Well, I’m having a little fun with that title. In 2002, I did some Internet scribbles on Jimmy Carter, calling these scribbles “Carterpalooza.” That piece gained some notoriety. (Find it here, if you like.) The Carter I mean this time is Elliott Carter, the American composer born in 1908. He is a different kind of Carter.
Elliott Carter turned 100 on December 11. This was a big occasion in the music world — the classical-music world — and there were many celebratory concerts. There were also releases of retrospective CDs and the like. I visited Carter a few weeks before his birthday, and did a piece for National Review (“Centenarian of the Hour,” December 29). I would like to expand on that piece now — as I did with a Marilyn Horne piece, in a “palooza” published last week (here).
Carter is surely the senior composer in the world. And he is steadily working. He has been especially productive in the last ten years — indeed, in the last five years. He is not, however, the longest-lived composer we have ever had. That distinction probably goes to Leo Ornstein, who lived from 1893 to 2002 — to the age of 108. The musicologist David Dubal once told me that Ornstein must be the only person to have written music in three different centuries.
Think of 1908 for a bit. When Carter was born, Theodore Roosevelt was president. Mahler and Debussy were still working. Rimsky-Korsakov had died a few months before. Richard Strauss was only in his mid-40s. Rachmaninoff was merely in his mid-30s.
As Carter himself points out, he has seen tremendous changes, in music and elsewhere.
Carter is a New Yorker, and New York-born. He has occupied the same apartment since 1945 — it is in Greenwich Village. And it is there that I visit him. “This neighborhood was a slum, and we paid very little for the apartment — very little in rent. Later, people got together and formed a cooperative, and we all bought little shares.”
His neighbors used to include E. E. Cummings and Marianne Moore. Also the composer Edgard Varèse. “I got into this field because I heard music like that” — like his — “in the ’20s.” The big moment came when Carter heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — this was in Carnegie Hall, Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From then on, he knew he had to be a composer.
In conversation, Carter is quick and amusing, with a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye. He talks in a way that very, very few New Yorkers do now: New England-y. You encounter this type of speech, in Manhattan, only once in a while.
And travel beyond Manhattan a bit: A few years ago, I heard John Sweeney, the labor leader, speak in Davos. His accent was curiously hard to place. I asked him whether he was a New Englander. He said no — the Bronx. No one today talks as Sweeney does, or very few.
Carter’s grandfather, Eli Carter, fought in the Civil War. He was at Gettysburg, in fact — and Carter knew him well. “Grandpa was a jolly old man, who had lots of fun, and was very shrewd. How he made the transition from fighting in the Civil War to becoming the leading lace-curtain importer in New York City, I cannot understand, but that is what he did.”
At Gettysburg, Eli Carter hid behind a tree — of course, this was not at all uncommon. And Elliott Carter points out the extensive desertion that took place during the war, on both sides.
Eventually, Carter’s grandfather sold the lace-curtain business to Carter’s father, Elliott Sr. He did so “at a considerable price,” says Carter, “meaning we were quite poor for some time!” How long did Elliott Sr. own the business? “Until it flopped,” which was during the Depression, when “no one wanted to have things like lace curtains around.”
Elliott Sr. was “partially lame,” says Carter, because he had had polio. And he died “from oversmoking,” he says. Did Carter himself ever smoke? “I stopped when he died.”
Elliott Jr. was already eight years old when America entered the First War. And, living on 114th St. at Riverside Drive, he saw a little of this war: “The Hudson River was full of British warships, and I remember very distinctly British sailors wandering around on Riverside Drive.”
Radio was new then, and the young Carter toyed with them — homemade — on the roof of his building.
After the war, his father took him on several trips to Europe, and they saw the devastation that had occurred: “dreadful things,” says Carter. Hunger was acute. A later trip took them to Baden-Baden in 1923 — and Carter remembers reading in a newspaper that President Harding had died.
This leads me to ask him whether he has a favorite president. After a few moments, he says, “Oh, certainly one can’t fail to say that it is Abraham Lincoln.” I was thinking of presidents during his lifetime — but, of course, he is right.
Neither of Carter’s parents was musical, and they would not have chosen a composing career for their son. That’s putting it mildly. “My father was always trying to get jobs for me, and he didn’t like the fact that I liked music. I loaded crates and did other things. In the evenings, I read books on orchestration and so on.”
But Carter caught a break at the famed Horace Mann School. (The school “must have cost the folks a lot,” says Carter, “and it had at that time a great many unusual people” — including Eugene O’Neill’s son, who became one of Carter’s best friends.) A teacher, Clifton Furness, introduced his charges to Charles Ives, and the composer took an interest in Carter. “Mr. Ives used to subscribe to a box in Carnegie Hall, and he’d occasionally invite me to sit with him.”
Jump forward several years. Carter has completed graduate studies at Harvard, and, on the advice of his teacher Walter Piston, is about to go off to Paris, to study with Nadia Boulanger. “I visited Ives, because my family had a house near them in Westport, Conn., and Ives thought that was a very bad thing to do, go to Paris.” Ives preferred that Carter remain on native grounds.
“I remember several things about that meeting. He sat down and played some of the Concord Sonata, in a different version from the one that was printed. And he began holding a big vein in his neck. His wife said, ‘Charlie, you better stop,’ and brought him a glass of milk.”
And “one time when I visited, there was a kitten, and it climbed up into my sleeve. I didn’t know what it was, and I tried not to talk about it. When I finally pulled out a kitten, everybody laughed a lot.”
I say, “Ives was a big talent, wasn’t he?” Carter answers, “He was a very original composer, yes.”
Carter did indeed go to Harvard — matriculating in 1926, graduating in 1930. He then did two years of graduate work there. “I was at Harvard during the time when the Depression started and during the time of Prohibition. We all made bathtub gin and all the rest of it.” And “a good many” of Carter’s classmates “were concerned with modern art: Lincoln Kirstein, who started the New York City Ballet, Alfred Barr,” who would direct the Museum of Modern Art, and others. “We were always somewhat outsiders. All those other guys wanted to do was learn to make money on Wall Street.”