Elliott Carter R.I.P.

Hard on the heels of the Death of Hans Werner Henze comes news that Elliott Carter, the Grand Old Man of American music, died yesterday, just short of his 104th birthday. Despite his advanced years, he continued composing right up to the end, completing his final work just a few months ago. His large and diverse output was challenging in the main, but was never short of advocates and performances. This pithy quote from the New York Times obituary gives some idea of the man’s sense of humour, which was sometimes evident in his music:

“As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public,” he once explained to an interviewer who asked him why he had chosen to write such difficult music. “I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

Some other quotes from the NYT obituary:

  1. Mr. Carter continued to explore new ground into his later years. He avoided opera for most of his career because, as he put it in 1978, “American opera is a novelty, to be played once and that’s all, even when they’re good pieces,” and because he doubted he could find a libretto that interested him. Yet when he was 90 he completed his first opera, What Next?
  2. “I just can’t bring myself to do something that someone else has done before,” he said in 1960. “Each piece is a kind of crisis in my life.”
  3. Some listeners found his music cerebral, elitist and devoid of emotion. Even some who respected Mr. Carter’s erudition and the detail inherent in his compositional method were unmoved by his music. Reviewing the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) when Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in the work’s world premiere, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Times, “It may be a tour de force of its kind, but to me it is essentially uncommunicative, dry and a triumph of technique over spirit.”
  4. “There are many kinds of art,” he said in 1978, when asked what he had to say to concertgoers who felt that great music should have tunes that could be whistled. “Some kinds are hard to understand for some people, and easy to understand for others. But if the works are very good, then finally a lot of people will understand them. And it seems to me that if a work has something remarkable to say, then someone who wants to whistle it will find something in it to whistle. But these things are very subjective. Just this morning, I had a call from Ursula Oppens, who is playing my Piano Concerto. She said, ‘I finally know all the tunes in your concerto.’ I said, ‘Which tunes are those?’ And she whistled one. So there you are.”

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