Yesterday, Elliott Carter’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, announced the news that one of America’s greatest composers had passed away at 103. Carter’s centurion career was so enduring, his output so age-defying, that new terms – ‘late maturity’, ‘post-maturity’ – had to be invented to capture the work of his ninth, tenth and eleventh decades. Some of us even began to wonder whether we would ever hear this news, sad though it is. When I received the email from Boosey’s this morning the headline seemed so improbable I passed over it at first.
Here are links to some of the best obituaries that are coming out:
The great range and diversity of his music has, and will continue to have, influence on countless composers and performers worldwide. He will be missed by us all but remembered for his brilliance, his wit and his great canon of work.
Urban and “machine-age” sounds and gestures did not interest him; they were too much of the moment. He wanted a modernism beyond fashion, rooted in a new kind of syntax, and to achieve that some European sophistication would be necessary. All the things he had absorbed would eventually find a place his modernist idiom: the idea of dramatic personages found in Mozart operas, the independent layers of English madrigals, the syntactic rigour of Arnold Schoenberg – and the combination of strict and free rhythm in jazz pianists he admired, such as Art Tatum.
One felt more sure of things in his presence, as if his own amazing single-mindedness created its own aura. He was able to be so genially tolerant of music we all knew he must despise, like minimalism, because he was so sure of his own path.
The third of “the three Cs” of American music, Carter, like his contemporaries Aaron Copland andJohn Cage, did much to define the American sound in the 20th century. Restless, inquiring and perpetually up to date, his music tended to be ever-changeable, and his most important contribution was rhythmic invention. He resisted a constricting regular pulse, seeking instead a more organic way of thinking about time. [...]
Carter’s sense of rhythm and meter had its mathematical component as well. He experimented with the effects of playing different melodies at different speeds at the same time. But this technique, rather than making everything sound at cross purposes, rewarded anyone willing to concentrate hard enough with the experience of relativity without the bother of space flight.
“As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public,” he once explained to an interviewer who asked him why he had chosen to write such difficult music. “I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”
Mr. Carter’s career was like some of the towering cathedrals of Europe: so long in the making that it reflected the dramatic shifts in artistic style that take place over a century.
It’s hard to imagine that a composer’s death at the age of 103 could be a loss to music, in the sense of possible future work, as well as a personal loss, which of course death will always be. But Elliott Carter was a unique exception. Not only was he still writing music up to a few weeks before his death on the 5th November, but the dozen or so works he had completed since his hundredth birthday showed none of the negative traces of old age one would normally expect to find in the music of somebody even four-fifths his age.
Paul Griffiths has one of the best stories of them all, in the OUP blog:
I must have seen Elliott Carter several times in London from deep back in the seventies; perhaps the earliest of my mental photographs has him standing at the kerbside at Oxford Circus, waiting to cross the road, his head slightly turned and raised to look at his publisher who was with him, Janis Susskind, his face (as it would always be) smiling, his white hair lifted by the wind. But an occasion to meet him properly did not come until June 1995, at the Aldeburgh Festival, when I had to interview him for The (London) Times about the piece he had written for the coming Proms: Adagio tenebroso, the middle movement of hisSymphonia. Already then his continuing productivity was remarkable, and that was certainly on my mind as we sat together in an area of the lounge at the Wentworth Hotel, where we were both staying. Here was Elliott Carter, whose first published works, though by no means youthful, were by now almost six decades old. Here he was: sitting, smiling, waiting for the first question.
“Mr. Carter,” I began, “now that you’re eighty-seven—”
“Eighty-six!” he promptly and cheerfully intervened.
The Guardian has produced a really excellent collection of reminiscences and tributes.
ulyssestone has compiled a reverse chronology of Carter’s music on Spotify: