Politics & Policy


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.”

You would almost think that was something bad!

Carter went to Harvard in part to be near the Boston Symphony, which, under Serge Koussevitzky, was playing a lot of modern music. But he did not enroll in the music department: “In those years, the department was entirely devoted to teaching church organists, and it was extremely conventional. I was interested in what was called advanced or avant-garde music,” and they were not.

Carter studied English, learning under such eminent scholars as Irving Babbitt and George Lyman Kittredge. Babbitt was the great anti-romantic, contending, as Carter says, that “romanticism has ruined literature.” And Kittredge, according to Carter, was “a tyrant. I mean, everybody went there — he always had a full classroom — and if anybody sneezed or coughed, he’d say, ‘You get out of here!’ So we all sat in terror.” Carter also studied philosophy with the renowned Alfred North Whitehead.

And he sang in the glee club — all six years he was at Harvard. “It was a wonderful thing. Sometimes, we were engaged by the Boston Symphony. We sang the Brahms Requiem, and the Missa solemnis of Beethoven, and the Bach B-minor Mass. Then we had the big moment, when Stokowski came and trained the men to sing Oedipus Rex of Stravinsky, which was just being done. It was a new thing at the time. We were all shipped off to New York, and we sang it at the Metropolitan Opera House.”

‐When it came time to enroll in graduate school, Carter enrolled, not in English, but in music. What had changed? Harvard’s department had become more congenial — more congenial to the modern. His two principal teachers were Walter Piston and Gustav Holst (composer of The Planets). Piston, says Carter, was a “fussy” man who “liked to turn everything into a rather disagreeable joke.”

For example, Carter showed him a string quartet, whose idea was to have each instrument play “a different kind of music,” making up “a whole thing.” (Those are Carter’s words.) Piston said, “If I had written that, I’d have had each musician put in a different room, with the door shut.”

“That’s the kind of joke he would make,” says Carter. “It was sometimes hard to take.”

But you could learn a great deal from Piston: particularly about the instruments of the orchestra and how to write for them. For example, he’d get a tuba player from the Boston Symphony, and “we’d figure out the different fingerings, and how fast he could play, and the sounds the instrument could make.”

Holst visited for a semester from England. He was then “rather aged,” says Carter, and suffered from poor eyesight. You had to play him your pieces on the piano, rather than hand in manuscripts. And, “whenever we wrote anything dissonant, he would say, ‘You’d better learn to play the piano better’!”

By the way, Holst — whom Carter has described (correctly) as “rather aged” — died at 59, not long after he taught Carter. Carter, of course, is 41 years older.

‐After Harvard, Carter went to Paris to study with Boulanger, teacher of generations of Americans (in particular). He has many stories and memories about “Nadia”: “Evidently, she had been told, when she was very young, that she would go blind,” which indeed happened, but over decades. “So she made an enormous effort to memorize everything. And as a result, she had all these scores right in her head,” enabling her to cite you something in an instant.

And “she was always encouraging us to do difficult things, like playing the piano with your hands crossed” — so that the left hand played what was written for the right hand, and vice versa. Also, she had her students sing Bach cantatas, focusing on the compositional details, absorbing everything.

‐Carter himself became a teacher: at Columbia, Yale, Juilliard, and other places. One of his earliest jobs was at St. John’s College, the Great Books redoubt in Annapolis. It was Carter’s mission to introduce music to the program. He taught Euclid’s geometry and suchlike, finding out what the ancients had to say about music.

‐His scientific knowledge is considerable, even if he demurs from this assessment. I ask, “Has it been a help in your music?” He answers, “I don’t think so. Scientific knowledge is above what I do in music. I’m concerned with a very practical field” — fitting music to performers and so on. “I don’t care what the numerical relations of the notes are and all that.”

Time was, numerical relations were all the rage in composition. “I tried to write like that once, and it bored me, so I stopped.”

‐I ask whether nationality plays any role in his music. Is Carter’s music American, or is it devoid of — you may prefer to say free of — national identity? He answers this way:

“America is a different nation from almost any other nation. In Russia, there are mostly Russians, and in France there are mostly Frenchmen. In America, there are a great many different kinds of people, different kinds of culture. And this is true not only now: It has always been that way. As a result, what it is to be American is puzzling. America is something we are creating day by day.”

Carter goes on to talk about the Founders, and what they took from Montesquieu, etc. Then he notes, “The French have changed constitution three or four times even in my lifetime. But we’ve stuck with ours.”


‐Evolving as a composer, Carter made important investigations into rhythm. “I spent some time in Tunisia,” he says, “and got very interested in the drumming patterns of Arabic music.” Carter is liable to have two different speeds going at the same time. He is a pioneer in what is possible in tempo and rhythm. And “my music got started, I think, by listening to jazz. In jazz, as in almost all dance music, there’s a regular beat in the background and, against that, improvisation. My music is all like that.”

‐Some people think that melody is passé. How about Carter? No — but one can mean many different things by melody, he says. He himself writes melodies that may not be recognized as such by listeners. And Schubert, he points out, could make a melody from just a couple of notes.

Moreover, “Nadia used to talk about ‘Tea for Two.’” And, you will agree, there is a real economy about that melody.

‐I ask what Carter thinks when he hears his early works — music written, say, 70 years ago (before he became the thoroughly modernist Carter we know). “Oh, you know, it’s a picture of Elliott Carter back then . . .”

‐When Carter speaks of “the old music” — the old music of the world, not his own — he does not mean Monteverdi, Byrd, and Rameau. He means the entire sweep of music, up from those early composers all the way through, say, Wagner. And the “old” composers did well in that “they dealt with the material available at the time and made it speak very strongly.”

But Carter regards this music as belonging to the past, and “no longer the most vivid thing that one can do.” The old music may be “fantastically beautiful,” but “it doesn’t quite speak in the way that modern music does.”

On that, many, of diverse opinions, can agree.

‐What about the so-called Neo-Romantics such as Barber — can Carter respect them, even as he diverges from them? “Well, some of us felt that the kind of music Sam wrote had already been done, only done better than anybody could do it now. Therefore there was no reason to do it now.” Grinning, Carter says, “What Sam did was deplorable,” but his music, nonetheless, “is rather good.”

‐Who have been the composers among his friends? “Pierre Boulez — I’ve known him for many, many years. I knew Stravinsky quite well, in the latter part of his life. And I knew Varèse very well. But the closest people in my life have been performers, rather than composers — even now. James Levine and Daniel Barenboim are two people who have made a great impression on me.

“And, oh, Aaron Copland was very important as one of my friends.”

‐Which composer would Carter like to meet, just to talk things over with? I mean, composer of the past? He answers without a moment’s hesitation: Debussy. Why? “Because I think he was so inventive, and he wrote so many different kinds of music that were all the same style, all his kind of music. And he was a remarkable composer.”

That statement — “he wrote so many different kinds of music that were all the same style, all his kind of music” — may at first be hard to grasp. But familiarity with Debussy’s music will confirm the deep truth of the statement.

‐Carter had plenty of talks with Stravinsky — “but he’d say, ‘Oh, I forgot how I wrote that,’ so you couldn’t get anything out of it!”

‐Entering his eleventh decade, Carter feels he is still learning about music: “Each piece I write I consider an adventure. I’ve learned a lot by trying to be a composer.”

‐And does he think he has gotten better? “Well, I don’t . . . I refuse . . . Of course I think I’ve gotten better. Who wouldn’t think that?”

‐Then there is the touchy question of whether he cares whether people like his music: “That depends on the degree of ‘care’ you mean. What I care about is having performers who like my music and want to play it and play it well.” The public has a way of coming around. “I mean, I had a concert last night — the whole concert was of my music — and the public was very enthusiastic. Those same pieces, had they been played 20 years ago, would have met with very little comprehension.”

‐Another touchy question: Does Carter believe his music will last? “You tell me what the future’s going to be, and I’ll tell you the answer. God only knows the future. In my own lifetime, there has been such an enormous change in every conceivable way that it would be hard to predict the future — even ten or fifteen years [out]. The coming of computers and all that — something no one would have thought of . . .”

‐He does not have a roster of pieces he feels he needs to write — he simply goes from one project or commission to the next. “I guess I’m just walking through life, where my music is concerned.”

‐But there are certain books he would like to read. He’s reading through Shakespeare’s plays now, and he would like to read more Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Proust. He does not think he will get to it, though.

At his side, at the moment, is a book of criticism by Meyer Schapiro.

‐A funny question, but one I think Carter might like to entertain: Will music ever be finished? Does it have an endpoint? No, says Carter. He muses, “Do you think the English language is infinite? This is the kind of question you can’t answer, obviously. It could be that something will replace our ability to speak — that we’ll be able to communicate in some other way than speaking. It could be the same in music, but I don’t believe that. As long as people are alive, these things may be modified, but they will be very similar to what we know.”

‐Carter does not listen to a lot of music on his stereo. “At my age, I’m extremely busy writing my music and keeping fatigue out of the way. Most of the music is in my head by now. I don’t like to listen to recordings of my own music, either: because a) people don’t play it right and b) I feel I didn’t write the right thing. I think I should have changed something.”

Does he ever go back and revise? “Yes, but my experience is, having done that, I like it better the way it was the first time!”

‐On popular music: “It has not been good for a long time. Popular music has receded in musical interest” and has been taken over “by the words. It is the texts that make popular music popular now — much more than was true at one time.”

Many, many classical composers will tell you this: that the music in popular music has been forgotten, or consigned to secondary status, while the words — however good or abhorrent — are ascendant.

‐Says Carter, “Prior to television, there was radio, and people were listening, developing their listening. But when television came, everything got more visual. When the New York Philharmonic did a piece of mine” — his William Carlos Williams songs — “they insisted on showing me in a film, explaining the piece. They made the film right here.” (Carter points to the couch on which he is seated.)

‐I ask whether he enjoys writing prose. “I really enjoy writing prose, or I would enjoy writing prose if I didn’t have to write it over and over again. I’m very fussy. I don’t really know why. What I write the first time around is disappointing, and I have to make it better and improve it constantly.”

How about in music? Does he go through multiple drafts? “Yes and no. I don’t do it quite that way. I have an idea, and sometimes the idea is for something that will occur in the middle of the piece. Then I have to find out how you get there and how you leave.”

‐Are the 100th-birthday celebrations a bother to him, distracting him from his work, or a pleasure? “They bother me, but I’d be disappointed if they didn’t happen.”

‐On boredom: “Oh, I’m never bored. Well, I’m almost never bored. I go to the bathroom sometimes and I’m bored — that’s about all.”

‐I ask, “Do you wake up eager to greet the day?” He says, “I greet the day trying to think of the piece I’m writing. And very often a lot of my music is sort of what I write before I get up in the morning.”

‐“Do you write by hand or with some kind of computer program?” “I write it all by hand. I used to write it in ink, and now I’m writing with a pencil. Stravinsky used to say, ‘The way you write music is with an eraser.’”

Did Boulanger have a neat hand? Yes, very. “We had these counterpoint exercises, and she was always fussy about how we wrote them. How neat they were. You had to do it in ink, because the pencils shined too much for her, and it was hard for her to see.” Those who had an especially neat hand, Boulanger invited to her house. “We were singing Bach cantatas all the time, and at that time they had no orchestra parts, so, starting at 10:30 at night, we would copy parts for Bach cantatas. This would go on to 2 in the morning sometimes, and she’d give us a little whisky to keep us going. In Paris, at that hour, it is very hard to get around on the subway, and I lived far away from her, so it was troublesome for me. But I did it.

“One day she said, ‘Carter, if you made a spot on your copy, I wouldn’t invite you again.’ So I made a spot.”

Did Boulanger make good on her threat? “Yes.”

‐“At the concert last night, they gave me a birthday cake — at the end, there was a cake.” Was it good? “Well, I didn’t have very much.” Why? “Yesterday, I fell down on the floor, and I can’t get up when I fall down, and the woman who stays here, helping out, had to lift me up. She had great trouble. So I decided I was too fat. I’ve got to be able to be picked up, if I fall again, by somebody who’s not too strong.”

“Let’s call it a fluke,” I say. He seems to agree. (And there is nothing unfit about him.)

‐Before I leave, I say, “Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground.” He says, “I didn’t talk about my wife, but . . .” Is that not a lovely tribute from a husband to a wife? She was Helen Jones Carter, a “sculptress,” as her husband says. A year older than he, she died five years ago, aged 95. I say, “I bet she was pretty.” He says, “Well, I always thought so.” “Did she like music?” “I think so.” Her field was art, but, “yes, she liked music. She gave up her profession shortly after we were married, because she said it made such a mess and we didn’t have a proper place to live for it. She just took care of me, mostly — paid the bills.”

“A good deal” (for the husband), I say. He says, “I often think I exploited her too much, but that is another matter . . .” He speaks about his wife with much affection: about their courtship, about their travels, about their theatergoing.

He directs my attention to an example of her artistic work — a self-portrait. Striking, and beautiful.


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