Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

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POSTED: November 6, 2012

Elliott Carter died yesterday at the age of 103. He was, as far as I know, still composing music up until the end of his life, and if I were to seek a role model for creative living then, for as long as I can remember, he would have been one of the strongest candidates.

Elliott Carter in what other people might describe as old age

There are, of course many obituaries but I found myself seeking out, and rereading, one of the warmest pieces I recall seeing in the last few years about Carter. It was written by Damian Thompson and appeared in the Telegraph in December 2012. Thompson was reflecting on a performance of “a smorgasbord of Carter pieces”, and I find the essay uplifting perhaps because he is not a committed fan of modernism, yet still finds Carter completely convincing and (even better) enjoyable.

Meanwhile, in the current obituaries, Ivan Hewitt notes in today’s Guardian that, as he turned fifty, the

joining together of aspiring strenuousness with an ever-increasing allusiveness would define Carter’s creative project for the next two decades. It revealed itself in three works of astounding complexity that occupied him for more than 10 years: the Double Concerto, premiered in 1961, the Piano Concerto – written partly in Berlin, and imbued, according to the composer, with the dark atmosphere of that divided city – and the Concerto for Orchestra of 1969.

Carter was by then 61, and his life had long since settled into a pattern that mingled teaching and composing during the academic year, with more concentrated creative work during summer retreats at the Carter’s modest country home at Waccabuc in upstate New York. He had now reached the age at which Brahms was already thinking of retirement, and most composers are in some way retrenching. Nobody could have guessed that Carter was just getting into his stride, and that ahead of him lay more than four decades of creativity.

I remind myself of this whenever I despair at the speed at which my thesis and accompanying works are proceeding, and when I look at the notebook in Evernote full of ideas for projects I have not even begun to begin yet.

Thank you, Mister Carter. I am listening to Canaries right now: yes, one of the greatest drum solos ever written!

However, for those wanting to find out about rock music from another dimension, this performance of Lumien at Tanglewood is well worth watching for a glimpse of that world’s elderly Frank Zappa in action…