Thursday 10 May 2018

The Elliott Carter Effect

Elliott Carter (photo Pascal Perich)
Elliott Carter (photo Pascal Perich)
The American composer Elliott Carter was born in 1908 and died in 2012. Not only did he have a long life (dying at the age of 104), but he had a productive one and continued composing until his death, in fact he seems to have written music every morning. The last premiere of Carter's lifetime was Dialogues II, written for Daniel Barenboim's 70th birthday and conducted in Milan in October 2012 by Gustavo Dudamel. In a posting on his blog The Rest is Noise at the time of Carter's death, Alex Ross referred to Carter's 'landscape of memory that included Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, Ives, Gershwin, even Gustav Holst.'

Elliott Carter is probably unique in the Western classical canon for the remarkable length of his composing career. A number of major composers have reached ripe old age, but that does not mean that they continued being as productive as Carter was. Giuseppe Verdi died at the age of 87, but his final opera Falstaff was premiered when he was 74. Gabriel Faure died at the age of 79, and despite ill health did in fact work on his string quartet which was complete in September 1924. RVW died at the age of 86 and was indeed productive to the end. Richard Strauss was 85 and like RVW, had a remarkably productive old age. Both RVW and Strauss died with songs on their desk, so both produced posthumous four last songs. Igor Stravinsky died at the age of 88 though wrote little in the final few years. Perhaps the closest to Elliott Carter are Havergal Brian and Alan Bush. Brian who died at the age of 94, produced his final symphonies four years before his death, whilst Bush died at the age of 95 and continued to compose privately into old age.

But it is still fascinating to apply the Elliott Carter effect to past composers.
Think about a Mozart who remained alive and active from 1756 until 1860 (that is long enough to have heard Wagner's early operas!), or Schubert living until 1901, outliving Wagner, Verdi and Brahms and living long enough to hear early Schoenberg. Perhaps the most curious would be the 19th century composers who would be around to within living memory Bizet living to 1942, Tchaikovsky until 1944, Chopin until 1914 and Mussorgsky until 1941, just think of that. And of course, just think of more recent composers - Berg living until 1989 and Gershwin until 2002.

It is not just the composer himself surviving, as Alex Ross's comment above makes clear, what also survives is this landscape of memory, bringing us a step closer to those older composers and personalities who are now just names and notes on the page.

Of course, composers surviving and continuing to write does not necessarily mean that their work is still part of the mainstream, even though the composer himself might be regarded as musical ancient monument. So those that were productive in old age were somewhat dissociated from the musical styles of their younger contemporaries. Few Italian composers in the 1880s and 1890s (Puccini, the giovane scuola and Verismo) wrote in a style which resembled Verdi. Similarly, late Faure is a long way from the music of France in the 1920s, whilst both RVW and Strauss were very much venerated monuments rather than exemplars to composers. And of course the examples of Rossini and Sibelius demonstrate that a composer might survive but feel that they have little more to say.

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