Saturday, December 11, 2010

Happy birthday, Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter as he would appear on South Park.

Elliott Carter turned 102 today, and I just can't let the occasion pass. He's my favorite living composer, as anyone who has ever met me is aware, and he stands high among my favorite dead ones as well.

I'm guessing Mr. Carter celebrated his birthday the way he celebrates every new day of his life — by getting out of bed and writing music. He is still sharp, still vital, and while it is likely his greatest work is behind him, each new piece is still a welcome adventure. Every so often, one of them, such as the excellent Nine by Five for wind quintet, premiered just last February, will recapture the power of the music from Carter's peak years, the 1960s and '70s. One never knows, does one?

If I live to his age, I'll be happy if I can feed myself.

I celebrated the way I always do — with an in-home concert. Given the richness of Carter's output, selecting the program is always a challenge. I settled on a few favorites: the Oboe Concerto and the Second String Quartet, in performances recorded for me from BBC broadcasts by e-pal and fellow Carterphile Colin Green, and for the finale, the great Concerto for Orchestra (1969) in the rip-snorting reading by Pierre Boulez and the NY Philharmonic. (The recording is available only through the orchestra, in a six-CD box set of American music. The full set cost $90 and was worth every penny for those 21 minutes alone.)

For the past couple of months, I've been listening to Bach almost exclusively, and so I returned to Carter's music "with quite fresh ears for an old man," as Stravinsky wrote in a similar context. It was an invigorating experience. And the night is still young. I might return to the stereo before it's over.

Finally, I'd like to send Carter-Day greetings to the other bloggers and chatroom lurkers around the net who have wished the composer many happy returns of the day (and how many more of those can there be?): Doundou Tchil, Mark Berry, Steve Hicken, Bruce Hodges, Karl Henning, and Paul Yin, to name a few. You are all my friends in spirit.

Addendum: Here is a photo of Mr. Carter with Pierre Boulez (I'll leave it to you to guess which is which) taken Dec. 6 at an 85th-birthday concert for Boulez in NYC. Thanks to Bruce Hodges. When this was taken, Mr. Carter was five days shy of his 102d birthday.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Joe.

My Carter day listening included the Double Concerto and the Second Quartet, both of which he was working on or finishing in 1959, the year he was halway to 102.

I also spent some time composing, which is even more, for me, appropriate.

Unknown said...

Do you know why the previously listed Cummings cycle (A Sunbeam's Architecture) has apparently been removed from the Boosey and Hawkes work list? Was Carter dissatisfied with it or unable to finish it? Since this was the only work listed for 2010, it made me think that Carter had finally stopped composing. On the other hand, a press release from October on the Boosey website states that Carter is presently working on a short concerto for piano and percussion, and I understand he was well enough to attend the special birthday concert in Toronto that featured his recent concertino for clarinet. But what happened to the Cummings cycle? --Michael Greenwald

Joe Barron said...

Michael, it does seem to have vanished. I've sent an e-mail to Boosey asking the reason. Maybe they'll be nice enough to explain it.

And it turns out Mr. Carter didn't attend the Toronto concert after all. No explanation was given for that, either, though he was spotted at the Boulez birthday concert the evening before.

Bruce Hodges said...

Nice post, Joe. (And would love to see Elliott Carter on South Park.)

Joe Barron said...

Oh, they'd probably just turn him into some kind of beast. You can make your own South Park characters here:

I've done Charles Ives, Beethoven on skis, Rickie Lee Jones, and myself.

Joe Barron said...

Thanks for the link, Eric. (I assume I'm talking to Eric.) I left my comment at the site.

Joe Barron said...

Mike, this morning I received this response from Boosey: "A Sunbeam's Architecture" has been removed from the website pending final clearances of the e.e. cummings texts. The work has not been withdrawn.

So the problem, apparently, is copyright. Mr. Carter continues to compose.