By Ted AYALA
The milestones and events that have dotted the calendar this year have been innumerable and, in many cases, unforgettable. But the passing of one of the United States’ most respected – certainly the most senior still active – was for many musicians an unexpected blow.
Composer Elliott Carter died from natural causes on Nov. 5, just over a month before his birthday on Dec. 11. Carter, who was 103 years old, was the last of the generation of U.S. composers who came to maturity in the first half of the 20th Century. Among his contemporaries and friends were composers Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, and Samuel Barber.
A late-bloomer musically, it was not until his 40s that Carter found his voice: thorny, complex yet shot through with a craggy sort of beauty. His work, though highly respected, drew the ire of many critics for its seeming inapproachability.
“It had passionate admirers for the same reason it had passionate adherents: its music by perhaps the last important composer who didn’t really care what people thought of his music,” said KUSC radio host Jim Svejda. “He honestly believed that the reason people didn’t get it is that people weren’t yet intelligent enough to get it; he also believed – with absolute confidence – that the day would come when human evolution would allow him to become one of the most popular of all composers. If nothing else, you have to admire that kind of faith in the future of the species.”
Carter, though based in New York City, had deep roots in Southern California. Many musicians in the region knew the composer personally and had collaborated with him.
“He was the most inspiring composer to work with in rehearsal of my career,” recalled Southwest Chamber Music’s Artistic Director Jeff von der Schmidt. “Every composer should study his work habits. [Carter] anticipated the interconnected world we now take for granted. [His] scores are multiple split-screens in music – and the little voice wins out in the end. The complexity is not gratuitous, but a result of a common sense wisdom that develops if one closely observes the world we live in.”
Adrian Spence, artistic director for Camerata Pacifica, remembered seeing the composer at his 103rd birthday party last year. His energy and lucidity, according to Spence, belied the composer’s age.
“On [the program for his birthday tribute] were five premieres, one of which was a string trio that he wrote and dedicated to cellist Fred Sherry, violinist Rolf Schulte, and myself,” said Spence. “Carter was a tremendous connection to our past and a profound catalyst for music today. His language dealt in complexities and not sentiment. He was kind, witty and charming and I am so very honored to have met and worked with him.”
Though some of Carter’s critics quipped that the fame his music earned in the last 30 years had more to do with the novelty of a composer of such advanced age still working, others have attested to the music’s lasting value. Whether audiences “got” it or not, Carter, they argue, was right.
“He was the last great representative of that generation of serious composers who managed to forget – if they ever knew it in the first place – that a composer’s first and only function is to communicate with other human beings,” said Svejda. “[Carter] would argue that that’s what he did for 70 years. The fact that the people who were actually capable of grasping what he was doing constituted a miniscule fraction of that already tiny fraction of humanity that loves serious music wouldn’t have bothered him in the least. Needless to say, he had a mad, wholly admirable point. God rest him.”