From 1945 to the last day of his life this past November, the composer Elliott Carter lived in an apartment building on West Twelfth Street that likely went up around the time of his birth in 1908. Curious about music at an early age despite his family’s indifference, the young Carter attended the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924; a half-century later, he would compose, with his Symphony of Three Orchestras, a portrait of Manhattan as compelling as George Gershwin’s. Carter was immersed in the musical life of his native city for a century, yet he was never a member or a rival of any so-called New York School, nor was he drawn, except fleetingly, into entangling musical alliances. He found his musical voice only after he turned 40 and had moved to West Twelfth Street, when he finally figured out how to reconcile the influences of his two mentors. One was Charles Ives, whom he met when he was in high school; the other was Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied for three years in Paris during the mid-1930s after graduating from Harvard, where he had focused on philosophy, literature and mathematics, but not music.
Ives had envisioned a distinctly American music expressive of the redemptive disorder of democracy. Boulanger demanded a technical mastery of the European tradition and thought Carter’s talents in that regard did not measure up to those of her most famous protégé, Aaron Copland. In the works Carter composed after returning to the United States from Paris in 1937, he often seemed to exist in Copland’s shadow, with only occasional hints of a distinctive voice, let alone musical genius. But with his monumental String Quartet No. 1 from 1951 and the Variations for Orchestra of 1955, Carter ended up redefining American musical modernism, fusing native rhythmic vitality with the sort of structural complexity previously heard only in the music of European masters like Berg and Bartók. The fusion also kept his work far removed from the populist style that had become synonymous with American music. The long incubation of these pieces steeled Carter to follow his own path, undistracted by musical fashion and keen to discover new things to say, right up to the final months of his epic life. He completed his last work, Epigrams, for a piano trio, in August 2012, three months before he died.
I met Carter in January 1971, when Pierre Boulez, the French maestro of postwar musical experiment, was conducting Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra. I was in graduate school at Columbia University, pursuing what would turn into an ABD in English literature and living the out-of-time existence typical of postgraduates back then. My life seemed all the more suspended because I felt trapped: I wanted to be a composer, not an English professor, but could not imagine a career for myself in music.
I had been devoted to Carter’s music ever since I was 15 and heard his elegant, jazz-tinged Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord. Soon I was prowling the aisles of G. Schirmer and Sam Goody for scores and recordings of the blockbuster masterpieces Carter was turning out in the 1960s: the Second String Quartet, the Double Concerto and the Piano Concerto (dedicated to Stravinsky, who praised it as the “Magna Carter”). These works had a rhythmic intensity I did not otherwise hear in contemporary music, and it would find its full tempo and strength in the Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1969. Carter modeled the piece on the Whitmanesque poem Vents, by St. John Perse, which begins: “C’étaient de très grands vents sur toutes faces de ce monde” (There were very great winds over all the faces of the earth).
The Second Quartet and the three concertos that followed marked a new phase in Carter’s mature development. In the late 1950s, the composer had encountered the avant-garde music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Berio. Once again he found ways to combine European and American developments on his own terms. His music became more disjointed, percussive and unsettled; he wanted the players in the Second Quartet to speak at cross purposes, like characters in a Samuel Beckett play. At the same time, Carter was able to shape anarchic elements into grand masterpieces that transcended their apparent disorder. Within the vanguard aesthetics of the period, Carter’s mixture of disjunction and craft seemed a contradiction in terms. Why, I heard on more than one occasion, did Carter care so much about form? Didn’t he know the masterpiece was dead?