Remembering Elliott Carter

“Why do you want to talk to me?” These were Elliott’s very first words to me, when we met in Cambridge at the end of November 1977. I had long admired his music, but hadn’t heard many live performances. I had actually been with Elizabeth Bishop the first time she heard Elliott’s settings of her poems, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, at the Americana Hotel in December, 1976. And four years before that I was at a packed Sanders Theatre at Harvard for the first Boston performance of his Third String Quartet. But in 1977, I was covering for The Boston Phoenix an entire evening devoted to his music: “Elliott Carter: 3 Decades.” Richard Pittman, a longtime Carter advocate, was leading the Boston Musica Viva at the Longy School of Music where Elliott, a few decades earlier, had studied music before going to work with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Why did I want to talk with him? I thought I was the one who was supposed to ask the questions. Of course, I had an answer. I had loved his music from recordings – the first three string quartets, the Cello Sonata, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord – and had thought about those pieces for years. It wasn’t easy music and I was still (as I still am) trying to figure out why such difficult music gets to me so deeply. “Music is like a building,” he explained. “The people living in it don’t have to know how it’s built. It would be boring beyond belief to read a book about every stone that went into the cathedral at Chartres.” Then he poked fun at composers whose elaborate program notes were less a short cut than an obstruction for the audience.

Before the concert, the late Michael Steinberg, another Carter advocate, whose writing had inspired me, talked about the way Carter always turned abstract musical ideas into a human metaphor – the way, for example, Carter’s polyphony or the contrasting timbres of instruments, his layerings of simultaneous lines, create a sense of drama. However complex the work, there’s always a human center. (Elliott once told me that two pieces of music that had particularly inspired him were the banquet scene with the three orchestras in Don Giovanni and the sextet from Lucia di Lamermoor.) Steinberg had also talked about the way Carter’s shifting sense of time – the “psychological” versus the “chronometric” (as in the Cello Sonata and Duo – was another embodiment of human experience.

Elliott was the most democratic of composers; there were no “secondary” instruments. And has any composer of the last hundred years written more profound slow movements, as if he were conveying – embodying – the very workings of the soul? (I once said to Elliott that I thought he wrote the best slow movements since Schubert. “But what about the fast movements?” he asked. “Those are good too. They’re a lot more work, because there are so many more notes to write down.”)

I think at that first meeting he must have been convinced how much his music had meant to me. Eventually, he and Helen became friends. Their kindness and support meant the world to me. I was always eager to see them, and they seemed pleased to spend time with me. And I was grateful that his music gave me a subject for some of what I still consider my best writing, especially the essay on Carter and American poetry that are the liner notes for the 1989 Bridge recording Elliott Carter: The Vocal Works.

That 1977 Musica Viva concert included the Boston premiere of A Mirror on Which to Dwell. As someone interested in poetry in general, and in Elizabeth Bishop in particular, I was especially fascinated by that piece – Elliott’s return to writing for the voice for the first time in some thirty years. The way he indirectly turned Bishop’s poems into something like his own autobiography (just as Bishop was so indirectly autobiographical in her poems). Bishop admired Elliott, but this aspect of the piece was something she herself couldn’t fathom.

But then Elliott didn’t stop with Bishop. There soon came Robert Lowell and John Ashbery, and later, Wallace Stevens (I think his 2006 In the Distances of Sleep might be his most personal and moving vocal sequence), Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, and Louis Zukofsky, as well as the great 20 th-century Italian poets Montale, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti in the glittering Tempo e Tempi (1999). Poetry was at the center of so much of his work. Even some of his non-vocal music, like A Symphony of Three Orchestras or his epic Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei, had been inspired by poetry. And each new piece confirmed his place as the American composer with the most powerful and comprehensive interest in poetry.

There’s a special place in my heart for his early Three Poems of Robert Frost (1942), when Elliott was still writing pieces with traditional – and unforgettable – tunes (though if you listen for them, those tunes pop up, fleetingly, everywhere, in even the most surprising places – just as his wry sense of comedy is never very far from his most profound explorations). On my last visit to Elliott, in late August of 2012, we were speaking about his poetry settings and he agreed with me that he still liked two of those Frost settings, “Dust of Snow” and “The Rose Family” (“You, of course, are a rose – /but were always a rose”), but that he was never completely happy with the third, “The Line Gang.” At that visit, he was excited about his latest plan – a cycle based on Sappho. He seemed in such good spirits and had so much energy I couldn’t wait to hear it.

It’s still hard to believe that I won’t.