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The Music Man

At the age of 100, Elliott Carter hears a symphony.

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WWD Scoop issue 11/24/2008
Several years ago, Carter completed his first one-act, 47-minute opera, What’s Next?, which revolves around a car crash. He wanted to present opera in a more modern setting and based on a topic that is current. “I wanted to write about something in modern civilization that people think about a great deal, and I thought, why not an automobile accident?” Carter says. “I realized if I were to choose a literary subject that’s well known, like The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn, I would have to write music that ‘goes back in time,’ but I wanted to write music that’s about right now.”

Levine says he is especially devoted to Carter’s What’s Next?, and this past summer at the Tanglewood Music Center, Levine took on the directorship of The Festival of Contemporary Music, which was dedicated to Carter’s works. “His music is always very exciting to me—from the vocal ranges to the rhythmic and harmonic intricacies to the way the characters interact with one another—it’s a kind of contrapuntal vitality you can hear through the different textures with each of the voices creating such distinct impressions,” says Levine. “It makes me wish he would continue making more operas since there’s such a degree of vital invention as he challenges opera.”

Challenging conventions has been the main theme throughout Carter’s career, beginning with his decision to study music in the first place.

His father, who was a lace importer, did everything in his power to prevent his son from pursuing a musical career. “My parents weren’t sympathetic toward me becoming a composer. In fact, they found the idea unpleasant,” he says. “They thought, very sensibly, that you can’t make much money out of it, and my father made every effort to get me off ‘the music stuff.’ So he had me move freight cars to help his business.”

His aunt was the one who opened his ears and mind to music when he was age six, and purchased a set of records for him when he was eight. Before he was 16, Carter was studying with Charles Ives, who took him to concerts. He realized he was destined to be a composer when he was 19, and first heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall in 1928. “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard and thought to myself, I’d love to write something like that.” He laughs as he adds, “I remember half of the audience walked out and that’s what I liked, too.”

“It’s rather touching for me to see the halls packed today with people because there were times when I was lucky if I could fill one row at a big concert hall,” he recalls.

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