Elliott Carter Remembrance

It was at Tanglewood in the summer of 1972 that I had the honor of first meeting Elliott Carter. He was, at the time, unquestionably a senior figure in American music, and I, one of the youngest members of our composition seminar at age 20, was duly awestruck. We met again more regularly beginning in 2008, when I conducted the first of several of his song cycles, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, at Merkin Hall. This was some 36 years later, and Elliott was still a senior figure in American music, now the senior figure (and I was still awestruck). Although many have remarked on the longevity of Elliott’s career, it remains difficult to comprehend the monumentality of a composer actively writing over nine decades, and producing masterpiece after masterpiece well into his 90’s and 100’s. Historically, it is unprecedented.

The first work of his later period that I was privileged to conduct was his magistral Wallace Stevens settings, In the Distances of Sleep. It was an exciting event for us, the first concert of the Orchestra of the League of Composers at Miller Theatre, in June, 2009, and Elliott honored us with his presence. From the outset, the orchestra sensed this was an important work – the enthusiasm grew more palpable with each rehearsal, and we had the benefit of a superb soprano in Kate Lindsay; all in all this added up to one of those very special musical experiences. The following year, we performed the New York premiere of Elliott’s equally gripping cycle for baritone, On Conversing with Paradise, on texts of Ezra Pound, and the year after that, the New York premiere of his elegant Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra, written for his long-time friend and assistant, Virgil Blackwell, who performed as soloist. Each time, Elliott was present, always gracious, cheering us on, and receiving tumultuous ovations for his music. During the interviews with WNYC’s John Schaefer that preceded each of these works, the orchestra players would stand in the wings straining to hear Elliott’s comments, recognizing the importance of these occasions.

As exciting as all this activity was for us, it is in my life as a composer that Elliott meant the most to me. As an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, I avidly studied his Second String Quartet, and thought it the finest work of that period by any composer. In his Tanglewood seminars, he played for us a recording of his Concerto for Orchestra, relatively new at the time, and he seemed justly pleased with it. That was good for us – it showed that there was “light at the end of the tunnel”; even challenging, complex works could be performed in ways satisfying to the composer. But it seemed, too, with this piece and others, that complexity was never the point for Elliott, but rather a necessary outgrowth of a dialectic encompassing ingeniously overlapping ideas and simultaneously evolving threads. Elliott encouraged us in our own writing to think about the performers themselves, and emphasized that he wrote music he thought would be fun to play. He remarked on certain notational idiosyncrasies that he had insisted on to insure performance clarity (such as beat-long beams connecting notes separated by many internal rests).

It is hard to imagine a world without Elliott; he has been with us always. Fortunately, we have the music to remind us of this calm, gentlemanly master, who beneath his serene exterior was a fierce, uncompromising seeker of truth producing some of the finest art of our age.