Prominent musicians remember American composer Elliott Carter (who would have turned 104 today) through his music. Carter died last month.
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Elliott Carter, the celebrated composer who fearlessly forged his own brand of American music for nearly eight decades until he died last month, would have turned 104 years old today. After his death, we began reaching out to musicians who both knew him and had special relationships with his work. Immediately, it was obvious just what a profound impact Carter had on the musicians he met. Many used words like "life changing" to describe Carter the man and the revelatory effects of his sometimes thorny, sometimes serene music. Here are a few testimonials to and remembrances of Carter and his music.
Musicians Remember Elliott Carter
SAMUEL RHODES: String Quartet No. 2 - final movement
The second String Quartet of Elliott Carter, from 1959, could be called his quintessential work. In it, he most clearly defines his portrayal of contrasting characters and the social interaction between them that was his main interest both before and after this piece. Each instrument of the quartet functions as a character in a play contrasted from each other in every possible musical way: different interval combinations, different speeds, contrasts from extreme regularity to absolute variety of rhythmic activity. Near the end, after a fully developed Finale where the characters strive for some kind of resolution, there is a series of graded accelerandi resulting in a furious climax, one of the most exciting in all music. This was the first work of Carter's that I heard as a member of the audience — well before I joined the Juilliard String Quartet and actually performed it. The piece changed my life. The contact I had with him and his music afterwards caused me to expand my idea of what this art could accomplish and inspired me to develop the technical skills necessary to realize it in my own performance.
(Samuel Rhodes is the violist of the Juilliard String Quartet.)
I first encountered Elliott Carter's music when I sang his song "Voyage" in Aspen in 1972. More than a decade later, I got to know Elliott himself. Premiering several of his works, I came to deeply appreciate his infallible ear and lifelong creative energy.
The chamber piece Tempo e Tempi has always been a favorite because its eight short movements have such a rich variety of texture directly related to the Italian texts. Written for soprano and four instruments, the work starts with rigorous rhythmic counterpoint, illustrating parallel paths of time "that rarely intersect." The third and fourth movements are short duets with oboe then clarinet, offering a view of Carter's more reflective side. The final song, "Segreto del Poeta," is incredibly serene — an adjective not often associated with Elliott's music.
Each piece I've performed has challenged and rewarded me greatly — and my long friendship with Elliott humbles me. His curiosity was contagious and it continues to inspire my love of exploration in new music.
(Soprano Lucy Shelton has premiered song cycles by Elliott Carter, Oliver Knussen and Louis Karchin.)
The list of Elliott Carter's magnificent orchestral compositions includes three works which I would like to recommend to every music lover: Concerto for Orchestra, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, and the giant Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei. Rather than write about these works as a music critic might (that would be insulting to Elliott Carter's old friend Milton Babbitt), may I point out that the man who wrote them was a deep thinker, a student of all types of music, and a wonderful human being. The role of the listener in Elliott's music, as it is in all music, is to discover a bit of oneself in there, and to take in the composer's thoughts; he meant them for you. The world has lost a titan, and I have lost a musical father.
The interesting fact about Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 5 (from 1995) is that apparently he was inspired by hearing musicians play his music for him, who were practicing different elements from inside the work at the same time. In the fifth quartet, he used these "discussions" to structure the large shape of a great work.
The elements of the discussions, including expressive legato lines, pizzicati, harmonics and bravura broken chords, actually bring to life musical movements more or less dominated by that element — played by the instrumental characters polyphonically, but spoken by each character in its own rhythmic and intervallic voice.
As always in the music of Elliott Carter, one tries to learn to play with careful attention to the nature of specific musical elements, and to which elements predominate when. Mr. Carter began to write his remarkably evocative chamber pieces already in the late 1940's. He and these works were a vital part of the lives of those of us fortunate enough to know him and play his music. Even though he lived to the age of 103, it is somehow inconceivable that he will not still be among us, thrilling us with his remarkable musical conceptions.
One of the things I always have to do whenever I'm approaching a work of Elliott Carter's is to some extent step away from the incredible precision he has written into his scores and look for the expressive content. The Oboe Concerto is a case in point because there are many different things going on at the same time. In between this orchestra — that seems to be resembling nothing so much as the speed with which the brain can put connections together between its millions of neurons — the oboe weaves an incredible line of plaintive sounds and happy and joyous melodies, with calm immediately being disturbed and then irrupting into something else. And it makes for a tremendous ride for everyone, in terms of just how large the palette of expression and musical vocabulary is. Because there are these moments at which he can achieve a kind of glacial calm, and other moments where — even when you know the work very well — there seems to be so much going on that it's almost like a whirlwind of information hitting you at a very rapid pace. And it's that huge amount of descriptive ability which makes him unique among American composers, and the diversity of it reflects something that Carter understood about the American experience.