By now, I imagine most everyone in Sequenza21’s audience has learned that Elliott Carter passed away yesterday at the age of 103. Basically every news outlet covering music has already run a retrospective on Carter (except for Sequenza21, ironically). I don’t exactly intend to add to the din of the New York Times‘, Alex Ross‘, or NPR‘s or whomever-your-music-writer-of-choice’s reflections on Carter, but, as a community of composers and thoughtful listeners, whose tastes either align with Carter’s work or the music that was influenced by or reacted against him, we can honor his fresh memory by sharing our experiences with his music and/or person.


I’ll start:

Being the youngest of Sequenza21’s contributing editors, I have considered Carter a legendary individual – more a figure of history than flesh and blood – for a long time. But, discovering the news of Carter’s passing last night, I realized that I’ve had many personal and poignant interactions with Carter’s music that make him much more important to me and my experience than I had previously thought.

I saw Carter’s music performed four times, which isn’t all that impressive; yet, the performances are among the most vivid concert memories I have. The most recent was at a recital of Houston-based Fischer Duo in February of this year, where they played Carter’s Cell Sonata from 1948. The Duo’s cellist, Norman Fischer, explained excellently how the work represents the crystallization of Carter’s decisively complex and idiosyncratic musical vocabulary, and I remember thinking how convincingly the piece demonstrated the beauty of Carter’s compositional sensibility.

I had the same reaction to the second Carter concert I attended. This was a performance in Houston by the Pacifica Quartet in 2009 where they did the first and last Carter Quartets. To be honest, I don’t remember much about String Quartet no. 1, but I will never forget how beautiful I thought String Quartet no. 5 was. A couple of years passed before I listened to that piece again and I remember being surprised at how the striking eloquence of the work’s slow sections emerged at no cost to the intensity of the more energetic material in the piece. In other words, it was clear that Carter had not softened at all in his advanced age, something many people have asserted in their recollections of him and his music.

The last two concerts I attended with Carter’s music on the program are memorable because of the people I knew personally who were involved in the event. The first I will discuss was a 2009 performance of Carter’s second quartet by a group led by my good friend from Rice University and a new member of ETHEL, Tema Watstein. Her quartet’s performance was valiant and effective, though the overwhelming challenge of the work was certainly palpable in the recital hall. I remember talking to her as they prepared the piece, possibly helping her tape photocopies of the score to big pieces of cardboard so she could play off the score, and being taken aback by her and her quartet-mates’ dedication to the piece. This belief in the music was a gripping presence during their ultimate performance, and, as a composer, I will always applaud Carter for being able to inspire such dedication in those who perform his music while forcing them to confront so demanding a terrain of musical ideas.

My final Carter memory is the oldest. When I was in High School I attended a winter concert by the New York Philharmonic with my Dad. We chose the performance because of its headlining piece – Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – and had no idea we would be amazed by a piece called Dialogues by some composer named Elliott Carter. This was one of the first non-traditional, non-tonal pieces I ever encountered as a young composer, and I’ll never forget the amazing colors and the piano soloist’s (whose name I regrettably have forgotten) unflappably enthusiastic navigation of his part. Even my Dad, just a plain citizen taking his musician son to a concert, was taken in by Carter’s music, and we both remarked our joyful surprise at stumbling on such a wild and entertaining work.

Our happiness with the performance only grew, however, because, after the players received a couple rounds of applause, Elliott Carter made an unannounced trip onto the stage to congratulation the pianist and other musicians. Alice Tully Hall erupted with excitement. This was 2003 or 2004 and we were thrilled to see Carter out on stage in person because who knew how many other concerts he would attend.Eight years passed before Carter’s pen was finally put to rest yesterday, ending a life I will redundantly pronounce as remarkable.

Please share your Carter encounters below because his longevity allowed him to touch so many people – composers and listeners and music lovers alike. I am humbled to have been in the same room as him once in my life, and I am sure many of you had more impressive interactions with him.

Now, his legacy will persist through his music alone. But, I think many people will agree (many have already stated as much) that Carter’s place as an eminent American Composer was cemented long before he left this world.



3 thoughts on “Memories of Carter”
  1. I had the great opportunity to study with Carter in the Master’s composition program at Juilliard 1978-79.

    We didn’t hit it off the first few lessons; we were kind of on different planets. I’d started writing these slow kind of morphing pieces, kind of like Vivier and I was kind of stuck. This was in the Master’s program at Juilliard, FWIW. All of his other students at the time (he only taught grad students) were writing in his style, except for David Schiff who, of course, was doing his dual style thing.

    One day I decided to set some Elizabeth Bishop poems, not knowing he’d just finished that cycle. I’d picked the exact same poems as him! We immediately started talking about modern poetry at the beginning of every lesson. He was really into Ashberry at the time and Stevens of course. He said it was impossible to set Stevens – that he was too wordy – of course he’s since gone on to do just that. He got us box seats to the world premiere of Syringa – that was great.

    One time I told him that I just didn’t feel the whole existential angst thing, that I wasn’t buying the atonal wail of pain in the face of the unforgiving universe and that I wanted to start writing music that was more about joy. He told me point blank that that was the fashion and that if I chose to go down that road my career would suffer and I would basically be at war with the new music world for my entire career – that atonal music had won that battle. That was 1978 of course and he was very proud of his ascendancy – as he should have been.

    He told me once that the funny repetitious parts after that last big climax in the Symphony for 3 Orchestras was a joke – that it was a parody of the kind of silly music that somebody like me would write. He was being snarky and sarcastic and I loved that about him.

    Once we had a lunch with all of the grad students at the time (who are all pretty big names – I’m like the big loser among the lot). Mr. Carter took us out to a asian restaurant near Juilliard. One of the students who was a really nervous fellow asked him, “Mr. Carter, Jeff tells me that you guys talk about stuff besides music during your lessons – can I ask you a question?” Mr. Carter, said, “Sure…” The student asked, “Mr. Carter, what do you think of Puccini.” He just looked down at his plate of food and said, “Well… not much.” And that was that. I almost cracked up.

    At one of the make up lessons (he’d have to miss lessons sometimes to go to Europe, etc.) at his apartment he pulled out a Michael Finnissy score and we were looking at it together, marveling at the note density. I asked him if he thought there was an ‘upper limit’ to understanding musical complexity and he said he doubted it. I challenged him about human perception and he remarked that he wasn’t sure that music couldn’t just keep getting more and more complex.

    I had to drop out of Juilliard because I’d run out of money and didn’t want to take any more student loans out. I’d worked on the oil rigs outside of my hometown, New Orleans to pay for it – most students there were either rich or their parents were paying for it or they had patrons. When we moved back to New York I’d spent the last few years trying to learn how to write in the classical style, a dream I’d always had. I had written a big piano sonata in Eb major in the style of Schubert but with New Orleans rhythms. I talked my way into Juilliard without an ID, showed it to him in the cafeteria and he looked at it, smirking a bit, but he said he liked all the big chords and he’d give it to a pianist. I found out later that he’d given it to Ursula Oppens!

    Interesting times for sure!

  2. Carter was the very first modernist composer I had ever heard – his music and that of Milton Babbitt’s performed by the Boston Symphony in ’04-’05 changed my thinking permanently as a musician and writer. Your post is especially resonant with my memories, Garrett.

    Carter – One of the greatest ever, without doubt.

  3. I agree with your closing thoughts, Garrett. Thank you. He was a Papa figure to very many of us – and wonderfully creative and fertile.

    Almost a decade before I met Carter at the Library of Congress after a performance of his Night Fantasies (with Charles Rosen), I heard Carter’s Cello Sonata, his First SQ, and his Second SQ at Hertz Hall in Berkeley. (I recall his son sitting next to him in the front row during, I believe, a performance of the First SQ). I recall his music as both fascinating and difficult, but somewhat similar in my mind to that of Berkeley’s Andrew Imbrie. (Professor Richard Crocker had closed out his two-term Western music survey course by inviting Imbrie to discuss his new Third Symphony.)

    In college, I heard the trial world premiere of Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano under Paul Zukofsky and Gil Kalish and his Woodwind and Brass Quintets. In March 1976, at the First and Only New York Philharmonic/Juilliard Celebration of Contemporary music (under Pierre Boulez), I heard Carter’s Double Concerto (with Paul Jacobs and Ursula Oppens) and the Juilliard SQ rehearse the Carter #3 along with the Shostakovich #15. (A little later, after a performance of Carter’s Third SQ in DC, Carter would sign my score to his Second SQ, and gently chide me when I inquired as to when his admirers might expect from him another SQ. He asked me whether I had yet truly understood and mastered his difficult Third SQ which had just then been performed by the Juilliard SQ.)

    Soon there were concerts of his exceptionally fascinating song cycles and score study of his Piano Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra, and Symphony of Three Orchestras (his NY Phil Bicentennial Commission, first performed in Spring 1977). … Significantly later, I enjoyed hearing live his Occasions for Orchestra (in parts) and, especially, his Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei – as well as his Oboe and Violin Concertos. (These major works were performed in D.C. by the NY Phil, the Boston Sym, the San Francisco Sym, and the Chicago Sym – but not the much more conservative National Symphony, which only performed once, the Orchestral Variations.)

    I leave the floor to others. My sympathies to Carter’s son and grandson. They must be both so sad and so proud.

    (The late H-W Henze also had a special impact on me during this general period; although I heard many fewer of his works live.)

Comments are closed.