As an indication of just how old the composer Elliott Carter was, who has died aged 103, check out the video below in which he remembers hanging out with Edgard Varèse in a prohibition speakeasy in New York City’s East Village. When Carter scooped the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 he was 52 – another five decades of creative good health stretching ahead of him.
And although Carter hung out in speakeasies, surrounded by bohemians, bums and proto-beatniks, in reality his background was sturdily bourgeois and upper-crust.
His father imported lace from Europe, and the young Elliott was tipped to take over the family firm. But after witnessing the first US performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1924, the same year he met Charles Ives, lace import/export clearly seemed rather humdrum. Carter wanted to compose; question was how.
His earliest compositions – the ballet Pocahontas (1939), the choral works To Music (1937) and The Defense of Corinth (1941), the orchestral Holiday Overture (1944) – spoke pure Copland with a dash of Stravinsky. But Carter wanted to respond to a higher creative calling. The modernism of Ives, Varèse, Henry Cowell and Carl Ruggles was, he felt, time-locked; it was modern only like the celluloid of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd responded to a particular time and place. And so Carter spent the next 20 years laboriously knitting together a musical language that retained something of Ives’s multi-present layerings, but rationalised and streamlined it with a European sense of order and structural precision. Carter’s models were Schoenberg and Webern; he did, after all, end up importing delicate material from Europe.
The Piano Sonata (1945) and String Quartet No 1 (1951) were his breakthrough works, this first period of intense exploration climaxing with the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras (1959-61), the Piano Concerto (1964) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) – three pieces that totally nailed Carter’s US/Euro aspirations.
There are those who reckon that Carter’s later music suffered from too much certainty; what made the Concerto for Orchestra et al so inspiring was his grappling with uncertainty. Certainly Carter wrote with a loquaciousness that didn’t always work in his favour. I remember sitting through a performance of his 2008 Flute Concerto in, I think, New York that left me admiring the patterns of notes while wishing there was more music inside them. The piece of late-period Carter I like best is the Adagio Tenebroso movement of his Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-96) – the gestures calmed, the harmonic wizardry on full display.
Watch Elliott Carter talking about his early years courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes below:
Watch Elliott Carter's final interview, with the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, speaking about her recording of his Cello Concerto to be released on Decca alongside Elgar's Cello Concerto under Daniel Barenboim in February 2013: