Elliott Carter, 1908-2012

Elliott Carter went his own way writing music that was often difficult to play and, for many audiences, difficult to hear. Eventually, he captured listeners and became one of the most honored American composers. Carter died yesterday in New York at 103 in the Greenwich Village apartment where he had lived since the 1940s. In an interview a few years ago, he said:

As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.

They became so interested that he won two Pulitzer Prizes and, virtually until the end, was in demand by orchestras who commissioned his compositions. Although he did not compose for jazz musicians, Carter was an influence on many, particularly those who also tended toward Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartok and other iconoclastic 20th Century composers. For a comprehensive Carter obituary, go here.

Let’s listen in its entirety to Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, which in 1960 brought him his first Pulitzer Prize.

This recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic has superb performances of Carter’s Concerto For Orchestra and three pieces by Carter’s mentor, Charles Ives.

To see and hear Carter discuss his early years in music, click here for an interview he gave when he turned 100 and here for his recent encounter with Alisa Weilertstein when she consulted with him as she prepared to record his Cello Concerto.

When we were quite young, my wife and I attended a New York Philharmonic concert of the Concerto For Orchestra. At its conclusion, Bernstein brought Carter onstage for a bow and a standing ovation. How splendid he looked, we said, for a man his age. He was 66. What a break for listeners that he had 37 more productive years.

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  1. says

    In 1970 I wrote to Elliot Carter asking to study privately and would he consider teaching me. I told him I had just finished a JAZZ REQUIEM MASS. His reply, in a hand written letter (no internet in those days), said if I could compose a Requiem Mass, I didn’t need lessons! I took that advice to heart and never looked back.

    BTW, the JAZZ REQUIEM MASS gets its German premiere this month. Twice.

    I will dedicate the 2nd performance on the 25th of November to the Master.


  2. Mark Stryker says

    Re: Carter’s relationship to jazz.

    I profiled Carter on the occasion of his 90th birthday and he told me that his influential ideas about metric modulation were partially influenced by jazz — especially interesting in that on the surface, of course, his abstract, high modernist music sounds nothing like jazz and he’s not typcially considered a jazz influenced composer. He also told me that Duke Ellington heard a performance of his early First Symphony — might have been the 1942 premiere, actually — and Ellington told Carter, “I like what you’ve done with jazz.” Carter also recalled hearing Bird, Monk and others on 52nd Street. Incredible to think that this was a man who met Ives in a speakeasy and attended the American premiere of “The Rite of Spring.” Here’s that 1998 story.

  3. says

    If there is any single idea that defines Carter’s work, it was his concept of music as a dialog among instrumentalists. I think that also defines his music’s relationship to jazz.

    The quote you mention might suggest that Carter was widely appreciated by the American public, which is, of course untrue. I doubt even 0.001% of the population has had any contact with his music at all. He turned away from populism and very consciously cultivated an ironic kind of populism among a very powerful musical elite.

    Another irony is that composers like Barber, Menotti, Hanson, and Copland, whose music was more approachable, were not accepted by that elite. Their isolation among the established forces in the new music world hindered their development and output as artists – especially in their later years.

    The meaning and history of populism has also radically changed in the jazz world over the last 100 years. Jazz too has evolved toward a rarified and elitist art form that eschews populism, which is very ironic given the genre’s history. This might also connect jazz to contemporary classical composers like Carter.

  4. says

    You’ve lost “your” Elliott Carter, and we “our” Hans Werner Henze joined his long journey on October 27. Tonight will be a memorial concert in Cologne’s Philharmonie.

    I’ve put the personal pronouns in quotation marks, because those sound-creators don’t belong to any nation: They are in fact, respective of their works, World Cultural Heritage. No boundaries here, please.

    Epitaph (1979)