Late Bloomer

Carter

by David Schiff
Oxford University Press, 266 pp., $34.95
Dominique Nabokov
Elliott Carter, New York City, September 1995

There is a fond belief that we glean otherworldly revelations from the late works of composers. We meditate upon the hymnlike final scores from the dying Beethoven and Schubert, are heartened by the brisk comic affirmations of Falstaff, Verdi’s farewell to opera, and marvel at the serene, luxuriant leave-taking in the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.

In the case of Elliott Carter, however, mystical expectations are best set aside, even though he wrote more and later “late” music than anyone. He composed steadily in his own distinctive manner from his teen years until that day in November 2012 when, at the age of 103, he simply stopped. More than half of his 150-odd works—including his longest work for orchestra, concertos (or concertinos) for clarinet, flute, horn, violin, cello, and piano, as well as his only opera—were completed after his eighty-fifth birthday.

Carter has been well served by those who love his music. Bridge Records alone has recordings of fifty-six of his pieces in its catalog, more than half of these performances supervised by the composer himself. His most significant work for solo piano, Night Fantasies (1980), has been recorded not only by the four artists for whom it was written (Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen) but by at least half a dozen others, and now ranks with Fredric Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated as one of the most popular large keyboard works of recent times.

David Schiff, a composer, professor, and conductor whose association with Carter spanned more than forty years, first as an admirer and later as a student and friend, has come out with his third book on the man and his music—a concise and impassioned volume, entitled Carter, for Oxford University Press’s Master Musicians series. I admit to some regret that, despite promotional promises, this can hardly be called a full-scale biography, not merely because Schiff writes of Carter with the understanding and affection of a friend, but also because there are Carter studies aplenty, and a biography is what’s needed at this point, before all the primary sources are gone.1

Schiff, most of whose own music sounds not at all like Carter’s, offers insight into his teacher’s concentrated method from the first day they worked together, when Carter agreed to look at a piece that Schiff was working on with John Corigliano at the Manhattan School of Music in 1973:

Carter spent several hours going over my piece—actually tearing it apart note by note. His suggestions were not at all theoretical, but of the nuts-and-bolts variety. He quickly grasped what I was trying to do, pointed out the numerous places which were still only a rough approximation of my intentions, and suggested specific fixes. I knew at once that he was the right teacher for…


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