American composer Elliott Carter has 100 candles on the cake today, achieving a corporeal milestone very few of his colleagues have managed to reach. Leo Ornstein, Nicolas Slonimsky and Paul le Flem belong to the very small fraternity of centenarian classical composers. In honor of this occasion, performances of Carterâ€™s music, which are already more frequent than performances of a lot of new music, have been ramped up worldwide, with numerous hearings scheduled on or around December 11th in New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, MontrÃ©al, London, Paris, Hamburg, Basel, Geneva, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. This includes the world premiere of Carterâ€™s latest scheduled work, Duettino for violin and cello, to be given December 12 at Zankel Hall in New York by Rolf Schulte and Fred Sherry -- it is the 12th world premiere Carter has had in 2008 alone; overall, Carterâ€™s music has been slated for nearly 700 concerts in the 2007-2008 season. The concert Carter himself plans to attend on the big day will be at Carnegie Hall in his native New York City where the New York premiere of Interventions for piano and orchestra will be given by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the solo part played by its dedicatee, Daniel Barenboim. Reflecting on the demand for his direct participation in birthday observances, Carter once commented to an NPR reporter, â€œeven when I was celebrating my seventy-fifth birthday there were so many places where they wanted me to be that I couldnâ€™t have possibly made it to them all.â€
Whereas most composers of advanced age tend to slacken their output -- Jean Sibelius, for example, took the last 30 of his 96 years off after what had been an enormous stream of constant productivity -- Carter has done the opposite. 45 of his 140 or so extant works date from since his 90th birthday, including seven works written in 2007 and a proposed eight in 2008, although only five of the slated 2008 works will have been completed by his birthday. Carter's productivity in his late years is a contrast to his habits during, say, the 1960s, when he tended to present a new work only every couple of years. The more recent works are notably shorter and more compact than the large scale works that originally made Carter's name, such as the Sonata for flute, oboe, cello & harpsichord (1952) and Variations for Orchestra (1955-56). However, the newer works are more concentrated in expression and represent a further refinement of his style.
Elliott Carter's music can be said to have a typically New England kind of stubbornness; a book of interviews conducted with Carter by Allen Edwards was entitled Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds (W. W. Norton, 1972). Some of Carterâ€™s curmudgeonly comments about the contemporary music scene were once considered so shocking that they took on a life of their own, for example, â€œAnton Webernâ€™s music is so consistently sensitive, in a special way, that one can easily have too much of it. [â€¦] Certain people were fascinated by it because it used to be badly played and seemed intriguingly arcane and chaotic. Actually, it makes a lot of sense when itâ€™s played correctly -- rather old-fashioned, romantic sense.â€ Nevertheless, Carter puts the challenge to himself with the same tenaciousness that he has applied elsewhere, and he comes by his stubbornness honestly. Initially encouraged to compose by his parentsâ€™ insurance agent, Charles Ives, Carter dutifully went through the obligatory course of study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, adopting upon graduation the populist, American vernacular style favored by his fellow Boulanger students such as Aaron Copland. However, by the end of World War II, Carter began to feel this approach was old hat, and began to adopt a tougher harmonic profile from his Piano Sonata (1945-6) forward, officially making a breakthrough with his Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwind quintet in 1950.
Elliott Carter is especially concerned with rhythm, and his interest in it characterizes most of his work; the Night Fantasies (1980) for solo piano is constructed around two very long, slow polyrhythms expanding against one another at slightly different metronomic values. These two rhythms provide the skeletal framework to which Carter adds the various, fleeting elements that make up the rest of the piece. For the uninitiated, Carter does not write to popular notions of taste, and challenge is an important element of his style. What interested many performers about Carter early on were the demands his music put to them, in addition to its intricacy and expressive qualities, and along the way Carterâ€™s efforts have netted him two Pulitzer Prizes for music, along with countless other honors. One advantage to Carterâ€™s work is its great sense of variety; if the Variations for Orchestra doesnâ€™t do it for you, perhaps the Piano Sonata, Elegy for string orchestra (1943/1952) or even a work of middle-ground difficulty as the Night Fantasies might. Most everyone who hears the Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950-1966) really enjoys them; likewise, Carter's song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) is one of his most frequently performed works. For a composer who did not witness a commercial recording of any of his music until he was nearly 50, Carter's discography is doing extremely well. Bridge Records has been working on a complete recorded edition of his works for several years, and word has it that Nonesuch Records will be releasing a commemorative box in early 2009 collecting the fruits of their ambitious program of recording Carter, beginning in 1965 and lasting well into the 1980s. While not many artists enjoy the option of living to be a 100 years old, Elliott Carterâ€™s career is proof that itâ€™s never too late to undertake any serious and meaningful artistic endeavor.
Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra - Carter: Elegy for string orchestra (1943; revised 1952)
The John Oliver Chorale - Carter: Musicians Wrestle Everywhere (1945)
Charles Rosen, piano - Carter: Piano Sonata (1945-6)
Sierra Wind Quintet - Carter: Eight Etudes and a Fantasy - Etude on One Note (1950)
Daniel Druckman, percussion - Carter: Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950-66)
Paul Jacobs, harpsichord; Gilbert Kalish, piano; Arthur Weisberg, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble - Carter: Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano & two chamber orchestras (1961)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano; Pierre Boulez, Ensemble InterContemporain - Carter: A Mirror on Which to Dwell - Sandpaper (1975)
Ursula Oppens, piano - Carter: Night Fantasies (1980)
David Starobin, guitar - Carter: Shard (1997)
Ursula Oppens, piano - Carter: Matribute (2007)