Remembering Elliott Carter
The music will go on
Nov 6th 2012, 15:12 by G.D.
Yet Carter never ceased to be an active part of the musical present. Premieres of his works have been regular features of musical events and programmes over the world for years, lately becoming an almost annual occurrence at music festivals such as Aldeburgh in Britain and Tanglewood in Massachusetts (the 2008 Tanglewood festival was a celebration of Carter's centenary). Indeed, it is often claimed that even after his 100th birthday Carter’s work-rate continued to accelerate, to a pace he had never achieved before.
Of the great composers of the distant past, the surest comparison is with Joseph Haydn, whose long career, classical bent, and indefatigable humour and inventiveness Carter shared. His early career was set in motion by Ives, but it was only in the years following the second world war that Carter found his real voice. With his First String Quartet, completed in 1951, he achieved a remarkable balance between lightness of touch and unprecedented complexity, a potent cocktail that remained his stylistic hallmark.
In both his chamber and larger-scale orchestral works—such as the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra, composed for the New York Philharmonic 125th anniversary season—Carter sought to generate a listening experience in which the mind would be suspended in constant motion, tracing its own patterns on the music’s glistening restless surfaces. Carter’s music possesses a strong individualistic streak, expressive of his own fiercely independent personality, certainly, but drawing also on the individuality of his players and listeners. His second and third string quartets won a Pulitzer prize in 1960 and 1973 respectively.
In later years, his concern with complexity and constant flux remained, and the lightness and wit of his compositions seemed to increase with age. Carter gave his first opera, composed at the age of 90, the ironic title “What Next?” But he was never predictable. “Symphonia”, composed in 1996, still stands as his most profound expression of desolation, while “Soundings”, composed in 2007, adopts a simplicity so striking that many drew similarities to music by Morton Feldman, an entirely different kettle of musical fish. When asked about this, Carter replied with a characteristic wry smile: “I know,” he said, “When you get to my age, you just want to have fun.”