Elliott Carter at 100

December 11, 2008
Joel Chadabe

It is not every day that a composer celebrates a 100th birthday by attending a premiere performance of a recently-composed major work. Elliott Carter celebrated his 100th birthday on December 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the world premiere of Interventions, a new composition for piano and orchestra, performed beautifully by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, with piano soloist Daniel Barenboim. The photo above shows Carter, with a cane, acknowledging applause. To his right and slightly behind him is James Levine. To his left is Daniel Barenboim. Behind him is a symbolic birthday cake on wheels. Behind the birthday cake, not shown in this photo, are the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, standing, about to play Happy Birthday.

To get a better sense of the moment, remember that Carnegie Hall has superb acoustics. It was a full house on December 11. Everyone joined in to sing Happy Birthday.

I studied with Carter in the early 1960s as one of a first group of his students that included Alvin Curran and, eventually, Frederic Rzewski. Of the many messages Carter conveyed in his critiques of my student compositions, the ones that I remember best were to explore new ideas and to do things in the most musically interesting way. Carter himself had, in fact, shortly before I studied with him, turned away from his earlier, more accessible compositions to sequester himself in Arizona and compose his first string quartet, finished in 1960. That composition, in my view of the lineage of his music, was his exploration of his own new idea and its elaboration in the most musically interesting way.

Simply put, Carter's idea was that musical form emerges from the structure of a dynamic interaction between the personalities of different musical activities. His String Quartet No. 2, finished in 1969, is a crystal clear articulation of those interactions. As if in a drama, each of the instruments plays a different character and the form of the composition evolves as the structure of a conversation between those characters.

Through the years, Carter refined and realized those ideas in different musical contexts and with different sounds. I think he has always been fascinated by the interactions of players in a chamber music context, and I think that he extended that fascination to his orchestral music, as in his Concerto for Orchestra in 1969 and A Symphony of Three Orchestras in 1976, in which the structural details of the interactions between different groups of instruments grow numerically and, in their totality, expand into an overall orchestral sound. It is an incredible sound. But it is also a complex sound. And audiences have not always responded in a positive way to musical complexity. On several occasions in Carter's career, members of the public rudely quit the hall to protest performances of his music. On one or two occasions that he described to me, although I don't now remember the details, conductors made offensive remarks, leading him to quit the hall.

Carter's sense of orchestral sound, whatever the complexity of the underlying structure, has always been extraordinary, and Interventions, while less complex in its structural detail than many of Carter's earlier orchestral works, begins with a series of extraordinary sounds. In the concert hall on December 11, with the benefit of superb acoustics and the finest of orchestras, the sounds amazed. No one left the hall. It was riveting. The following is a short excerpt from an article in The New York Times that appeared on December 12: "Despite the thorny, complex nature of much of his music, his concerts these days are often packed, as was Carnegie on Thursday night. 'He’s still writing at the top of his form,' Mr. Levine said. 'Like all great composers, every time he writes a piece he has new ideas he’s trying, as well as coming up with a subtler reworking of something he had done before.'"

Carter has remained a friend through the years. So it is with great pleasure that I point to the special nature of the Carnegie Hall event on December 11, 2008. It's not just that his time had come. It's also that he was there to enjoy it.

Photos by Joel Chadabe