PRINT March 2013


Elliott Carter

Rhythm chart for Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano, and Two Orchestras, 1959–61.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1961, at the Aspen Music Festival, the Juilliard String Quartet not only performed Elliott Carter’s Second String Quartet but gave a lecture demonstration on it. I was an eager student making the most of that brief interlude between high school and college, and both the music itself, heard in an intuitive jumble, and also the organization of it—each instrument expressing its own personality by means of unique intervals and tempi—made an indelible impression on me. It was not until 1966 that I actually met Mr. Carter and his wife, Helen, and it was in the early 1970s that they befriended me and the other members of our new music group, Speculum Musicae. Helen taught us how to behave both as aristocrats and as true democrats. It is hard to imagine Elliott without that backdrop of ferocious idealism. And his music, for all its beauty and complexity, was (and is) a reflection of the human condition in its rich variety, of the need for change as well as for consistency, and of the individuality of all our voices. These qualities and intrinsic philosophical concerns necessarily affected our performances. For if each voice is individual, then its sound, loudness, and articulation, has to be focused and differentiated from the other parts. And of course this is true for most great music, so learning to play the music of Elliott Carter has for me been a gateway to learning to play all other musics.

Immensely well read in French and Greek as well as in English, Elliott was formidably learned (and had a magnificent memory), but he was also a bit
of a tease, both in conversation and in his music. My friend the pianist Jerome Lowenthal had a three-part experience with this; I was witness to the two
later encounters:

SCENE 1. PARIS, 1958; OUTSIDE THE CENTRE CULTUREL AMÉRICAIN, RUE DU DRAGON. Jerry and Elliott are emerging from rehearsals for a program that included Carter’s First String Quartet. Jerry has just introduced himself to the composer:

EC: And what solo piece are you playing?

JL: Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.

EC: All of it?

JL (embarrassed): All except the Fugue.

EC (reproachfully): Oh? But the Fugue is the best movement!

Jerry goes home, learns the Fugue, and subsequently announces to anyone who is interested that it is his favorite movement.

SCENE 2. NEW YORK, 1998; MY PLACE, MANHATTAN’S UPPER WEST SIDE. Jerry, reintroducing himself to Elliott, recounts their conversation from forty years earlier:

JL: . . . and you said, “Oh? But the Fugue is the best movement!”

EC: Really? I wonder why I said that. The Fugue is well written but the entrances are too close. I think I must have been pulling your leg.

SCENE 3. NEW YORK, 2008; THE CARTERS’ GREENWICH VILLAGE APARTMENT. Jerry, by now well used to conversations with Elliott, takes the opportunity, when Ravel’s name comes up, to retell the story from scene 1:

JL: . . . and you said, “Oh, the Fugue’s the best movement”—but I didn’t think you really meant it.

EC: Of course not. The Fugue is the worst movement. That’s why Ravel didn’t orchestrate it.

And there are examples of Elliott’s wit in the music itself. For instance, the first two notes of the clarinet part in his Quintet for Piano and Winds are B-flat and E-flat, well hidden in a complex chord, whereas the Beethoven Quintet for the same instruments starts with everyone playing those two notes, at the same speed, in unison. When the clarinetist Charles Neidich asked Carter about this, he replied “Oh?” in a somewhat bemused tone, as though the thought had never occurred to him before. And Interventions, the concerto for piano and orchestra that Elliott wrote for James Levine and Daniel Barenboim—and which premiered in 2008 on the composer’s one hundredth birthday—starts with the full orchestra playing A (or La, in solfège), followed by the pianist (Barenboim) playing an intense B-flat tremolo (B, in German musical nomenclature, is our B-flat), thereby inscribing into the music the initials of these two great champions of his work.

This was one interpretation Elliott did admit to.

Ursula Oppens, a concert pianist who lives in New York, recorded Carter’s complete works for solo piano in 2008.