Remembering Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

Remembering Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

Helen & Elliott Carter 1977

Helen and Elliott Carter in 1977. Photo courtesy of Joel Chadabe.

I think it was in the summer of 1958 that I attended the Aspen School of Music in Aspen, Colorado, high up in the Rocky Mountains. Darius Milhaud was the major composer-in-residence. Lukas Foss and Elliott Carter were composers-in-residence for a week or two during the festival. I may be leaving some things out and forgetting some of the people and some of the details, but I do remember two things with great clarity. One of them is my explorations of the mountains around Aspen on horseback, going off in a different direction several times a week with a fellow student–her name was Meg–on adventurous, exhilarating long rides, sometimes all day, feeling an extraordinary sense of freedom as we moved through a landscape alone on top of the world.

The other one is a workshop in percussion offered to the composers at the school by George Gaber, an exceptional percussionist then active in the New York music scene. At 8:00 in the morning, Gaber was there in the music performance tent, surrounded by an enormous number and variety of instruments from timpani to finger cymbals. A few composition students were there. So was Elliott Carter. To my pleasure and surprise, Carter dominated the conversation as Gaber went through the instruments, playing each one and demonstrating different techniques for playing them. Carter had brought a notebook with him. He asked a lot of questions and took copious notes. It occurred to me later that he had begun to think about the Double Concerto, finished in 1961, but at that time we—“we” being the students who were there–knew of Carter through his String Quartet No. 1. That a composer we respected as a leader in the avant-garde would come to a workshop with young students, ask questions that told us what he didn’t know, and take notes, was very impressive. But thinking back, my guess is that at that time in his career, he had achieved a level of self-confidence and comfort with what he was doing musically that allowed him to display without embarrassment what he didn’t know. Early on, he had actively sought public recognition for his Americana style, for example his early orchestral piece Pocahontas, but as he told me and, in fact, said in many interviews, he had reached a point where he realized that he hadn’t gotten anywhere and he decided to go off to the desert and work out his own ideas. His first realization of the new ideas was his String Quartet No. 1 which was widely recognized as a masterpiece, albeit a little-understood masterpiece. As a student, I followed him around a little bit at Aspen, and I vaguely recall that I asked him if I could study with him.

Well, I got my chance. In September 1959, I began the three-year master’s degree program at the Yale School of Music. Carter was there to teach in 1961 and 1962. His class was a seminar that met for a couple of hours every week. The four or five of us taking the seminar presented what we were working on. I remember writing a piano piece that had an unusual little figuration in it. I remember it because Carter said something to the effect of: “Hmmm, well, that seems to work very well, but I don’t see why it does.” His teaching was largely by critique and discussion of our work. His ongoing messages to us were to do things in the most interesting way and (I paraphrase this advice, given to young composers starting their careers) to follow our own ideas and not be swayed by the lure of an artificial public success. I do not recall that he ever discussed his own work with us, but he did play examples of works by other composers, especially works that he thought we didn’t but should know. He played and we discussed parts of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître, for example, as well as “Improvisation sur Mallarmé” from Pli Selon Pli, and a piece by Gilbert Amy, a student of Boulez. He discussed the orchestration of these pieces. He presented many discussions of orchestration and orchestral sound in general, for which Carter pointed to examples in Mahler’s music where colors shift as instruments mix, and come and go, in the course of a single thread of melody. He was also interested in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and spent time trying to analyze it, but Stravinsky, who was a friend of Carter’s, apparently assured him that there was no underlying schemata. It’s interesting that Carter searched for an underlying schemata in The Rite of Spring, not something that would have occurred to me to do, for example, but the mainstream of music in the early 1960s was based on underlying structural procedures, as in Boulez’s and Babbitt’s serialism and Cage’s chance operations, and Carter was interested. His own compositions were organized by an underlying procedure based on chords and intervals. In fact, for a theory class at Yale, I did an analysis of Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, a piece that I have grown to know better as years go by and that I consider the first definitive expression of his musical ideas.

I graduated with an M.M. degree in 1962, the same year that President Kennedy was awarded an honorary doctorate, at which occasion he said, “Now I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” In the fall of 1962, Carter went to Rome as the composer-in-residence at the American Academy. After a few adventures, as George Mully’s stage assistant in the chamber opera workshop at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art and as an employee for Poseidon Steamship Company (principal Mediterranean agent for the Turkish Maritime Lines) in Haifa, I ended up in Rome to study with Carter.

It was an absolutely wonderful experience from the beginning. I had made an appointment to meet him in Rome that October, and prior to my arrival he had found a place for me to stay, in a pensione in which harpsichordist Mariolina De Robertis lived. Partly through Mariolina, I met many composers in Rome, among them Franco Evangelisti, Aldo Clementi, Walter Branchi, many others. I also met John Eaton, who had strong ongoing ties with the American Academy, and Larry Austin, who was there for the year.

Carter was staying in a lovely small building used by guest composers at the American Academy, located outside of the Academy building and far from downtown Rome on the Gianicolo Hill. The living room was large with a grand piano on one side and a view of a lovely garden on the other. For my part, I was living a freelance musician’s life, copying and editing music, playing piano, managing somehow, and I was writing music. That winter of 1962 was the coldest ever. Not to be taken literally, the oldest man in town didn’t remember the last time that the water in the Fontana Barbarini had frozen. I was for the most part sitting at my desk, fingers frozen, wearing sweater and overcoat, composing. When I finished something, or when I felt I needed it, I called Carter, went to see him, and we spent an afternoon together, several hours, talking. We talked about my music, which I recall as helpful, insightful, and encouraging. But as I was becoming surer of what I wanted to do and as I was becoming clearer about how to do it technically, our conversations evolved into discussions of music in general. I thought it was wonderful. I loved the process of our conversations, the depth and breadth of Carter’s interests in literature and languages, and, in short, as I think back on those days, those conversations were so exceptional and I gained so much from them that I am left somewhat speechless in trying to characterize them. It was not like information that I could write down and walk away with. It was like growth. Carter must have enjoyed it as well or he wouldn’t have been so relaxed and talkative for so many hours at so many meetings. I was a young guy. He was thirty years older and he was sharing his thoughts. I also had some thoughts to share about music, opera, and literature. And now, especially as I reflect on those days, I think we were forming a friendship. I think it was sometime during that period that I began to call him Elliott.

Carters Home in Waccabuc 1977

The Carters at their home in Waccabuc, NY. Photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

In 1964, the Ford Foundation started its residence program in Berlin and Elliott told me that he was going. I said, “How can I apply?” He said, “You’ve already applied. You’re going.” In fact, I made an early round trip. It was probably in October or November 1963 that Elliott asked and I drove his car to Berlin from Rome, then returned to Rome, then went to Berlin in January. Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski were also there, and Elliott and his wife, Helen, were very much a part of our lives in Berlin. I remember a performance of the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, with Mariolina De Robertis playing harpsichord, Frederic Rzewski playing piano, and Bruno Maderna conducting. It was a bit of a nerve-racking experience for Elliott because Maderna missed the first rehearsal, showed up late to the second one, and when he did arrive he looked at the scores on the podium, turned to Frederic who was seated at the piano and asked, “Frederico, che facciamo?” Then, looking at the score, he said, more or less to himself, “Oh, I see, O.K., percussion up there (and he changed the percussion’s position onstage), let’s go,” and he started to conduct through the piece, learning it as he went, to the coda. “Hmmm,” he said, “one group is in 2, the other is in 3, I’ll have to conduct one group with my left hand and the other group with my right hand. But then, how will I turn pages? Ah, I’ll memorize the score.” At about that time, there was a problem with the harpsichord, so a technician from the harpsichord company was called in and he fixed it. Between Maderna’s irritating calm-and-in-control attitude and the harpsichord problem, Elliott seemed to be a little unnerved. I sat next to him during the performance, and when it was finished, as we were getting up to go back to greet the musicians, he asked, “How was it?” I told him that it was great. It was.

Elliott with Benjamin Chadabe 1977

Elliott Carter with Benjamin Chadabe, 1977. Photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

Back in the United States a year or so later, I joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Albany. I was traveling quite a bit, but of course I was in touch with Elliott and saw him fairly often. As those years passed, and as I become more involved in electronics, we talked more often about his music than mine. During those years, Elliott and Helen had a house on Lake Waccabuc in Westchester County, just north of New York City, and my wife and I, and eventually with my son, visited during the summers while they were there. We often went swimming in the lake. Elliott had a cabin on the grounds, which of course I visited to see his current work, which we talked about. I remember that on one of those occasions he was working on Concerto for Orchestra. He had thumbtacked all of the pages of the score around the room so that he could work on the beginning, then the end, then in the middle, and so on, always seeing the whole as he made the parts.

A structure is the relationship of the parts to the whole, and we usually think of structure as the backbone of a piece. The role of structure in many of Elliott’s works, however, is more in the presentation of the piece than its driving ideas. What drives the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, is the evolving interaction in the relationship between “personalities,” different characters or forces that are musically identified through orchestration as much as through the notes the instruments play. In composing the Concerto, and also in other works, Elliott thought of the forces in poetic as well as musical terms, as narratives, and narratives are by no means the sole domain of music. The forces in the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, are based on Vents, a poem by Saint-John Perse. It’s the forces of Perse’s winds that give us the spirit of the Concerto and the narrative of interaction between elements that becomes the long line of the composition. Elliott played through that interaction in his thoughts, then, when he found the best realization of the idea, he froze the thought in notation and presented it in a coherent structure.

Elliott’s music in general is a superb amalgam of the contemporary concept of music based on underlying process and the classical concept of structure and balance. It’s a superb generalization of narrative in literature and sound. Elliott has been a wonderful example of the composer as a knowledgeable, educated person with a broad-based understanding of things in addition to music.

I’ve seen Elliott many times in the past few years. He was composing and, fascinated with the language as well as the content, reading Proust. About a year ago, he declared “Enough Proust, no more Proust,” to my wife and I. When we saw him at a later visit, he said, “I’m back on Proust.” And during this time, although clearly growing weaker physically and tiring easily, he was composing many of the lighthearted and lovely short pieces that were perfectly performed at his 103rd birthday concert at the 92nd Street Y.

We attended the ceremony, on September 21, 2012, at the French Embassy Cultural Services building in New York, at which Elliott was appointed Commander in the Legion of Honor. It was a touching moment. And what a happy way to say goodbye.

Carters & Chadabes 1995

The Carters and the Chadabes in 1995, photo courtesy Joel Chadabe.

[Ed. Note: In March 2000, NewMusicBox published an extensive conversation between Elliott Carter and Frank J. Oteri and in 2008, Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead (a longtime Carter fan) talked with Carter for Counterstream Radio.]

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Remembering Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

  1. Michael Robinson

    While an undergraduate, I took a summer job as a midnight guard at Jones Beach on Long Island. My duties basically consisted of not allowing any cars to enter a series of parking lots between 11 PM and 7AM. It certainly was tedious, sitting in my car alone, listening to the radio. However, one morning, as dawn was breaking, the music I was listening to miraculously coalesced with the complex counterpoint of nature uttered by varying bird, wind and ocean sounds. It was uncanny the degree to which both musics, that from the radio and that from nature, appeared to emanate from the same creative source. I became intensely curious to learn who the composer was during this sonic epiphany, and was stunned when Elliot Carter’s name was announced at the conclusion of the work because I had read that he was a cold, cerebral composer lacking in musical expressiveness.

    Similarly, some years ago, I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing new forms of inspired and original musical color and articulation coming from an unknown source, again on the radio. This time it turned out to be the computer music of Joel Chadabe, and it opened up an exciting, little explored musical domain.

  2. Susan Levenstein

    A beautiful piece, Joel. I thought I had already heard plenty of Elliott stories from Alvin but this is a treasure trove of new ones. I had the good fortune of meeting Elliott for the first and only time this June and was completely seduced by him as a man – his coming to the door to greet us, his gentlemanly interest in me (who cares about meeting new people when you’re 103?), his enthusiastic search for new directions for his own music, his sense of humor, his memory (he kept correcting Alvin). Thanks!

  3. Alvin Curran


    a great piece, full of wonderful past memories and future ones too.

    a set of lifelong connections and events that put Elliott at the central hub, the reference point, and friendship exchange. How odd you drove Elliott’s car to
    Berlin, and then came back to Rome with me and Joan Kalish in your own VW Beetle… Leaving me behind to hold the roman fort with Rzewski and Teitelbaum…Elliott and Helen helping us pay the Musica Elettronica Viva, garage-studio rent; soon appearing sitting in the front row at the Kitchen as I performed the “magnetic garden” sitting on the floor. My alterity, never put them off; probably kept them thinking how close and true to the new avant-gardists they’d remained
    But we have time to share our memories, alas no longer with dear Elliott.

    Frederic and I and Ursula were scheduled to visit with him again on October 6th… we were as they say, “psyched” – after a visit with Elliott in these last years, one came away feeling embarrassedly illuminated. But he’d fallen ill and had to cancel…

    so thanks again for your your beautiful words…. alvin c

  4. Jeff Harrington

    Those were wonderful stories. I shared my stories on S21 already, but maybe somebody would like to read them here.

    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!

  5. Stephen Ruppenthal

    Wonderful and touching piece on Elliot Carter. I keep returning to his music time and again. That he gave us such great music for so many years is a testament to why we do what we do. Such great memories; well put. Thanks so much! ~ Stephen

  6. Hilary Tann


    I so enjoyed reading this! Thank you for such a personal remembrance of Elliot Carter. I remember learning of Carter’s work in Wales/England, in the 70s, where highly he was respected. But when I first arrived in the US (1972) there seemed to be some question as to his stature. It’s so good to have increasingly heard his music being praised over the subsequent decades.



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