Meet the Composer Who Picked up Where Ives, Bernstein, and Stravinsky Left Off: Elliott Carter

American composer Elliott Carter had a unique and impactful career. So why is he not more widely discussed? His student, David Schiff, returns to the biography form to share Carter's story.

David Schiff
Oxford University Press
Aug 2018

There is a chapter in David Schiff‘s latest book on composer Elliott Carter titled “Musician, Wrestling”. This name is as apt as it is succinct.

Elliott Carter lived to be 103 years old. In his lifetime, he would witness drastic transformations within music, both classical and otherwise. He was far more prolific in his later years than in his early career, a counter-intuitive look at most musicians and composers. To the contemporary composer, he was perceived as too traditional. To the neo-classicists, he was too close to the avant-garde. Despite receiving helping hands from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland, Carter’s music was rarely recorded when compared to the compositions of his contemporaries. Early in his career, Carter struck up a friendship with composer Charles Ives only to reject his ideas and teachings just a few decades later — in public writings, no less. To liberal artists, he appeared politically conservative, and vice versa.

Yes, Carter’s life and career seem prone to contradictions. Therefore, it seems sensible that any books written about him shouldn’t be authored by an outsider. Composer, conductor, and writer David Schiff studied with Carter for three years at Julliard and even includes a picture in the book of him standing next to the composer in 1979. Carter is Schiff’s second book on the composer, meaning that the previously twice-published Music of Elliott Carter (Cornell, 1988) did not impart all there was to know about the contemporary classical giant. His final work, “Epigrams” (2012) for piano trio, was completed just four months before his death. On the first page of Carter, Schiff acknowledges the odd shape Carter’s career has taken: “His oeuvre, begun in 1928, spanned eighty-four years, but of his approximately 150 published works, half, including his only opera, were completed after he turned ninety.” Though the recognition and accolades came rolling in as his career progressed, Carter still had a knack for wrestling with himself and his surroundings, even when on the verge of turning 104 years of age.

But just as Carter’s music could be considered complex, urbane and off-putting to the uninitiated, Schiff’s telling of the late composer’s life is almost as difficult to penetrate. Despite his proximity to the subject at hand, the writer rarely relies on personal anecdotes to get certain points across. Normally, excessive use of this technique would probably grow tiresome for the reader. In Carter, the author does it so rarely that you are begging for someone to put together an oral history of the composer’s life instead. The overall tone of Schiff’s writing is flat and his use of technical musical terms is just barely within the layman’s grasp. Then again, this man is a graduate of Julliard, Columbia, and Cambridge. He earned his degrees the hard way so the he would able to include a chart in Carter denoting the composer’s preferred timing of each note length, within ten different meters and within eight different tempo markings whose names are derived from Latin [page 83].

Carter is not chronological in a strict sense. Instead, Schiff will reserve chapters to explore specific areas of Carter’s life and work. For example, Carter had such fruitful collaborations with poets such as John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop that they lead to many future compositions set to the poetry of since-departed writers like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Schiff needs to divvy this aspect of Carter’s career into two chapters.

In another chapter named “Back to Modernism. Back to Futurism. Back to New York (1948-1975)”, broken down into three sub-chapters, Schiff charts the choppy waters of Carter’s grappling with labels in 20th century music. On any given day, a New York City Bohemian could bristle at terms like “classical”, “avant-garde”, “modernism”, and the use of the “neo” prefix applied to any of these. Carter felt a professional kinship with Aaron Copland but was artistically drawn to the more adventurous aspects of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg. And while everyone was trying to sort out just exactly who stood where amid all of this, composers would tuck mild insults into their contributions to academic journals. I forget who exactly it was who disparaged Carter’s approach as “music about music”, but it’s enough to make any reader on the outside of academia stop and wonder if music is for listening or if it’s for picking apart and criticizing.

Schiff thankfully ends the book with a human touch. The epilogue, titled “Every Note Has Life In It”, references a video on YouTube that is believed to be Carter’s final camera “interview”. Schiff gives a brief rundown of this encounter, where cellist Alisa Weilerstein chats with Carter about his cello concerto that she is about to record for the Decca label. Here, Schiff finally begins to thaw: “The one-hundred-and-three-year-old Elliott Carter in this video strikes me as the very same person I met some forty years earlier. I hear the same voice, and I recognize the same sharp mind, and perfectly attuned ear and most of all the animated concern for the tiniest musical detail, a concern that I now see was at the very core of his musical aesthetic.” [page 226]

I realize that it’s the cool thing for the author to place a bit of distance between himself and their subject, especially if they have had a close relationship with the subject. But Schiff’s voice is so absent that you can’t help but notice. Maybe with a more personable approach, readers can get to know Elliott Carter as more than just an old professorial composer who spent too much time arguing with other old professorial composers.

RATING 6 / 10