I attended my first all−Elliott Carter program in April 1976, when Speculum Musicae performed at the YMHA on South Broad Street in Philadelphia. I was 18 years old. Fred Sherry played the Cello Sonata. Rolf Schulte played the Duo. Both were accompanied by Ursula Oppens on piano.
Last night, I watched Schulte, Sherry, and Oppens present the world premiere of Epigrams, the last piece Elliott Carter wrote. Little has changed in 37 years (and Rolf’s hair hasn’t changed at all). The biggest difference between last night and 1976 is that last night, Mr. Carter was not present.
The premiere was the centerpiece of a memorial concert at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in Manhattan. Just about everyone who matters in Carter’s world was there. Friends greeted one another with kisses. The men wore ties. Carter’s son, David, delivered a brief speech from his wheelchair. Several of Carter’s musical friends and associates also spoke. I felt as though I had walked into the kind of wake I used to attend as a Catholic schoolboy. The only things missing were the smell of eucalyptus and the open casket.
My sense sense loss was strongest, however, during a brief film that included old interviews with the composer. It pained me to watch him speak from the grave. I was also reminded of how much I miss Charles Rosen, who appeared in several clips.
(Rosen spoke of the way in which Carter synthesized the legacies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The legacy of Ives went unacknowledged.)
Besides Epigrams, the program included Mad Regales, for six voices a cappella, and What Are Years? — the song cycle on poems of Marianne More. Lucy Shelton was the vocalist. David Fulmer conducted. The performances were all excellent, if brief. (In a program lasting close to two hours, there was perhaps 40 minutes worth of music.) Mad Regales was especially memorable, thanks largely to the presence of the bass baritone Evan Hughes. Oppens introduced Epigrams as “twelve examples of how not to write a trio” and said Carter had fun writing it.
From my perspective, it’s a small-scale tour de force, an exploration of the sonorities possible in the unwieldy combination of violin, cello, and piano. Carter enjoyed a challenge, and the challenge in this case was balance. Despite the brevity of the movements, it’s a substantial piece, and it seemed fitting that the last note of the last composition Carter would ever write was a single violin pizzicato preceded by several seconds of silence. Under the circumstances, it felt like a gesture of farewell.