For the 55 years that I knew him, my father loved classical music and passed his love on to me. He collected LP recordings diligently and after he died in 1996, I received about half his collection, which I added to mine so that I have several hundred vinyl recordings in the living room of my apartment.
I’ve recently been listening to to LP’s — and CD’s, too — of music by the American composer Elliott Carter, who died in 2012, almost 104 years old. When I got to a Boston Symphony recording of his piano concerto with the pianist Jacob Leteiner, I rediscovered a Manila envelope my father put in the sleeve containing reviews and news items about the work that he’d cut from Boston and New York papers.
The concerto is a vigorous, atonal, demanding piece that received high praise when the Boston Symphony gave the premier in 1967. One critic said it was the strongest new music he’d heard in a long time and nothing he knew about from Europe could equal it. Another compared it favorably with the violin concertos of Berg and Schoenberg. In the world of contemporary classical music, there is no higher recommendation.
At the same time, another writer — and his remarks lead me to the main point of this brief post — acknowledged the greatness of the work but feared that because of Byzantine financial arrangements in the world of classical music and the dominance of pop culture, Carter’s concerto would fade away quickly, no one would play it again, and no composer would take up a similar challenge.
Most everyone understands this writer’s fears. The media today is replete with similar concerns. It’s not hard to find someone expressing a fear that something good that people have worked hard to build up is under threat and may pass away.
It’s natural to think and talk in that vein. No one is perfectly strong: defeatist attitudes are tempting, negative thoughts are common enough to be a plague. No active person needs to give way, however, to the bad side of life. We can usually find a way to stand up for what’s good.
Back to Elliott Carter. He knew what he faced. He understood the situation in 1967. He said that when he began to write music, he followed current trends. That practice didn’t get him very far. After he discovered what was unique and special to him, people started to pay attention. Experience taught him that he would never make much money from writing music and he didn’t want to conform to stale patterns so he did what was right for him and wrote music that he liked and that many people came to respect.
We know what people writing in 1967 couldn’t. For one thing, Carter’s music is well-represented on CD and available on Amazon and from other retail outlets to anyone who wants it. In fact, I have a CD from the Nashville symphony with a newer performance of the piano concerto. Furthermore, he didn’t give way to the pressure to fit in and compose music he considered inferior. He kept on going and published 40 works between the ages of 90 and 100 and more than 20 after his 100th birthday in 2008.
Carter set an example. Everyone passes through bad times and contends with obstacles. Beethoven lost his hearing; Mozart endured spells of poverty and illness; Shostakovich and others faced the oppressive tactics of Stalin’s government. Carter was another who carried on and contributed to our long-standing tradition of creating brave and sometimes difficult work.