When the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the New York premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1924, the once scandalous ballet score was already eleven years old. Its radical sounds had already seeped into classical composition, like water into the fissures in a stone, ready to split it open at winter’s first frost. Sitting, rapt, at Carnegie Hall that night was a fifteen-year old boy named Elliott Carter. Galvanized by the brutal force of Stravinsky’s music, the young Carter resolved to become a composer. His music would be the only kind of music that could follow in the wake of the Rite, the frost that would shatter the stone: angular, dissonant, plotted in Gordian rhythms, and almost terrifyingly smart.
Carter died earlier this week at the age of 103 in his Manhattan home, having lived long enough to see his music share billing with Stravinsky’s on programs of 20th Century masterworks.
Were Carter not a great composer, his life in music would still merit remembering for the sheer volume of change he witnessed. When Carter was born in New York City in December of 1908, Gustav Mahler – that last high priest of the Romantic spirit – was just shy of his one-year anniversary as director of the Philharmonic. Today in New York your best bet for catching an evening of the newest ‘classical’ music is on a boat moored in the East River, or at a club in the Village. There will almost assuredly be laptops involved. In some sense, Carter is among those responsible for the change, particularly where innovative rhythmic techniques are concerned. There’s a good argument to be made that Carter’s forays in to what he called ‘tempo modulation’ laid the groundwork for a composer with a malfunctioning tape deck named Steve Reich to develop the technique known as ‘phasing’ that much of today’s (classical, pop, hip hop — all of it) music would be unthinkable without.
Of course, almost no one writes in Carter’s difficult, academic language any longer. The story of how music got here from the paroxysm of the Rite is one of stylistic revolution after counter-revolution after revolution, ad nauseam. Granting the wisdom of the old saw about revolutions eating their children, it is one of Carter’s more intriguing legacies that he did not become lunch for his. Nor was he pushed aside and forgotten as the succeeding hordes of stylistic invaders sacked the great walled city of ‘concert music.’ Instead, he ended his life and career an elder statesman of music, the dean of American high modernism.
He shared with his fellow mid-century modernists a predilection for complexity. But, particularly in his ninth decade and beyond, Carter could sometimes replace “Who Cares If You Listen” severity with humor, playfulness, or even outright lyricism. Perhaps it was this amiable take on often forbidding modernist idioms that made Cater such a beloved figure. Or perhaps it was the very fact of his late-career efflorescence in itself. There is, after all, a certain charm in watching a nonagenarian take a curtain call at Tanglewood.
Whatever the cause of his current esteem, ultimately Carter’s reputation will rest on history’s judgment of his music. Here are some pieces that you do not want to miss: the landmark Cello Sonata; the Pacifica Quartet playing the String Quartets; the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for woodwind quartet; Ursula Oppens playing the piano music; and just so you know that such a thing is possible, Eight Pieces for Four Timpani. For the intrepid listener, it can be a fun challenge to attempt counting along with Carter’s famed rhythmic metamorphosing. Be advised, though, that it’s worth packing a few aspirin if you decide to set off on such an adventure. Ultimately, perhaps the willingness to adventure in our musical diet is precisely the lesson we should take from Carter — both the man who lived so much history, and the composer who wrote so ferociously and so well.
Ursula Oppens plays Elliott Carter's "Retrouvailles" at Symphony Space on January 17, 2008.