A Complex Modernist's Longevity ; Renewed with Late Burst, Elliott Carter's Creativity Endured across Decades

By Tommasini, Anthony | International Herald Tribune, November 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Complex Modernist's Longevity ; Renewed with Late Burst, Elliott Carter's Creativity Endured across Decades


Tommasini, Anthony, International Herald Tribune


Elliott Carter, who died at 103 on Monday, was a composer of rigorous, intellectual music, but his style lost some of its sharp edges when he reached his 90s.

Concerts celebrating the birthday of a major composer are common. But 103? It happened last December, three days before Elliott Carter's 103rd birthday, when an eager crowd packed the auditorium at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for a concert of his works, performed by an impressive group of esteemed veterans and rising younger artists.

Miraculously, Mr. Carter was there. And this program, organized by the cellist Fred Sherry, was no retrospective tribute but a fresh presentation of mostly recent works, including five scintillating pieces Mr. Carter had composed that year. There was also the premiere of a major 12-minute work for tenor (here the fine young singer Nicholas Phan) and 19-piece chamber ensemble, "A Sunbeam's Architecture," a song cycle with settings of six poems by E.E. Cummings. Mr. Carter wrote this restless, bracing score in 2010, back when he was just 101.

Mr. Carter died in New York on Monday at 103, and it is impossible to overstate the significance of his astonishing longevity. Here was a towering contemporary composer enjoying a renewed burst of creativity that started in his 90s and kept him going almost to the end. Mr. Carter had long been a formidably complex modernist who never expected to win popularity with the general public. Many of his densely intricate and rhythmically path- breaking pieces from the 1960s through the '80s, the decades of his greatest influence, could confound musicians as well as audiences.

Yet in those last 15 years or so, his music, while still brilliant, became more inviting, open and lyrical. The new spontaneity and ease with which he was composing came through in every piece. This may have been a rare case of an ingenious composer's having lost a little edge in his late years in a way that actually benefited his music.

There are many Carter works from earlier decades that I revere, starting with his exciting, essentially Neo-Classical yet steely and stunning Piano Sonata, completed in 1946; or the arresting Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras of 1961. But Mr. Carter's music could be exasperatingly complex. His five string quartets, which I heard the impressive Pacifica Quartet play in an endurance test of a program at Columbia University's Miller Theater in 2002, offer a road map to the development of a composer who wrote in an unapologetically intellectual style.

The First Quartet, completed in 1951, was a breakthrough work, a cram-packed 45-minute score in which you sense a composer in his early 40s giving vent to pent-up ideas and finding his inimitably astringent harmonic language. Its bold innovation comes in Mr. Carter's use of what he called metric modulation, which he likened to shifting gears. …

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