Elliott Carter Obituary: American master of musical modernism
The American composer Elliott Carter, who has died aged 103, was, apart from Pierre Boulez, the last survivor of the heroic age of postwar musical modernism, and perhaps its greatest exponent. In the 1950s, when Carter wrote his first masterpieces in his new self-made, fabulously intricate language, that age was in full flood. By the time he wrote his playful late masterpieces, it had long since passed into history.
And yet despite his longevity, Carter never became what so many aged artists become: relics of a bygone age, constantly interviewed for their memories of the past. He always lived in the present tense. In his last years he was more interested to hear about the latest thing than in reminiscing. By the same token, he and his music were completely impervious to fashion. The music lost its hectic intricacy of the 1970s and 80s and became so graceful in its modernist purism that it took on the mysterious quality of a classic - always contemporary, through being essentially timeless. In Carter’s vicinity, musical history seemed to bend to his agenda; he was always the centre of his own self-made universe, needing no validation from anything or anyone.
The achievement is all the more extraordinary when seen in the context of Carter’s life story. Most composers’ biographies bear out the adage that geniuses are born, not made. With Carter the reverse was true. There was no revelation in early childhood of unusual gifts, to be eagerly seized on by the world. What distinguishes Carter’s early years is not precocious musicality but precocious maturity and unshakeable self-belief. He was born in New York, at a time when the first skyscrapers were appearing on the skyline, but milk was still delivered by horse and cart. His father was a lace importer and Elliott often accompanied his father on buying trips, which allowed him to learn French and Flemish at first hand.