I've been a Carter aficionado since the mid '60s, when I first heard his landmark Cello Sonata (from 1948) and his first two String Quartets (1950 and 1959 — Carter was awarded the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for the latter; the second was for his Quartet No. 3). Even his most difficult music has unforgettable melodies, and his extraordinary slow movements can be at once sublime and intensely intimate. I met him for the first time when I interviewed him for the Phoenix in 1977. He was intimidating because he didn't suffer fools or flatterers, and let one know it. I had to convince him that I really loved his music (which I did), before he would open up. He and his endearingly crusty wife, Helen, were always very kind to me.
Elliott Carter's Birthday Celebration at Tanglewood
I saw him last at his apartment in New York at the end of August. When I arrived, he was at his desk, working on a new piece called Epigrams — 12 short pieces for piano trio. He was excited about planning a new song cycle based on the fragmentary poems of Sappho. His poetry settings, especially American poems, have been central to his output since the late 1930s. First Dickinson, Frost, and Whitman; later, Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery; and more recently, Wallace Stevens, Louis Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound.
When I told him I thought his Stevens cycle, In the Distances of Sleep, which was performed at his centenary at Tanglewood, was one of his most moving works, he said that he had completed a second Stevens set, commissioned by James Levine, and that he was glad to hear that Levine was recovering, because he was eager to hear that new piece. I also mentioned that his early Three Poems of Robert Frost were still among my favorites, especially the zippy, tuneful "The Rose Family" ("The rose is a rose,/And was always a rose. . . . You, of course, are a rose— /But were always a rose"). He agreed that he still liked that one, but that he never thought the third song —"The Line Gang"— ever really worked. He seemed pleased that Double Trio, the 2011 piece that was performed by the Tanglewood fellows last summer, had gone over so well. Most of what he's written in his last four or five years has had, along with its seriousness, a delicious and delicate lightness you could even call "youthfulness."
After an hour, he started to tire. I left optimistic about more conversations. I wanted to ask him about movies. The time structure of his First Quartet was, he has written, based on the structure of Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, in which everything that happens in the film is a kind of dream that takes place in the split second between the event that opens and closes the film. I've been curious about whether he knew Robert Altman's movies, because their multiple layering of dialogue reminds me so much of Carter's theory of "metrical modulation."
I console myself that at least there is important Carter that hasn't yet been performed here, or performed at all. And that Richard Pittman and David Hoose at Collage New Music will surely schedule more Carter. On November 18, the BSO Chamber Players are playing two long-planned relatively recent Carter works. And I hope that whoever the new BSO music director turns out to be will also rise to that rich challenge.
Still, some huge, unfillable hole has just opened in the world of music.