thirty-plus years he produced a dazzling variety of pieces – all composed after his 70th birthday, and each in some fundamental way unlike anything he had written before. Elliott inspired everyone who knew him, and he believed in paying attention. If we do too, his music will continue to bring us great joy for many generations to come.
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When I was in college – still undecided about what I wanted to do in life, studying different subjects and playing bass in rock and roll bands – I discovered the score of Elliott Carter’s Brass Quintet in the remainder bin at the local band instrument rental store. I couldn’t make much of it, but I knew it was complicated and that was for me! When I found the American Brass Quintet’s recording, though, I put the score aside and just listened, and when the first trumpet entered with its lyrical melody above the chattering trumpet and horn, I instantly got it: the gathering struggle and the untroubled song, both amplified, rather than diminished, by their conflicting simultaneous presence in the mind of the listener; irony as a kind of joy at being human. “It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize,” Diane Arbus said, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the thrill I felt at that moment – the thrill of instantly recognizing something I had never heard before – set my professional life on its course. When I was in graduate school a friend and I took an all-night train to hear the Composer’s Quartet play the New York premiere of Elliott’s Fourth String Quartet at Merkin Hall. By that evening I was very tired, but during the intermission I got up the nerve to try to meet my hero. The lobby was packed with luminaries, but I managed to squeeze over to where Elliott was surrounded by well-wishers and tell him that I was a great admirer of his music. “Well, then you must tell me how you think it compares to my other quartets,” he said. (Many years later when I asked him about that night he feigned embarrassment. “Did I say that? That wasn’t very nice, was it?”)
I first got to know Elliott at the Centre Acanthes Festival in Avignon in 1991, where he was the featured composer. He knew all about Alsatian wine (I had just come from Basel) and said that, while at the festival, he had climbed the stairs all the way to the top of the Tour Philippe le Bel (he was 82). When I brazenly asked if I could come interview him when we got back to New York he readily agreed and gave me his phone number. I don’t think he cared much about the technical things I wound up writing in my dissertation, but in 1993 his wife Helen asked me to write the program notes for a piano competition in Italy that would be featuring his music. They must have liked what I wrote because thereafter they took me under their wing, as they did so many musicians over many years, and we became friends. When my wife Maria and I got married in 1996 Helen and Elliott came to our wedding, and when we went to see them in Connecticut in 1999 to talk about the publication of his Harmony Book we took our baby daughter Anna with us and she scrambled around on the floor while they looked on, charmed and bemused. That same year we moved from a tiny apartment into a big house and were surprised when a delivery truck brought us a dresser from Helen as a housewarming present. (Anna now has her high school textbooks on top of it.) Their generosity in those years to a young, not very confident couple just starting out in the world will remain with us always – the love that we now try to pay forward along the spiral of generations.
For many years we saw them every so often for tea or for dinner at a restaurant in the Village, and of course at concerts, until these events became too much of a burden for Helen. “Creeping along” is how she said she was in her last years, with the barbed wit and unflinching realism that was so characteristic of them both. She complained that people would invite her to concerts and offer to take care of everything to ensure her comfort. “But I don’t want to be taken care of,” she said.
After she died we saw Elliott periodically for dinner at his apartment, which gradually took on a slightly disheveled look in the absence of her oversight. Lorna St. Hill cooked wonderful meals and there was always wine and the chance to hear Elliott talk about Berlin in the 1920s, or Paris, or getting together with Varèse at a speakeasy during Prohibition. When I called to congratulate him on the premiere of his Two Controversies and a Conversation, he apologized for not having us over but said that the dinners were becoming too much for him. Then two days later he called back and asked us to come on Saturday, at a quarter to seven as always. In the more than twenty years I knew him, I never quite got over the sense of wonder I felt at being in the presence of someone I had admired so much for so much of my life, but Elliott made us feel like family, and after we said good night, we stepped out onto 12th street invigorated, and feeling like we were the luckiest people on earth.
It seems strange that Elliott’s death at the age of 103 could come as a shock, but it did. We got so used to the strength of his luminous presence in the world – a presence that makes his absence all the more unfathomable, but nonetheless remains in the lives of all those who knew him, like the sun in Marianne Moore’s poem, which he set so beautifully, “‘anew each / day; and new and new and new, / that comes into and steadies my soul.’”