PRINT March 2013


Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter, Royal Festival Hall, London, February 17, 1991. Photo: Lynda Stone/Getty Images.

FOR ALMOST A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, we cheered Elliott Carter on, as he approached and passed the age of eighty, then ninety, then a hundred. And he cheered us with his continuing productivity. At 103, he was still busy composing pieces for orchestra: Instances and a piano concerto titled Dialogues II. Earlier in his second century had come songs, piano pieces, and instrumental miniatures, as well as other orchestral scores, all as fresh as morning. It seemed there was no stopping him. But, of course, there was.

Just five weeks and a day shy of his 104th birthday when he died on November 5 last year, he had long outlived anyone else with experiences like his own. Debussy and Scriabin were still composing when he began at the piano. A little later, Charles Ives was taking him to concerts; they sat together in Carnegie Hall to hear The Rite of Spring played for the first time in New York, in 1924. A few years after that, when Carter was a student at Harvard, he sang in the official premiere of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. While he remained with us, these things were still part of living memory.

While he remained with us, too, his longevity was the phenomenon. There are very few other cases of creativity maintained into such advanced years. Indeed, perhaps there is only one: that of the Portuguese film director Manoel de Oliveira, who happened to be born on the same day as Carter. But astonishment at the fact of Carter’s continuing artistic vitality may have drawn attention away from his no less astonishing artistic achievement, which was, quite simply, to make chaotic musical unfurlings breathtakingly beautiful.

All the adventures of modernism are there in his music: Schoenberg’s atonality as well as Debussy’s free flow; the displaced rhythms of Stravinsky, Bartók, and jazz as well as the rampant percussion of Varèse; Webern’s patternmaking as well as the wild multiple strata of Carter’s boyhood hero Ives. The result is often profuse, but not confused, for what Carter had also absorbed in his long-ago younger years—drilled into him by the formidable composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the early 1930s—was a thoroughly disciplined technique.

This enabled him to handle harmony in a way that had very little to do with the old tonality but could still have audible consistency and direction. You may not know exactly where you are when you hear a Carter piece for the first time, but you will know for sure that somebody does, and that this knowledge, this expertise, is directly responsible for the beauty, clarity, elegance, and humor you find all around you. Listen again and the drive and dart of events start to make sense.

It is characteristic of Carter that he often presented his biggest, rangiest inventions in the venerable genres of the concerto and the string quartet. This was part of his inheritance from Boulanger, and from the Stravinsky-style Neoclassicism she inculcated, instilling in her students the conviction that music should be logical before all else. Abstraction may also have appealed to him as bringing his work close to that of the painters he admired—abstraction combined with strongly gestural design and largeness of scale, each piece moving in one continuous sweep. Though literature was always more important to Carter than visual art, he saw himself as working in the same spirit as de Kooning, and his wife of more than sixty years, Helen Frost-Jones, was a sculptor (and a powerful intellectual presence beside him).

The genres of quartet and concerto also suited his purpose of creating music not only constantly in flux but also constantly—the title of that late, late piano concerto is indicative—in dialogue. Like many modern artists, he recognized that we live plural lives. Layers of awareness drift and rebound; while reading a book we find ourselves noticing a dripping tap, remembering a task left undone, recalling something else sparked off by the text. In Night Fantasies (1980), Carter set out—within a half-hour solo piano piece that is mercurial but lucid, and always luminous—to evoke this swim of the conscious mind. As if remembering and imagining, perceiving and growing alarmed or amused, widening out and homing in, and all these at once, the music’s melodic trails and harmonic sways lead us in several directions at the same time.

Much more often, however, Carter heard his music not as an isolated person’s reverie but as the interplay of several distinct individuals, expressing themselves independently, forming alliances, confronting one another, never reaching the security of concord, but never walking off stage, either. (Of course, this may also be how we feel our internal selves to be.) These musical characters will be defined in terms of harmony and of tempo, and it is probably the simultaneity of different speeds, perhaps with one line accelerating while another maintains a steady pulse, that most people have in mind when they describe music as “Carterian.”

Carter’s skill in this area made possible the vigorous but benign argumentativeness of his string quartets, and it made possible, too, the impression in his concertos of soloists and diverse groupings in dynamic equilibrium, their comportment unrestrained and hazardous, and exhilarating for being so. Nor was this altogether an abstract feat. For Carter, the dialogue of musical characters was to be understood as modeling a properly democratic society, where people from different backgrounds, with different inclinations and different goals, could be held in—and could contribute to—a universal harmony.

Right through his forties, fifties, and early sixties, Carter worked at big examples of manifold impulses in balance. It had taken a decade and a half for sprightly Neoclassicism to subside in his output; now he had to teach himself, with his lengthily acquired technique, another way. That was slow. The world got used to hearing a new Carter piece only every three or four years—and it was always a big statement. There were three quartets during this period, and otherwise just four orchestral works, including the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, which Carter completed in 1961, and which Stravinsky called a masterpiece.

Justly so. A turmoil of notes, colors, speeds, and processes, the work takes from Lucretius (the literary reference typical) an image of existence as unceasing motion—an image consonant with what contemporary science was discovering about elementary particles and the history of the universe. But there is also a darkness here which belongs to that time, a threat of destruction in the swirl, for the two keyboard soloists act as rival powers, each with its allies, firing off challenges and assertions.

Then, at an age when many artists are winding down, Carter began gearing up. After a thirty-year hiatus, he returned to vocal music, initiating what became a wide round of handshakes with poets he had been silently admiring all this while: Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, e. e. cummings and Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. A little later, in his midseventies, Carter started producing smaller pieces for solo instruments or small groups, twirls of sound he made as homages, as gifts to musician friends, or just for the fun of it.

Perhaps this was his deepest Neoclassical affiliation, the view that came forward in his work, once precipitation into nuclear war no longer seemed imminent, of life as essentially a comedy. Conflict and turbulence, held at the point of explosion in the Double Concerto, were now cheerfully embraced, and in his Symphonia of 1993–96, he took the viewpoint of a bubble, observing human events while floating free in the air above them.

By now nearing ninety, he decided it was time he wrote his first opera (ultimately titled What Next?), which is how I found myself working with him in the early months of 1997. He was approaching completion of his Quintet for Piano and Strings. He did not want to have time on his hands; he wanted to be shaping it. So this was the threat: If I could not have the libretto ready in short order, he would write a flute concerto (as he did, ten years afterward). But what he also kept saying, when the characters on the pages of my draft were getting too dark or serious, was: “I want to have fun!” And there would come to his face the bright smile of a mischievous boy.

“People tell me I’m old,” he said on an earlier occasion, “but I don’t feel old.” Nor does his music. It is the product, very obviously, of a long and learned culture, but it has a spring in its step. It is well set up for the journey ahead.

Paul Griffiths, a music critic, novelist, and librettist, is the author of the New Penguin Dictionary of Music (2011), among other titles.