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Elliott Carter

Paul Griffiths, librettist for Elliott Carter’s opera What Next?, remembers the composer, who died on 5 November 2012 at the age of 103.

I must have seen Elliott Carter several times in London from deep back in the seventies; perhaps the earliest of my mental photographs has him standing at the kerbside at Oxford Circus, waiting to cross the road, his head slightly turned and raised to look at his publisher who was with him, Janis Susskind, his face (as it would always be) smiling, his white hair lifted by the wind. But an occasion to meet him properly did not come until June 1995, at the Aldeburgh Festival, when I had to interview him for The (London) Times about the piece he had written for the coming Proms: Adagio tenebroso, the middle movement of his Symphonia. Already then his continuing productivity was remarkable, and that was certainly on my mind as we sat together in an area of the lounge at the Wentworth Hotel, where we were both staying. Here was Elliott Carter, whose first published works, though by no means youthful, were by now almost six decades old. Here he was: sitting, smiling, waiting for the first question.

Pocahontas by Elliott Carter (manuscript sketch), 1939(?). Library of Congress.

“Mr. Carter,” I began, “now that you’re eighty-seven—”

“Eighty-six!” he promptly and cheerfully intervened.

I interviewed him again about a year later, when The New Yorker decided it wanted to know from him how to listen to his music. We spoke about his solo violin piece Riconoscenza and also about attention, and I began to understand how for him his music, so often taken as highly abstract, was a social contribution: “Paying attention,” he said, “has to be a very real and important thing in a democratic society.” This time we would have been in his downtown apartment, though my memory of the scene — the two of us seated on a sofa, looking at the music open on my knees, facing a fireplace — does not accord with the room I came to know so well only a few months later.

Of that subsequent episode — the weeks of working together on the libretto of What Next? — I kept a journal, which was published with the ECM recording, so here let me move into some more generalized reminiscences of what it was like to be with and to speak with this extraordinary person who had said, at our Aldeburgh meeting: “People tell me I’m old, but I don’t feel old.” Perhaps he never did. He was eighty-eight when the What Next? process started, and it occurred to me very early in that process that he would still be composing when he was a hundred. Of course, he outstripped even that expectation.

His music never felt old either, and perhaps it gained its vigour and its dart from his own physical and mental condition. The last time I saw him at close quarters, when What Next? was staged at Miller Theatre at Columbia, he was celebrating his ninety-ninth birthday, and there was still the alertness of mind and body. His movements were slow, no doubt, and he used a stick, but he was not in any sense frail, as Helen, his wife, had been frail, carrying a laden tea-tray across to us when we had pages of libretto in our hands, and one wanted to jump up and just hold her. Elliott stayed strong as he stayed sharp. As if the continuing music were not enough to back up that claim, I remember a transatlantic telephone conversation, also when he was in his late nineties, when I needed to ask him something about his Italian songs Tempo e tempi. With no warning of the question, which had to do with a work by then almost a decade in the past, he understood exactly what I was after, to the very measure.

Acute, his memory was also, of course, marvellously long. When we were in Berlin, for the first performance of What Next?, he expressed a wish to visit Potsdam, “because I haven’t been there since 1923.” He remembered being at a party in a New York apartment where Bartók was playing the piano, and it was hot, so somebody opened a window, and the street noise made it almost impossible to hear anything, but Bartók went on as if nothing had happened.

Part of our loss now is the loss of that memory, the loss of having Bartók — and Schoenberg and Ives, even Debussy and Scriabin, who were alive and composing when Elliott Cook Carter started at the piano — still part of our living present.

And the generosity. There was always a warm smiling welcome at the door when I arrived at his apartment, always at four o’clock, with a couple of pages of stumbled libretto draft in my bag, or with nothing. Hearing that I would be taking my two sons to Greece in the Easter vacation, he pressed a guidebook to Mystras — quickly found from the shelves in the sitting room — into my hands, and so my boys and I found ourselves following in his footsteps of perhaps forty years or more before.

Was there ever anyone he was not delighted to see? Was there ever anything he was not happy to hear? — other than sometimes the music of composers a generation or two, or three, younger, composers who were not charming and challenging their audiences to pay attention, though even then there would be the smile that said: “Well, this too is part of life.”

Paul Griffiths is a writer and editor on music, music critic, novelist, and librettist. He is the author of Modern Music and After, and contributed dozens of articles to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, now in Grove Music Online. To learn more about Paul Griffiths, read his 2012 interview with Grove Music Online or visit his website.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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3 Responses to “Elliott Carter”
  1. [...] Paul Griffiths has one of the best stories of them all, in the OUP blog: I must have seen Elliott Carter several times in London from deep back in the seventies; perhaps the earliest of my mental photographs has him standing at the kerbside at Oxford Circus, waiting to cross the road, his head slightly turned and raised to look at his publisher who was with him, Janis Susskind, his face (as it would always be) smiling, his white hair lifted by the wind. But an occasion to meet him properly did not come until June 1995, at the Aldeburgh Festival, when I had to interview him for The (London) Times about the piece he had written for the coming Proms: Adagio tenebroso, the middle movement of hisSymphonia. Already then his continuing productivity was remarkable, and that was certainly on my mind as we sat together in an area of the lounge at the Wentworth Hotel, where we were both staying. Here was Elliott Carter, whose first published works, though by no means youthful, were by now almost six decades old. Here he was: sitting, smiling, waiting for the first question. [...]

  2. [...] Here’s a link to a blog by Paul Griffiths on an earlier encounter with the composer: http://blog.oup.com/2012/11/elliott-carter/ [...]

  3. [...] Carter (touchingly eulogized by Paul Griffiths last month on the OUPblog) likewise acknowledged that most listeners did not understand his music: [...]

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