Elliott Carter: Appreciating an American Classical Music Icon

In the 20th Century founds its footing in classical music. Thanks to Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and George Gershwin, American music was finally recognized, but it was composers like Elliot Carter that pushed classical music in the U.S. to the avant-garde with other like Henry Cowell and John Cage.

For many classical music fans, the music of Elliott Carter is tricky to digest.  Often conceptual and cerebral, Carter made no apologies for stretching the boundaries of music earning him two Pulitzer Prizes for his second (listen) and third string quartets.  Anthony Tomasini from the New York Times wrote, “The Second Quartet, composed in 1959 and lasting only 25 minutes, seems like a stunning distillation of the techniques explored in the First. This is music of concision and compressed intensity.”

A testament to his legacy and despite being 103, Carter continued to compose until near his end on November 5, 2012.

Daniel Barenboim wrote an essay remembering Carter, which was published on NPR Deceptive Cadence blog, and here is an excerpt:

For me personally, Elliott Carter was and remains one of the most meaningful composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries because he represents substance. He was the living proof of uncompromising, complex music, which at first seems inaccessible. But it becomes accessible if one digs in and sees the development through. I believe that is Carter’s great lesson: to always stay uncompromisingly focused on the substance of the music — and not to try to incorporate popular elements, like so many composers today. That’s why his music remains, as complex as it may be, always “in good humor.” Sometimes I think if Haydn were alive today, he would compose like Carter did in his last years.

For anyone interested in giving Carter a listen, it requires patience and an open mind. It’s what I describe as “hard listening” because melodies aren’t obvious, like in Mozart or Haydn.  But listening to an entire work (or several) will give you glimpse into the academic world of classical music and a legend in classical music circles.

One other thing, contemporary classical music is often meant to be heard in a live performance, and not strictly through an MP3 player.  Over the years I’ve learned that certain nuances, techniques and musical effects don’t always transfer well, and contemporary music in particular often becomes more accessible when heard in person.

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