On December 8, 2008 Elliott Carter celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, in good health and spirits. He still works several hours and goes for walks daily.
This milestone was observed along with a flurry of accolades and honorary concerts, including a world premiere in New York performed by Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, both Carter champions from the musical establishment. Amidst the celebrations, Carter performances are given standing ovations, but for decades most people have found Carter’s uncompromisingly modern music baffling, and most flat out dislike it. Carter himself does not care, and is unwaveringly dedicated to writing the music he believes in and hears. In an interview with Carter, Levine and Barenboim, given the day before the big occasion, Carter expressed his longing to get back home soon to the apartment in Greenwich Village he has lived in since the forties, so he could get back to work on his latest composition project. I’m certain that his dedication to a regular routine, and leading a fairly simple live, despite being wealthy since birth, have contributed to his longevity.
Being a Carter fan is sort of like being a Cubs fan. It’s fashionable to love the Cubbies if you’re from somewhere else and hop on the bandwagon when they’re doing well. But if you’ve been following the team’s travails since 1948 and even lived in Chicago for a long time back then like I did, you can lay a legitimate claim to being a fan.
Similarly, if you bought the Walden Quartet recording of Carter’s monumental first String Quartet, listened to it a couple hundred times, often with the score, knew and were even friends with members of the Walden Quartet, have a record and CD collection glutted with Carter recordings, have even had a composition lesson with the great man himself, and have been a relentless admirer since about 1958—like me—then you can lay a legitimate claim to being a Carter fan.
Soon Mr. Carter will slide into relative obscurity again, and doubtless will die not too long afterward, as he can’t have much time left actuarially speaking, while most new converts who have recently started listening to Elliott Carter’s music will realize it ain’t easy sledding, will slow down, and then stop, or go back to the mind-numbing execrations of Phillip Glass, and will eventually return to hating Carter’s music again.
Color me cynical.
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