Today is Elliott Carter’s 96th birthday.
That he remains a controversial figure is due in part to his very longevity, and also to his continuing activity. Those who believe that Modernism is well and truly dead and buried Carter's continuing creativity (as well as the growing number of performances and recordings) is a reminder that the funeral may well have been premature. His partisans (and I admit up front that I am one) find his career an inspiration and a different kind of challenge.
My first encounter with Carter came in the early seventies, right after high school, when concert music had really started to open up for me. At that time I was intoxicated by the heroic odd numbered Beethoven symphonies, the Stravinsky ballets, and the orchestral music of Webern (especially the Sechs Stucke, op.6), Ligeti (Atmospheres), and Lutoslawski (Livre pour orchestre). I was visiting some with some older (that is, adult) musicians who taught in a summer program I had attended a couple of years earlier. They were arguing about this guy called Elliott Carter, who apparently had written some string quartets.
They put on the brand-new Composers Quartet recording of the Second Quartet. I didn’t care for it—it didn’t have the color of either Lutoslawki or Ligeti nor the outsized expressionist expression of Webern. One of the musicians then told of the premiere of the Third Quartet he had heard in New York. It didn’t make me like what I had heard any more but it made me want to follow it up.
In college I went to the library and listened to Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Concerto for Orchestra and tried to follow along with the score. Slowly it clicked for me. Here was everything I looked for in new music—color, wildness, apparent rhythmic “chaos”.
Finally, though, it was and is the rigor and poetry of Carter’s expression that has kept him at the center of my musical life. His music speaks to me at the deepest levels, those that are reachable only by the greatest art.
Among the Carter works have meant the most to me over the years are the Quartets 1, 2, and 5, the Cello Sonata, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Elizabeth Bishop cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell, the Oboe Concerto, the Quintet for piano and strings, and the Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei.
I look forward to new pieces from him and to new experiences with the pieces we already have.