I met Elliott Carter in the 1960s but it was not until the Huddersfield Festival in 1983, when we were staying in the same hotel and having breakfasts together, that I really got to know him and Helen. One night, dining alone in an Indian restaurant, I had begun a meal of chicken biryani and bit into a sizeable piece of glass. The next morning I fulminated over this. Helen, who had a capacity for indignation, sympathized; but Elliott said, “I’ve chewed up many a piece of glass in my time and it’s never done me any harm.” I thought to myself: this man is tough. He’ll be around for a while. Little did I realize that it would be thirty years later that we finally had to say goodbye to him.
Elliott was so lively, and so youthful, that it was easy to forget how old he really was. At tea with Dee a year or so before he died, I said – to start the conversation – “I’ve just heard Fabio Luisi conduct Till Eulenspiegel with the Met Orchestra.” Elliott: “Well I heard Richard Strauss conduct Till Eulenspiegel !” Then, drawing on a memory from eighty years ago, he went on to describe Strauss’s conducting style and compare it to Fritz Reiner’s. There followed a fascinating anecdote about Reiner and the Holiday Overture.
He knew Holst, Bartok, Varese, of course Stravinsky and Copland. I once asked him if he had ever met Shostakovich. “No, but I went to the movies with Prokofiev. In Paris. We saw a film about Schubert.” That would have to have been before 1936 when Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union.
One of the most memorable conversations I had with him was on the very day of his 100th birthday, in Carnegie Hall, during the intermission that came after the premiere of his work for piano and orchestra entitled Interventions
and before the BSO’s performance of The Rite of Spring. Daniel Barenboim had performed the C minor piano concerto, opus 37. I said to Elliott, “What do you think.” He replied, “I was disappointed in Beethoven’s thematic material.” On the occasion of his 100th birthday, amid a huge crowd there to celebrate him, his critical faculties had lost none of their acuity. Of course he went on to admit it was a pretty good piece despite its themes.
Dee and I count ourselves very lucky indeed to have known Helen and Elliott, and to have experienced at first hand the warmth of their friendship.