Elliott Carter changed my life. We met in 1953 in Rome. We had both received the Rome Prize that year, Elliott the senior, I the junior. Before that, I knew nothing of his music, but looking forward to our encounter, I began to study the Holiday Overture, the Piano Sonata and, most significantly, the Cello Sonata. The impact on my musical thinking was immense. In every dimension, Elliott shattered the logjam of tight stylistic compulsions. His inventiveness, his rich array of harmony, the freedom of his horizontal progression and the flexibility of his rhythmic gestures presented a new world in how to think about music. The radicalism, however, was not the consequence of some artificial system, of some ideological conviction, nor was it a radicalism which detached itself from the past. His music evolved from the freest and most vigorous exercise of the imagination and in doing so it moved beyond constrictions of the “isms” then in fashion.
Elliott’s intelligence was deep, his culture comprehensive, yet there was no trace of arrogance or pretentiousness in his relationships, private or public. He professed his opinions as matters of personal perception, never as absolutes or universal truth. (In this respect he shared a kinship with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.) As time passed it was astonishing to hear how Elliott’s explorations and imaginative forays continued to evolve, always surprising, always proposing the highest artistic and ethical values.
As for artistic ancestry, Haydn comes to mind, Haydn, who in his relentless freedom of invention coupled with a passion for contextual construction, would try anything and in doing so create works of art whose freshness and truth give us eternal delight.
From Elliott I received the compliment that has meant most to me. After a performance of a song cycle of mine at Tanglewood he quietly said to me “Thank you for that music.” Nothing could have been more confirming.
January 14, 2013