Saturday Art: American Composer Elliott Carter Passes at Age 103

1:29 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller


Centenarian American composer Elliott Carter passed away last Monday.  He was 103 years old.

He lived a year longer than Henry Purcell (died at age 36), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (lived to be 35) and Franz Schubert (a bright, bright flame, who passed away at 31) strung end-on-end.  Like my dad seven years ago, Carter passed away on Guy Fawkes Day.

In a tribute to Carter upon the composer’s 100th birthday, New Yorker fine music critic, Alex Ross, wrote:

The last emperor of China had just assumed his throne. William Howard Taft, the President-elect of the United States, was meeting with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. A deranged veteran of the Philippine war terrorized Edgewater, New Jersey, holding up a hotel. The diva Nellie Melba disembarked from the Lusitania, resplendent in a broad-brimmed hat. Gustav Mahler was about to conduct the last of three concerts at Carnegie Hall, having unleashed his Second Symphony a few nights earlier. And Elliott Cook Carter, Jr., was born in New York City. It was December 11, 1908. 

A hundred years later to the day, Mr. Carter walked onstage at Carnegie, a little hunched but moving under his own power, to receive the adulation of a capacity audience. If he had done nothing more than show up, he would have drawn a standing ovation. In fact, the composer was taking a bow for a new work: a short concerto for piano and orchestra entitled “Interventions,” which Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony played under the direction of James Levine. If this new piece had been merely adequate, the crowd would have been happy, but it turned out to be a lucid, vivid, potent score—one of the most immediately likable works in Carter’s huge and sometimes forbidding output. This is something almost unprecedented in the history of art: an artist reaching the age of a hundred with his creativity intact.

I tried hard over the years to like Elliott Carter’s music, which I always appreciated in an intellectual sense.  The gnarliness of his tonalities is relentless.  He didn’t write twelve-tone music, but to describe his approach to atonality, musicologists had to develop an analytical language which is now also that used to describe or analyze twelve-tone music - musical set theory:

Musical set theory provides concepts for categorizing musical objects and describing their relationships. Many of the notions were first elaborated by Howard Hanson (1960) in connection with tonal music, and then mostly developed in connection with atonal music by theorists such as Allen Forte (1973), drawing on the work in twelve-tone theory of Milton Babbitt. The concepts of set theory are very general and can be applied to tonal and atonal styles in any equally-tempered tuning system, and to some extent more generally than that. One branch of musical set theory deals with collections (sets and permutations) of pitches and pitch classes (pitch-class set theory), which may be ordered or unordered, and which can be related by musical operations such as transposition, inversion, and complementation. The methods of musical set theory are sometimes applied to the analysis of rhythm as well.

Many professional music commentators and historians had regarded Carter as the most important living American composer for some time, perhaps since the death of Aaron Copland at 90, back in 1990.  Yet, when I asked my university music students last week how many of them had performed any of Carter’s music, or even knew who he was, only one out of 33 advanced music majors even knew who the man was.  None had directly experienced Carter’s musical art, which is highly sophisticated and difficult to perform.
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