Elliott Carter, composer, December 11, 1908-November 5, 2012
He was an artist of plenitude. His music is so full of sonic detail it often seems about to burst. What if we gave our daily lives, moment by moment, the sort of full-force attention his music demands—and rewards?
Cello Concerto (2001), dress rehearsal, 2008, New York
Julliard Orchestra (James Levine, cond.) with Dane Johansen, cello
As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.
I just can’t bring myself to do something that someone else has done before. Each piece is a kind of crisis in my life.
I like to sound spontaneous and fresh, but my first sketches often sound mechanical. I have to write them over until they sound spontaneous.
I have loved Elliott Carter’s music for many years. Last month, I recorded his cello concerto, and I was speaking to him only last Saturday. For me, he was the most important American composer of his time. His music was not complicated, but it was complex. I think its outstanding quality was that it always seemed to be in good humour. If Haydn had lived in the 21st century, he would have probably have composed like this.
When you get to be 103, modernism is a very wide concept. In some aspects he was ahead of his times, but then some of his music doesn’t sound like music of the future – but it is unmistakable and I simply love it. The problem with listening to music today is that there’s so much of it everywhere. We’ve got used to hearing music without actually listening to it. Carter’s is to be listened to.
—Daniel Barenboim, conductor, pianist
I met him on an incredibly hot day in New York last summer. He was affable and kind, and was using a giant magnifying glass to look at a score. When I asked if I could play a passage of his cello concerto, he said: “Of course, but I don’t hear so well.” He lasted about seven seconds before he stopped me with incredibly detailed observations about my playing. He told me things about the work I’d never heard before, saying he’d wanted to make use of the cello’s incredible expressive possibilities. “I wanted it to sing,” he said.
In the fourth movement, he wanted my playing to be more expressive, which is something I’m rarely told. Usually people tell me to calm down! He composed every day, too. Even on that day, when it was over 40 degrees [Celsius], he’d got up that morning to write.
—Alisa Wellerstein, cellist