We have in our midst an American composer, Elliott Carter, who has reinvented the string quartet, perfected the microdrama for a single voice and a handful of instrumentalists, introduced a new sense of civility into the performance of very difficult pieces for large orchestra, and speculated about the nature of time and memory as persistently as anyone since Marcel Proust and Edmund Husserl.
Like his fellow composer the late Roger Sessions, Carter’s aim in composing has always been “to help build a really new and better inner world.” As long ago as 1944 he wrote in Modern Music that “there must be good thinking and good talking about music to preserve its noble rank as a fine art for all of us.” As for “good talking,” Carter has never fallen short. Already in 1953 he had said in an address at the University of Illinois, “This is the time to work our hardest and our best if we want musical culture to survive.”
In this matter, no one of his generation in the United States has worked harder than he, or been more widely acclaimed in Europe. Musicians in many countries love to play his music, and many audiences want to hear it. And although he turns ninety on December 11 the years have so far lain lightly upon him. In conversation he is, as always, brisk, limpid, intellectually dead-center and ready to chase after whatever hare may have been started by others. His bearing in discussion is that of a senior cherub whose sense of wonder is still very much intact.
Among covert autobiographers—people, that is to say, who contrive to write their memoirs while eschewing the word “I”—Carter has had a place of his own ever since 1937, when he began to write music criticism for Modern Music in New York. (He was twenty-eight years old at the time.) Given that the junior critic customarily is assigned the concerts that no other critic has asked for, these notices might have been journeyman work. But Modern Music, as edited by Minna Lederman, was not an ordinary magazine. It aimed to do for music what had been done for literature by Scofield Thayer’s The Dial and by Eugene and Betsy Jolas’s transition.
Nor was Elliott Carter a beginner. By 1937 at twenty-eight he was entirely able to deal with the New York musical scene, season by season, without a word misused or a word wasted. He was clear, concise, and not afraid of a fight. In an article published in March 1938 he distinguished between two kinds of listener. The first was “the one who gives himself up to an evening of reminiscence or revery after having checked out his conscious critical self at the door with his hat.” The other was the listener “who seeks a living message to him from another living man that will help him to understand the people about him.”
Carter saw it as the duty of the critic to …