The Horn

Contact Me

Receive Email Updates

The Great American Composer Elliott Carter Has Died At 103 .

  Elliott Carter , generally acknowledged to be the greatest American composer of the present day, has died at the  extraordinary age of 103  in his native New York . Even more remarkably , he remained active  as a composer  until just before his passing . His death  comes just a week after  that of  Hans Werner Henze , which I covered  last week here . Carter was not  as well known to the general public  as  Aaron Copland  , Samuel Barber and a few other American composers , but  he enjoyed  the esteem of  many  of the world's leading music critics , scholars , conductors and instrumentalists , as  well as many other distinguished composers for decades and  won virtually every award a composer  could receive , including a Pulitzer prize .

    Carter was born in December  1908 , when Theodore Roosevelt was  President , and died  just one day before  Barack Obama  was re-elected .  He was the son of a wealthy New York  merchant  and  was by no means a  child prodigy .  But  the great composer Charles ives, who  was  an insurance executive by profession  and  sold insurance to his father, befriended the teenage  Carter  and encouraged his musical insterests  .  The youth  became  studied music diligently but enrolled in Harvard  as an English major ,later studying  music there on the graduate level  .  He also  went to Paris to study composition with  the  legendary   teacher Nadia Boulanger  , who taught  many  young Americans who  went on to  major careers as composers, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson .

    Carter began  writing music  of  a populist style  similar to  Aaron Copland  , but did not  find his own voice until  the early 1950s , when  he wrote his  acclaimed  first string quartet , which  launched his  career as  a  composer of  uncompromisingly  complex , thorny and challenging music .  He never used  the Schonebergian  12-tone technique  which was adapted by so many other composers of the day , but  developed a freely atonal  technique of his own  .

    Over the years , Carter  wrote four more string quartets,  assorted orchestral works, concertos for violin, cello, piano,  and other instruments, choral works, songs ,  piano works , and even  one opera, written at  the age of 90 !   Many  concertgoers were perplexed  and even  outraged by  the  baffling complexity of his works  and  their  utter lack of  conventional  melodiousness  ,  but  many prominent critics  recognized  the  brilliance of  compositional technique and inventiveness of the music , and many prominent  conductors ,  pianists ,  and other  musicians  championed his works  and  even  befriended him  . 

    Despite  the  extreme difficulty  they  posed to  orchestras , pianists and chamber ensembles ,  Carter's works were regularly performed  all over America and Europe  .  Orchestras and conductors required extra rehearsal time  to  prepare his orchestral works  for performance , so  he was not performed  as often at concerts as other contemporary composers , but  they  did  get performed with some regularity ,  and  there have been  numerous  recordings  .  Eminent conductors such as  Leonard Bernstein,  Sir Georg Solti,Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, James levine,  and others  progrmmed his orchestral works despite  the  reluctance of  many  conservative concertgoers to  hear challenging music ,  and  leading pianists such as  Charles Rosen  and Ursula Oppens  played  his  piano concerto  and solo  piano works  regularly and recorded them .  The  Juilliard string quartet and other leading quartets played his  string quartets often  and recorded them .

    Carter also taught composition at Juilliard and Queens college  in New York  , and wrote articles  on his music and other contemporary composers  and  traveled regularly to Europe  to  participate in  festivals of contemporary music  and teach .

    When you  hear Carter's music for the first time ,  you will probably be  confused ,disoriented  and baffled  until  you get accustomed to it .  If you are looking for  juicy , lush ,melodious music  you  will be disappointed .  But to do this is to miss the point altogether .  Carter's music  seems  rhythmically chaotic at first  and there are so many different  rhythms going on simultaneously .  But everything is  rigorously organized despite the apparent chaos  .

    Carter's music is diametrically opposed to  the  minimalist , highly repetitious style of his younger ocntemporary  Philip Glass , which seems to  bother many listeners with  its relentless  repetition .  The older composer's works  seem  to be totally lacking in repetition ; the music is in a constant state of flux  , and there is no sense  of  going from one theme to another  , and returning to  this or that theme as  you find in  the familiar works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky etc .  To use a cliche, you have to go with the flow, and follow the music  as it goes on its  mercurial course . 

    The variations for orchestra  is probably the  best introduction to  Carter's music ; it's quite complex but  relatively approachable .  Other orchestral works by Carter include  the Concerto for orchestra,  Symphony of Three orchestras, which  features  three different  instrumental groups within the orchesta contending with each other ,  the piano concerto ,  and the various concertos for cello, violin, clarinet and French horn . 

    A good place to check for recordings  of Carter  and  countless other composers is  arkivmusic.com , where you cna look up any recording by either composer or performer and easily order it  .  If you are willing to challenge your ear and brain ,  the music of Carter is the perfect place to start .

Posted: Nov 07 2012, 11:12 PM by the horn | with no comments
Add to Bloglines Add to Del.icio.us Add to digg Add to Facebook Add to Google Bookmarks Add to Newsvine Add to reddit Add to Stumble Upon Add to Shoutwire Add to Squidoo Add to Technorati Add to Yahoo My Web