'It's Never Finished'

My fascination with Elliott Carter began long before I had the joy of meeting and working with him. As an undergraduate, I had something of an obsession with his then-recent Double Concerto, which is one of the most brilliant works of the 20th century, its simultaneous but not synchronous dual worlds reflecting perfectly the dizzying complexity of life in our times. 

In the late 1950s, Juilliard President William Schuman (standing, second from right) met with a who’s-who of composers. Seated, from left: Douglas Moore and Roger Sessions. Standing, from left: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Wallingford Riegger, Schuman, and Walter Piston.

(Photo by Maria Metzger)


Elliott was one of the most sophisticated, literate, engaged, endearing people imaginable. He retained an openness, curiosity and boyish eagerness well past his 100th birthday. One lovely memory dates to some years ago when I noticed him at the Sharp Theater for a Juilliard Opera production of the Gluck rarity Iphigénie en Aulide. When I asked what brought him there that evening, he replied that he had known the score much of his life and knew of Berlioz’s great admiration of the opera. He had arranged for a Juilliard friend to get him the library score so he could study it and gleefully said, “I’ve always wanted to hear it and see it.” He was 98 years young at the time. 

Another enduring memory comes from the pleasure of sitting with him while Daniel Barenboim rehearsed the Chicago Civic Orchestra for a Carnegie Hall performance of his Allegro Scorrevole in 2000. His wide-ranging comments that day included the observation that Wagner’s best tuba writing came in Siegfried! Elliott listened intently to his own work being rehearsed, constantly annotating and editing his published score. At one point, he noticed a tiny detail in the oboe writing where he wanted to be more specific about the phrasing but had not noted it in print. He wrote in the subtle correction and sighed “It’s never finished!” 

A composer at work. What a joy it was to know him and how lucky we are to have his boundless creative legacy.

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