Elliott’s radiant smile always greeted me at the apartment door as I handed him a bouquet of flowers. Our conversations included many stories about people and places in his past, which he shared in great detail from his incredible memory. He often said “I’m talking too much today” but of course I never thought so. It was an immense honor to be his friend.
The first Carter song I performed was the setting of Hart Crane’s “Voyage,” which my mentor Jan de Gaetani gave me at Aspen in 1972. I marveled at Carter’s musical language, which seemed both vulnerable and majestic. A decade later I had my first taste of A Mirror on Which to Dwell and it was love at first sound. The vocal lines in these six Bishop poems soar above, intertwine, punctuate, antagonize, and occasionally even dominate the band of instruments. This dizzying variety of textures and dynamics was exhilarating. In spite of the complexity of Elliott’s composition, the music felt totally spontaneous.
It was a privilege to perform the 1995 premiere of the song cycle Of Challenge and Of Love (settings of five John Hollander poems), an Aldeburgh Foundation commission instigated by Oliver Knussen. It was a challenge I loved being given. In preparing this cycle with Elliott I learned how committed he was to the text; how delighted he could be that something he’d never done before actually worked (i.e. “End of a Chapter” made him giggle because the play between voice and piano was uncharacteristically sparse, even daring, after the complexities in the other songs); how concerned he got if it didn’t sound the way he had imagined (i.e. we tried different transpositions of “Am Klavier” in an effort to match the quality of a Lied by Wolf). I was awed. He really knew what he wanted to hear, he cared, and he could really hear! It all mattered deeply to him, which inspired me to find my best for him.
Elliott surprised me with the gift of a Baudelaire setting for unaccompanied voice, “La Musique,” in the summer of 2007. I had told him at tea some weeks before that I was not finding many contemporary settings in my library research for a Baudelaire festival in the fall. The chosen poem describes different ways that music makes the poet feel. Elliott’s setting is a two-minute gem, expressing with simplicity the mysterious power of music both to stimulate and soothe.
Trying to put my friendship into words is humbling – I will always be sitting at Elliott’s feet, listening intently to his spirit, curiosity, humor, pride, humility, and alertness – and feel the glow of his presence. I have been so enriched by spending time with him and his music. We won’t have any more notes from Elliott, alas, but we’ll never stop celebrating his extraordinary life and what he has given us.