Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elliot Carter

On Dec 11, 2008, Elliot Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday in New York City, where he was born, grew to personal and artistic maturity, and where he has lived almost all of his life. By any standard, he is one of the most distinguished creative talents ever to emerge from the city, and was probably the most important American classical composer in the second half of the 20th century (or at least from, say, 1950 to about 1980.) And what is most remarkable about Carter is that he is still active, still composing. In the entire history of classical music, there is no one of similar stature who has stayed active at such a great age. Other great composers who have created great works late in their careers, like Verdi’s Falstaff or Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, both written when their composers were about 80, seem in comparison like schoolboys in their nonage. A new work of his will have its premiere this weekend, the first of his second century.

But I suspect there won’t be any large celebrations for Elliot Carter. (They do things differently in France. A few weeks ago, the eminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss also turned 100, and President Sarkozy paid him a visit at home. I’m sure Carter has more important things to do than meet with Bush, but it’s the thought that counts.) The problem with celebrating Elliot Carter is that his music is dense, difficult, and recondite; gnarly with dissonances, bristling with atonalities. His music celebrates complexity, and there are works, like his Piano Concerto, in which every orchestral musician has a different part, and it sounds like it. Even in smaller scale works, like his five string quartets, what is often produced is not a blending, but clashing and tumult.

But Elliot Carter’s music is a true product of New York City. He is a late product of the New York school of the 1920s, a fertile time for modern music that produced such stalwarts as the early pre-Popular Front Aaron Copland, Edgard Varese, and Charles Ives, who was a mentor of sorts to Carter. He started out writing works in a Coplandesque vein, but around 1950 moved to his mature style. New York mid century music and art is often celebrated for its complexity and contrapuntal layeredness, and no one has ever taken this further than Carter. For many, this is too much a good thing, and it must be admitted that Carter’s music is easier to admire than love, and that there has a reaction against Carterian complexity in recent decades, with composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich leading a new “New York School” of composition. In our post-post-post modernist age, Elliot Carter, in his love of difficulty and abstraction is the last of the high modernists. His music will probably never be popular, but in honor of his 100th birthday, it would be nice if every New Yorker would at least give him a listen. Okay, its not "Rhapsody in Blue" but Elliot Carter also composed the music of New York City.

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