There is nothing unusual about a concert celebrating a composer’s centenary, but it is extremely unusual for the composer still to be alive.
Tomorrow (Thursday) Birmingham will help mark the birthday of the American Elliott Carter, the first significant composer in history who has not only reached the age of 100 in good health but is still actively composing.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will give the UK premiere of the Horn Concerto which Carter wrote last year. The soloist is the CBSO’s principal horn player Elspeth Dutch, with former music director Sakari Oramo returning for the first time in his new role of chief guest conductor.
It is one of no fewer than 21 concerts containing music by Carter which will take place tomorrow on both sides of the Atlantic.
They include one at Carnegie Hall, New York, which includes the New York premiere of hisInterventions for Piano and Orchestra.
Earlier examples of long-lived composers include Verdi and Vaughan Williams, both of whom produced important works when they were well into their 80s.
Another long-lived composer, Sir Michael Tippett, who died10 years ago at the age of 93, completed no major works after his 90th birthday.
Carter was born on December 11, 1908, into a wealthy New York business family.
As a teenager he was taken to concerts by the family’s insurance man – who happened to be Charles Ives, now recognised as America’s first great composer and probably the only one in history to give up music for the insurance business.
Ives encouraged the young Carter’s early attempts at composition, despite his own failure to make a living out of music.
At Harvard, Carter majored in English but only also studied music. Gustav Holst was a visiting professor for six months while he was student there. He later studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the 1930s.
His early compositions, from the late 1930s and 1940s, were written in an accessible neo-classical style with an outdoor American accent similar to the music being written at that time by his friend Aaron Copland, whose most famous piece, the ballet Appalachian Spring, was partly written on the Carters’ kitchen table.
Examples of Carter’s music from this time include the ballet Pocahontas and the Symphony No 1.
During the 1950s his music became more atonal and rhythmically complex but the 1960s was to prove a transitional decade.
He spent much of it working on only two pieces, the Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra, but these were the key which unlocked a prolific and extended “late” period.
Although he has been awarded major honours in America including two Pulitzer Prizes, the Gold Medal for Music awarded by the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Medal of Arts, Carter’s uncompromising style has earned him more performances in Europe. Two years ago the BBC Symphony Orchestra staged a festival of his music at the Barbican Centre under the title “Get Carter”.
As he enters his second century he shows little sign of slowing down. Nine new pieces written in 2007 have been followed by a further seven this year.
His output includes five string quartets and a clutch of concertos for various instruments including piano, oboe, clarinet and flute, as well as horn.
He completed his first opera in 1998: its title is What’s Next?
n The CBSO plays music by Carter, Messiaen and Elgar at Symphony Hall tomorrow at 7.30pm.
Two pieces by Carter are also in a Centre Stage concert at the CBSO Centre on December 18 at 1.10pm.