Elliott Carter Studies Online

VOLUME 1 (2016)

Elliott Carter in Los Angeles, January 12, 1994

Jake Johnson


On January 12, 1994, Elliott Carter spoke before an esteemed audience of new music enthusiasts. The audience assembled that afternoon for one of the final installments of music patron Betty Freeman’s well-known musicales, which were held from 1981 until 1994 in her Beverly Hills home or the Sherman Oaks home of patron Judith Rosen. Music critic Alan Rich helped Freeman organize these musicales and, as always, recorded the event on tape. I have taken that recording, transcribed and lightly edited it for this journal. Carter speaks about a number of his compositions, many of which were likewise performed at the musicale. Following his remarks, Carter fielded questions and comments from a few of those in attendance.

“I remember clearly the epiphany (that’s the exact word) that happened to me late one afternoon in 1981 standing in my large sparsely-furnished-but-with-a-Steinway living room,” wrote music patron Betty Freeman.

It began (the epiphany that is) wishing that someone in Los Angeles would have home performances of contemporary music similar to the mythic Evenings on the Roof of Peter Yates. Simultaneously the realization occurred that that someone was me. I had the space and piano, I had the financial means, I already knew many of the important composers—most of all, I had a passion for contemporary music. Even more I had an Italian artist husband who loved to cook . . . and would have a good excuse to stay out of the living room. Immediately I telephoned Alan Rich, Los Angeles’s brilliant music critic. He enthusiastically agreed to direct the program and suggested we start immediately.(1)Preface to unpublished manuscript entitled “Salotto: Composers and Their Music,” The Betty Freeman Collection, Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives.

Assisted by critic Alan Rich and, later, Judith Rosen, Freeman indeed designed and oversaw a remarkable series of musicales that lasted from 1981 until 1994. These musicales featured many of the most important composers of her time, including Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Luciano Berio, Steve Reich, and Elliott Carter. In addition to facilitating live performances of their works, the composers gathered in either Freeman’s or Rosen’s home and spoke to an esteemed audience of new music enthusiasts. Ernest Fleischmann, then the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a regular attendee, described the audience as “a small group of influential decision makers in Los Angeles—people responsible for producing new-music events or encouraging their production.” (2)Barbara Jepson, “A Cultivated Ear: Betty Freeman’s Living Room is the West Coast’s Center for New Music,” Connoisseur, Feb., 1987. Indeed, the list of regulars is impressive. Composer and musicologist Nicolas Slonimksy, as Rich put it, “had an almost perfect attendance record until his death at 102.” Lawrence Morton, who inherited Peter Yates’s Evenings on the Roof series and transformed them into Monday Evening Concerts, also regularly attended until his passing. Marta Feuchtwanger, whose Palisades home fostered hosts of intellectuals and artists fleeing Nazi Germany, attended until her death in 1987, sitting “enthroned like some legendary dowager in a robe of black and gold, not merely a presence but a Presence.” (3)“Salotto,” Los Angeles Philharmonic Archive.

Elliott Carter spoke to such an audience gathered at the home of Judith Rosen on January 12, 1994, just a few months before the musicale series ended for good. As with all the musicales, Alan Rich recorded the events on tape, and I have here transcribed and lightly edited Carter’s remarks and the question-and-answer period that immediately followed. “The best that comes out of these gatherings is the putting into circulation of new ideas,”—Rich once wrote—“the chance for artists, including musicians, to find out what’s happening in the arts world that can easily become compartmentalized.” (4)Alan Rich, KUSC Music Commentary, August 2, 1985, Betty Freeman Papers, University of California, San Diego Mandeville Special Collections. In offering Carter’s words here in this inaugural issue of an exciting journal, I hope the new ideas continue to circulate, challenge, provoke, and encourage new generations of music-makers and explorers.

ELLIOTT CARTER: I think that I should talk about this Piano Sonata a little bit. It was actually something I wrote at the end of the war in 1945. At that time, most composers that I knew were writing music for piano that was very restricted. It was the kind of thing that Hindemith and Milhaud and even Stravinsky were writing: pieces that were really… music of the type of Bach in which the range of the piano was very limited and it was rather linear. I decided that I would like to write a piece and use the entire sonority of the piano at that time. In that particular period, this was a rather unusual thing to do. I don’t know, I’ve always gotten stuck on ideas of this sort. So, I started thinking about how the piano sounded and how you could make a grand piano ring and you will hear all sorts of different things that happen. However, the music itself began to be a transition from the music which I had been writing before, which was rather Neo-classic and sort of Americanizing. This actually has a second movement fugue that is somewhat like jazz. I was getting away from what I had been doing before, which was more popular, more jazz-like music, and writing something that was on a grander and larger scale. This was a big step away from what I had been writing which was, as I said, a rather limited Neo-classic style and leading towards the music of the type that you will hear later. This is one of the first steps that I took. It’s rather, for instance, as if the tonality of the piece is indefinite. It’s constantly wavering between two keys a semitone apart, B-flat and B, so that one is never sure which key the piece will be in. And, in fact, I’ve made it so this is quite blurred in many, many places. This was an attempt to get away from the traditional harmonic scheme—well, not so traditional, but the kind of harmonic scheme I had been using prior to this period. I was asked to write this piece by a pianist, John Kirkpatrick, who played the Concord Sonata of Charles Ives for the first time. He disliked this piece because he thought it was too brilliant and too showy—I think that’s why. In any case, he didn’t play it. We had a very nervous performance by Webster Aitken who was a pianist who was well-known at that time, who nearly died of excitement and distress when he played it. Then, finally the man who started to play it more frequently was Beveridge Webster, who recorded it and played it and even then it was a piece that was very hard on many pianists of that time. Now, there are lots of people [who play it]. I think there are five or six recordings of this. There’s even somebody who sent me a recording from Australia. So, this seems to have gotten around.

ALAN RICH: Scott Dunn will add himself to the list of people who play this sonata. A young resident of this area, retired ophthalmologist and extraordinary pianist who is a name to conjure with.(5)Alan Rich, KUSC Music Commentary, August 2, 1985, Betty Freeman Papers, University of California, San Diego Mandeville Special Collections.

[Performance of Piano Sonata]

CARTER: I don’t know see how he remembers it! How can you play that without notes? I think it’s extraordinary. And so well, too! Thank you very much.

RICH: Are we ready to move on [to the next piece]?

CARTER: Anyhow, let me say about this particular piece that there was a festival and it was a very odd festival, I must say, in Avignon. The French Radio organized two weeks of poor people that had to deal with my music. They gave courses. Charles Rosen came and taught people to play the Piano Sonata. The Arditti Quartet came and taught quartets to play my quartets. There was a timpani player who came, it seemed to me, with all the timpanists in the world and they were all banging away. For two weeks all I could hear was my timpani pieces being played in this enormous monastery that this school uses in the summer. Not only that, but there were lectures. I had to lecture. When I lectured in French the Americans in the audience complained; when I lectured in English the French complained. They also brought a number of different people who were experts on my music and they lectured about it. It was really hard to take, but everybody liked it. It was hard for me. In any case, I was asked by the flutist from Toronto [Robert Aitken] to write a piece that they could give as a first performance. I remembered that Avignon is of course the place where the popes went after they had problems in Rome and lived there for a while. They brought with them a poet, Petrarch, who lived and wrote a vast number of poems about his girlfriend. We don’t even know whether he saw her or not, but anyhow I looked for a title for this piece and finally found this poem of Petrarch in which this is one line. If she gets it, it’s an amusing poem. But, what happened was: then we drove around the countryside. There is an extraordinary place—La Fontaine de Vaucluse, not far from there—where there is a cliff with an enormous cave and out of it a river comes, a huge river that runs into the Rhone. Petrarch, when the popes forsook him, he went and lived in this place and we visited it. Then we played the piece. We found that on that day it was played it was something like the 500th-and-something birthday of Petrarch by chance. I’ll read you about it—I think maybe I should read it in English: “Blessed in my dreams and satisfied to languish, embrace shadows and chase a summer breeze, I swim in a sea that knows no depths or shore, plow waves and build on sand and write in wind,” which is the title of this piece. Later on, he complains about his Laura, Laura who didn’t pay attention to him.

[Performance of Scrivo In Vento]

CARTER: Riconoscenza for Goffredo Petrassi—who is and was one of the leading Italian composers of the twentieth century. When my first string quartet was played in Rome in 1953 when I was at the American Academy, he was one of the few people that thought that this was a very good piece. He came up and said to me something that no one has ever said to me before, and that is we talked French and decided we should address each other as tu, which as you know is the familiar form. I was very touched by that because no one had ever said that to me before. Now, we always say tu to each other. We’ve remained friends ever since 1953. I’ve followed his music and he followed mine. When he became eighty in 1984, I was asked by a festival in Italy, the Pontino Festival, to write a piece for his eightieth birthday. This is the piece. I thought of it actually as a piece in which the violin is playing a sort of continuous line, like a line of life. In it, there are interruptions. The violin plays rather rapidly and angrily and at other times rather quietly, but somehow this line continues on no matter what the interruptions are.

[Performance of Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi]

CARTER: Let me say that this Pontino Festival occurs in a very wonderful place, where Circe had her cave that Odysseus went to. One year [it] was devoted to me. These people have become very good friends of mine. The man who runs it decided to start an institute of musicology in the nearby town of Latina, and asked me to write a piece. They give annual prizes for the best musicological essay. They asked me to write a piece for the opening thing. They said to me, you know we have a new idea about musicology. It’s really represented by Italo Calvino. Well, Italo Calvino at that time had written a series of essays that he was going to give at Harvard University called Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In Italian, it was Lezione Americane. He died before he gave the lectures. But I read the book, the book was published. I took the title from this. I will read what he said about this. Each chapter in the book is about a quality of writing. There was one chapter on lightness, leggerezza: “Above all, I hope to have shown there was such a thing as lightness of thoughtfulness just as we all know that there’s lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”

[Performance of Con Leggerezza Pensosa]

CARTER: Well, finally the last piece is a piece that was actually commissioned for a lady named Ann Santen, commissioned for an X-birthday. I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t say. Anyway, she was fifty. Her husband asked me to write a piece for her birthday. Ann Santen has been quite a remarkable person in the field of modern music. She has run the National Public Radio station in Cincinnati for many years and has emphasized American music and has had it performed over the radio. She also encouraged the Cincinnati Symphony to play a lot of contemporary music. Actually, when Michael Gielen did my Piano Concerto with the Symphony, she raised the money to have it recorded. So, I felt that I owed her something at the time of her birthday. So, this is what I wrote. The title is taken from a poem of Wallace Stevens. It’s part of a very long poem called “The Pure Good of Theory.” This is the little bit that this piece quotes: “Time is the hooded enemy, the inimical music, the enchanted [sic] space in which the enchanted preludes have their place.”

[Performance of Enchanted Preludes]

RICH: In 1978 you did a radio interview on WKCR, a Columbia University station. You were asked the question at that time, which you answered quite eloquently: “How much does it matter that when I listen to your pieces I don’t hear the processes that you write about in the program notes?”

CARTER: Well, let me put it the other way around. When a student goes to a conservatory and spends two years learning how to write a harmony in great detail, he doesn’t expect the audience to hear that when a Beethoven symphony is played, or does he? I mean, it’s quite a difficult thing—and a very elaborate thing—to write harmony and counterpoint. It’s a very intellectual thing, let us say, on certain levels. What does the audience hear when works use the common practice of music when they are being played?

I want them to get a message out of the music. The reasons that all these things are that way is because there is an expressive intention which isolates one group of instruments from another and makes them contrasting. I’m talking about the things like red, yellow, and green and so forth when I’m talking that way. When you read [the program notes] as you did, it gives the impression that this is a mechanical thing, but it isn’t a mechanical thing at all. A major seventh is very different from a minor seventh, for instance, just as red is different from green.

BETTY FREEMAN: In Europe the composer is treated with great respect, the music is given great interest, and it’s a major thing in Europe when a new composition is performed. Here it just seems to pass over—there isn’t the same level of enthusiasm or regard for classical music as there is in Europe. Could you speak a little bit about that?

CARTER: I can’t explain that really, honestly. I think that there is a very simple way of talking about that may be an explanation, I’m not sure. One of the simplest ones is that there has been in Europe, as you know, a very elaborate state subsidy of performances. In England, for instance, the British Broadcasting system was for many years run by a man who loved contemporary music, Sir William Glock. He insisted on having very large amounts of it played over the radio and a gradual public was formed. When my music is played—but mine isn’t the only one (there would be many contemporary composers that would be played)—the audiences are familiar with this and know it. This man was able over all those years to play a great deal, to commission works, to get them played in concerts. The general support of music is deteriorating somewhat now, but it was [strong] for a long time. This is a similar thing in Paris. Boulez first started with small concerts and then finally the IRCAM and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. They give a regular subscription series of contemporary music and it’s played very well. They’ve made a great deal of effort to publicize this and to draw in a public. They get big publics. My concerts are sold out in Paris. I’m always rather surprised of it myself.

There was a pianist named Jacob Lateiner whom the Ford Foundation was going to support.(6)Lateiner (1928-2010) was a Cuban-American pianist notable, aside from commissioning Carter’s piano concerto, for premiering Roger Sessions’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1965). They gave him the possibility of choosing a composer to write a piano concerto. He came up to me and said, “Would you write a piano concerto?” I said, “Well, do you know my music?” I wanted to be sure he knew what he was going to get before I wrote one note. After, we had gotten an agreement within two weeks. We got a telephone call from the Ford Foundation saying, “How much are the parts going to cost to copy?” I said, “I haven’t written a note! I don’t know.” Then they kept checking up on me every week. Finally, I said I won’t write the piece unless you shut up. That went on for a long time. It took me a long time to write the piece. So, many different things happened. I finally went to Berlin as a composer-in-residence and wrote most of it there. Then, the other part of the story was [that] the Ford Foundation wanted it played by several local orchestras—the Atlanta Orchestra and the Denver Orchestra and some other small orchestra. And Jacob Lateiner, who wanted to be a well-known pianist, didn’t feel that would help his career very much. So, he quietly talked to Mr. [Erich] Leinsdorf and Leinsdorf agreed to do it with the Boston Symphony. The Ford Foundation was furious! They wouldn’t put up any money for the rehearsals with the Boston Symphony. If it would have been done in Atlanta, they would have paid for it all, but they were so angry that they didn’t follow this out. Then Leinsdorf raised money to have it recorded and that was also nice. I later dedicated it to Stravinsky. He wrote me a very charming letter. I don’t remember what it said, but it was very sweet.(7)A facsimile of the letter is printed in David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (London: Eulenburg Books; New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), p. 239; revised second edn. (London: Faber; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 263. [Eds.]


1. Preface to unpublished manuscript entitled “Salotto: Composers and Their Music,” The Betty Freeman Collection, Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives.

2. Barbara Jepson, “A Cultivated Ear: Betty Freeman’s Living Room is the West Coast’s Center for New Music,” Connoisseur, Feb., 1987.

3. “Salotto,” Los Angeles Philharmonic Archive.

4. Alan Rich, KUSC Music Commentary, August 2, 1985, Betty Freeman Papers, University of California, San Diego Mandeville Special Collections.

5. Dunn currently serves as the Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

6. Lateiner (1928-2010) was a Cuban-American pianist notable, aside from commissioning Carter’s piano concerto, for premiering Roger Sessions’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1965).

7. A facsimile of the letter is printed in David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (London: Eulenburg Books; New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), p. 239; revised second edn. (London: Faber; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 263. [Eds.]