Thinking of Elliott Carter

If I had been asked some time ago who would be the ideal companion for a dinner at a top French restaurant in New York, without a hesitation I would have answered: “Elliott Carter.”

For one thing he had a refined palate, and what the French call a “nose” that appreciated exceptional vintages. His invaluable assistant, Virgil Blackwell, told me at the very end of his long life, he had a moment of delight on tasting a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1985 sent by a friend. He had an unquenchable joie de vivre.

The talk at that imaginary table would never have flagged. In conversation, Carter was brisk, lucid, and intellectually dead center. If there had been French guests there, ideas would have been exchanged in Carter’s perfect French. His family had business in France, and young Elliott only learned English when he was seven years old. He also spoke fluent Italian and German from traveling and studying in those countries.

This born New Yorker was the complete Cosmopolitan.

But he lived in the same Greenwich Village apartment since 1945 with the same furniture his wife Helen bought at the time. He worked on the same piano, a Steinway, which his mother had given him many years ago.

This very occasional bon vivant was a ferocious worker. Composing always occupied his thoughts even when he was not actually making musical notations.

Landmarks for him were not the usual family statistics of birth, marriage, deaths, but when he had completed a composition and when that composition was performed.

He might say: “That was the year of my Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)” or, “Pierre Boulez played my Cello Sonata in Baden Baden (1955)…” or “that was the summer at Aldeburgh when a piano piece of mine was played called Conversations. I found it a little sweet so I added an extra bit called “Composition for Piano and Percussion.” He also remembered with pleasure “a wonderful performance of my Double Concerto by David Robinson with the Juilliard School recently.”

Elliott Carter was recognized much earlier in England and in Europe than in his native land. He had a modest income from the many radio performances that brought in royalties. Nothing like that happened here.

Although he was invited to the White House to dine with President Reagan (which sounds like one of those “Impossible Interviews” that used to run in the old Vanity Fair) he was touched by the governmental recognition, but commented characteristically: “as far as increasing the number of performances of mine… it was just nil.”

However, when the American public and performers finally caught up with Elliott Carter, nothing was too good for him. Orchestras and soloists hurried to program Carter works. The public, if puzzled, followed.

He had never been interested in the “big sound” of a symphony orchestra going full tilt, he felt at home with smaller ensembles, sometimes quixotic ones. Now string players, pianists, wind players, singers, even a harpist vied for his attention.

The creative burst of his later years was astonishing.

No one who was at Carnegie Hall for Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday concert could forget the beaming cherubic composer, helped on stage, but exuberantly waving his stick at the cheering audience.

And for his 103rd birthday there was a concert at the 92nd street Y. It was composed mostly of recent works. It was jammed.

A visitor, his very last one, found Elliott alert and in good spirits. He still reads a good deal, he said. After reading Proust for many years, he was a little bored by Proust’s characters, so he dropped them and tackled Balzac’s vast “Comédie Humaine.”

He was philosophical about the inevitable problems of eyesight associated with his age.

But indomitable, he said he reads on a Kindle and with the help of a powerful magnifying glass.

Elliott Carter lived through the convulsions of more than one century including two World Wars. He mentioned casually that his grandfather fought in the Civil War.

Very appropriately, his one act opera is called: What Next?.

We have the good fortune to have, framed on the wall of our living room, a noble manuscript page of Elliott Carter’s score for his A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) It is inscribed “For Rosamond and John. Affectionately Elliott.”

Princely generosity that is treasured.