Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, by Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Elliott Carter turned 100 on 11 December 2008, bringing to a close a marathon year of festivals, performances, recordings, and publications celebrating his centenary. When asked about whether he enjoyed all the fuss, Carter’s stock reply was, “No one likes to be reminded of their age, but I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t happening.” And he worked for his birthday cake! Carter provided several new compositions for the festivities in 2008, including his first choral piece in over six decades, a work for percussion ensemble, and Interventions, his fourth piece for solo piano and orchestra.
It’s probably safe to say that A Centennial Portrait is the first ‘coffee-table book’ about a modern American concert music composer. A hefty 352 pages, its presentation is exquisite; with large, readable score excerpts and composer sketches, re-typed portions of personal correspondence, handwritten missives, and telling rehearsal notes. There are also a number of engaging letters written to the composer from a veritable who’s who of 20/21 music. Sketches for compositions from throughout Carter’s career – from early works such as Minotaur and the First String Quartet to his recent Boston Concerto, Mosaic, and hot-off-the-presses Mad Regales – offer insights into the genesis and evolution of his working methods and styles. Equally tantalizing are the abandoned projects: a sonata for two pianos from the 50s; a projected second opera from 2001.
Sometimes an example does double-duty. For example, the autograph for Steep Steps, a solo bass clarinet piece written in 2002, includes a note from Carter to Virgil Blackwell, its dedicatee and a member of the composer’s inner circle: “Virgil – How about this? Elliott.”
In order to compile the volume, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler have done extensive research at the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, where most of Carter’s papers are kept. One might think that the sketches and biographical material of a composer whose work has received intense scrutiny might not yield too many surprises. But the authors have provided fresh material to whet the appetites of Carterians, while simultaneously creating an accessible volume that is an excellent overview of Carter’s first hundred years.