Elliott Carter died this afternoon at the age of 103. According to Virgil Blackwell his companion of many years, Mr. Carter died peacefully in his New York City home. He would have turned 104 on December 11th. The Pulitzer Prize winning composer was active almost to the end of his days. His last commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra was delivered in 2008 in a 100th birthday celebration with the BSO at Carnegie Hall. His induction as Honorary Member of The Harvard Musical Association in 2008 is of interest to us since the Association is one of BMInt’s major sponsors. From 1926 to 1937 he was a habitué in the HMA’s practice room. In 2008, during his 100th year, he still had clear memories of having played two-piano music with various friends there 82 years earlier, according to Nicholas A. Anagnostis then the HMA president.
In comments he made when Carter was awarded a gold medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1971, Aaron Copland said of Carter: “He writes a music that is unlike that of any other composer on the contemporary scene. It reflects a rare combination of heart and brain: the man of feeling and the man of intellect. … Other composers may create a polyphony of musical lines, but Carter creates a polyphony of musical thoughts.”
Objectively, it is difficult to say that the death of a man 103 years old is shocking or unexpected. And yet it is. We have all grown accustomed to a world in which Elliott Carter lived, and more remarkably, continued composing music. Another link with the music of the last century is broken, leaving those of us who remain bereft and struggling to carry on this noble yet ephemeral tradition of music-making to the best of our now-diminished collective abilities. Elliott Carter lived and composed through a period of tumult and upheaval; he essayed different schools and styles but in the end heeded his own, distinctive compositional voice. Above all else, he may well be remembered for his fundamental re-thinking of the rhythmic dimension of music, and his profound thoughts on rhythm he leaves behind in this world, encapsulated in his compositions.