Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

To celebrate Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, we have published – in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation - Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler. Here Professor Shreffler relates how the book took shape:

No one who has ever visited the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel will ever forget the stunning view of the Rhine from the reading room windows. Nestled away in a corner of one of Basel's most picturesque town squares, across from the 900-year old cathedral, the building houses not medieval manuscripts, as the surroundings suggest, but rather the largest private collection of documents relating to 20th and 21st-century music in the world: Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, and Boulez are only a few of the more than 100 collections.

I remember very well how one day in 1988, my attention was diverted from that seriously distracting view of the river and the Webern manuscripts I was studying by the sight of the enormous table in the adjoining room covered with boxes. "That's Elliott Carter," Felix Meyer, then a curator and now Director of the Paul Sacher Foundation, explained. Since then material has continued to flow from New York City to Basel, as works are completed and closets cleaned out. While there is still Carter material in the Library of Congress and other libraries, the bulk of his music manuscripts and correspondence is in the Paul Sacher Foundation, where in the twenty years since the collection arrived it has been carefully catalogued and preserved in the Foundation's vast, climate controlled, three-story deep underground safe.

The decision to publish some of this material with extensive commentary in honor of the composer's centennial was an easy one. We both love Carter's music and relished the chance to steep ourselves in it. The hard part was choosing from roughly 10,000 letters, thousands of pages of sketches, and dozens of lecture texts, articles and photographs in the archives, almost all of it previously unpublished. It was also difficult to select which works we wanted to include, especially since Carter has become quite prolific in his later years (his works list is at 128 and counting…). The logistics of a transatlantic collaboration between Boston and Basel were easily overcome with the help of email, phone calls, and a few international flights. We ultimately decided to present a portrait of the composer within the musical life of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, and hope in particular to have chosen texts that illuminate his situation as an American composer in the world.

To accompany Carter throughout his almost century-long existence is to experience vicariously the ups and downs of American music in the twentieth century. We trace his tentative beginnings in the 1920s and '30s, his steady rise to fame, his efforts to establish institutions of new music in the US, and his artistic friendships with some of the leading musicians of the last hundred years. Carter generously shared his memories and his time during our visits to his Greenwich Village apartment; the weeklong Carter festival at Tanglewood this past summer brought us all together again.

Carter, hale, hearty, and as productive as ever, will turn 100 on December 11. When Felix and I started working on this book, our ages taken together added up to that number exactly. Now, about a year and a half later – relieved that we will in fact meet this very hard deadline! – we have surpassed him with a collective age of 102, and look forward to celebrating his 101st, 102nd and many subsequent birthdays after that - but with glasses of champagne, not new books.

Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents is available now from all good booksellers. In the Financial Times, Andrew Clark, has already called it “lavishly illustrated, handsomely documented and superbly annotated” and “for committed Carterites, the only acceptable Christmas present”. Congratulations, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler, and congratulations too, Elliott Carter.

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