Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

Dominique Nabokov
Elliott Carter at Carnegie Hall on his hundredth birthday, December 11, 2008; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

Turning one hundred years old on December 11, 2008, Elliott Carter must have found the experience exhilarating and rejuvenating. When I went to see him on the afternoon of his birthday, he was hard at work on a song cycle for soprano and clarinet on poems by Louis Zukofsky. He looked younger than six months before—in fact, younger than six years before. That night, the Boston Symphony directed by James Levine played a new work of his, Interventions for piano and orchestra, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. A few days later, a party of a dozen of his friends heard four of the new songs splendidly performed by Lucy Shelton and Charles Neidich; they are among his most lyrical and wittiest inspirations.

The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, has produced a large, handsome book, titled Elliott Carter:A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, with many photographs of Carter, his friends and family, and with many photographs of manuscript pages as well. This is natural as the Sacher Foundation is the world’s greatest repository of twentieth-century music manuscripts, possessing most of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and many others. The foundation aids scholars and students throughout the world in their studies of the music of the twentieth century, and the collection is housed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment in an old house on the cliffs overlooking the Rhine. The book, written and edited by the director of the foundation, Felix Meyer, and by Professor Anne C. Shreffler of Harvard University, gives a detailed visual image of Carter’s career, interspersed with discussions of many of the works. The photographs and the letters make up a wonderfully personal account of a lifetime.

One might say that Carter’s musical life began in 1924 when, fifteen years old, he heard the American premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Boston Symphony and decided that he wanted to be a composer. In 1925 his father, a lace merchant (who knew twenty languages or dialects, and could speak the tongue of wherever lace was produced), took him on a trip to Vienna. The boy bought a copy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, op. 25. This was the first publication of a twelve-tone piece, and Carter was introduced to the controversial dodecaphonic style that was to dominate so much of European and then American music for the rest of the century.

Carter’s purchase was almost fortuitous, and paradoxical as well, since most Viennese music lovers of that time and for several decades to come remained curiously unaware of Schoenberg’s recent music. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Carter, fascinated by the new work, was one of the few major avant-garde composers of the century never even to try…

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