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Elliott Carter

By John Harbison

Elliott Carter died last November 5th, only a few weeks short of his 104th birthday, having completed his last piece, Dialogues II, last summer. There were sketches for the next pieces on his work table.

Compositional productivity after ninety-five is a new field, pretty much dominated by Elliott. His pieces in those bonus years have an appealing, exploratory, nothing-to-prove quality. He was blessed as he often said by a strong constitution and a curiosity about “what’s next.” Very seldom, after a difficult day, his friend Virgil Blackwell heard him remark that he felt like he was a hundred years old.

After losing Elliott, I hope some of you decided to listen to something he wrote, instead of reading about him. I chose the Concerto for Orchestra, a notoriously formidable piece carrying the weightiness of his hard-won works of the middle sixties. I remembered thinking that it was the truest Concerto for Orchestra since Bartok, each player playing something important—lots of detail, but still an orchestral sweep.

And I knew there was a great recorded performance, conducted by Oliver Knussen, so I started it playing. It is a blast. It’s based on the poem “Vents” by Saint-John Perse, and reading that poem makes it clear that Elliott, our most well-read composer, got a lot from it. Wind surges through it, roaring and whistling, unsettling, menacing, then suddenly familiar and calm. If you go with it you are tossed around, you lose your sense of gravity. It’s a roller coaster, a sky-dive, an altered state. Above all it is strange, the way things this elusive, robust, and original are strange. It all takes place in just twenty minutes, less than the length of three rock tracks or a sit-com episode.

At Tanglewood in the summer of 2008 a great celebration took place, which involved the performance of fifty Carter compositions, in his presence. As it happened, the summer’s programs also involved a lot of music by Olivier Messiaen, who was born one day before Carter. Messiaen died in 1992, thus not among us but still there. It would be impossible to imagine two major composers aesthetically more distant. Messiaen, a Catholic believer, constructor of rituals, repetitions, incense-drenched melody and crazed birdsong tropes, a composer for whom time can stand still, or even reach backwards. Carter, the skeptic, the agnostic, maker of Robert Altman-like simultaneous conversations, sending his trains, cars, planes moving at different speeds to destinations that often turn out to be mirages. To me, hearing these composers together put them in their best light, unapologetic, inimitable, their very strangeness a celebration of the possibilities of concert music in their time.

That summer the six Tanglewood composition fellows challenged Elliott with their knowledge of his work. I marveled that this indefatigable centenarian was the same person that my generation knew and questioned fully fifty years before.

One bold young composer asked Elliott what he thought of Messiaen’s piece played earlier that day. A little on the spot, needing to answer both from his aesthetic conviction, and his momentary role as mentor, Elliott found a nice word for it, “strange.”

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters