I met Elliott Carter in 2000, and in 2003 had my first extended interview with him in preparation for writing a program note for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of the Boston Concerto, which the BSO commissioned. I traveled to New York to talk to him about the piece in person, which was a delightful experience. I went to his Manhattan apartment and took the stairs up (this surprised him for some reason). We spoke in a large front room facing the street, a sitting area on one side and the grand piano on the other. He was funny and self-effacing, and we covered a lot of ground.
After our interview, he showed me around the room. A sculpture by his wife Helen stood under one bright window. Books lined the walls: he pulled some from the shelves, rare and elegant Bauhaus-designed things he’d bought when they were published in the 1920s or ’30s, books that demonstrated the deep engagement with culture that was so fundamental to his artistic life. Carter thought long and deeply about culture in general, not only music. His view of modernism as a broad era, like the Renaissance, that spans and encompasses all the stylistic trends of the last century and into the present time, was a revelation to me. He felt himself a part of this modernist era. He felt a kinship with and embraced an enormous range of ideas, literature (in multiple languages), and visual art of his own time, but was also enviably well-educated and well-read in the classics. And he remained ambitious – after he turned 100, he endeavored to brush up his Italian.
The wealth of Carter’s cultural experience, of course, was part and parcel of the extraordinary richness of his music. Above and beyond the technical (I should say simply “musical”; “technical” is too limited) adeptness and innovation he worked so hard to achieve, his works were inextricable from his own experience in life – negative reactions to political situations, positive ones to people, poetry, music, art, and nature, all of it multifaceted and complex in their interconnectedness. The radically active and dense musical surfaces of his pieces were what originally drew me in, although admittedly I didn’t find all of them equally appealing. The Piano Concerto and the string quartets were viscerally exciting and engaging from the start, but, interestingly, later encounters with his earlier music – the Piano Sonata and the Frost songs, in particular – illuminated a warmth and humanity that I hadn’t picked up on in some of the middle-period pieces. The richness that was evident on hearing his music became even more interesting and beautiful with new awareness of the musical and cultural veins embedded in it. The poetry he chose for his vocal music was of the highest caliber, and the literary triggers for many of his large-scale works matched their ambition: Saint-John Perse’s Vents for the Concerto for Orchestra, Crane’s The Bridge for A Symphony for Three Orchestras, and Crashaw’s “Bulla” for Symphonia. There are lots of more modest examples: his recent string-orchestra work (his first!) Sound Fields was inspired by the color field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler; the Boston Concerto’s poetic impetus comes from a brief William Carlos Williams poem. And the Boston Concerto was wrapped up, too, in Carter’s life with Helen, to whom that piece was dedicated, and he seemed to be addressing both the poem and the piece to her. The sounds of the pizzicato strings at the start of the piece echoed Williams’s imagery (“As the rain falls/so does/your love…”) in a way that we might not expect from him, if we weren’t paying attention. He said once, or more than once, that late in his life he found it important to express more positive than negative sentiments in his music. And so the later works have this wonderfully light touch.
But everything also had its purely musical integrity too, based in that long, arduous development that began to flourish under Boulanger in the 1930s and took such an individual turn after World War II. I’ve quoted the following a couple of times in writing about Carter – something he put so well in that long talk we had in early 2003 (yep, I taped it; when I go back to it I have to skip the embarrassing parts where I sound star-struck), so forgive me if it seems familiar:
In our situation, in our time, in this place, to write music as far as I’m concerned is to get in a situation of great adventure, an adventure that’s going to make you think of something that you haven’t done, that’s something you haven’t thought about, that makes you think in a new way. And I think every one of the pieces that I’ve written, except some of the little tiny pieces – and even some of them – represent this point of view.
We find similar sentiments throughout his writings. It’s the kind of thing one recognizes as a universal truth.
For more than a decade now I’ve been so fortunate that my employer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been one of several active advocates of Carter’s work, particularly during James Levine’s tenure as music director. The director of the Tanglewood Music Center, Ellen Highstein, and her husband Virgil Blackwell, were among EC’s closest friends, which is a great boon as well. To have been a part of the all-Carter Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood during the composer’s centennial year, one of the larger celebrations of his music in 2008; to have seen his opera What Next? three times in its U.S. stage premiere at Tanglewood a couple of years earlier; to have been at Carnegie Hall on his 100th birthday, and at the 92nd Street Y on his 103rd – for a concert that included several brand-new pieces….! To have been almost the first person to see so many of his new scores, and to be the first to write about many of them (as they came so astonishingly quickly off the worktable in recent years), and to have talked to him a bit now and then…. I’m still star-struck.