A whole bunch of composer deaths at the end of the year, including Jonathan Harvey (73) and Elliott Carter (not quite 104). I’ve only just started to familiarise myself with and appreciate Harvey’s music in the past year or so, and I’m trying to explain this twinge of regret that I didn’t see any of the concerts dedicated to him earlier in 2012. It’s not as though I would have seen him in person, as he was too ill to attend, but it seems sort of churlish now that I didn’t support him with my presence while he was still alive.
Why is it so galling to come to a person’s work at the end of their career, after ignoring it for so long? Discovering an artist after they’re dead is another matter: by then their art is a given, a received object over which they have no further input. Everything may be dealt with in retrospect. When the artist is still alive and creating, the audience is engaged in a process of learning how to respond to the artist’s work – an understanding that develops with each new piece. Coming in late to this process frustrates you by breaking it off while your own, personal response is unformed an incomplete. I guess my regret is for passing up the chance to have a less mediated response before it’s all in the hands of the critics and historians.
It’s nearly seven years since I happened to see Elliott Carter himself, at a series of concerts. Re-reading what I wrote about it at the time, I’m surprised at how snarky I was. Most of the cynicism is directed at the reputation Carter had accumulated, which makes it all the more surprising as by the time of Carter’s death this received wisdom was already out of date. Nearing a century, Carter’s “late period” of more transparent, freely written works had been in flow for about twenty years, yet critics persisted in portraying his music as some sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and Dostoyevsky. In my snarky blog post I noted his neo-baroque tendencies and predilection for concertos, while deriding writers who wished to big him up as a “Beethoven-like hero”.
Six years later, that received opinion seems as distant and old-fashioned as me using the term “Beethoven-like hero” (of course I should have said “Mahler-like hero”.) In April, The Guardian kicked off its “Guide to contemporary classical music” with Tom Service extolling Carter’s “profoundly joyful, or youthful, music” and summarising him, quite neatly, as “the closest any of us will probably ever experience to new music’s Haydn.” Later, this was also the general tone of eulogies for Carter’s passing. In my snarky little blog post I write that Carter “has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies.” With the luxury of extending his late period by a further decade, it turns out that he hung around long enough to see the historical revisionists at work, too.