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December 11, 2010

Birthday greetings to Elliott Carter on his 102nd

Elliott Carter, the dean of contemporary American music celebrates his 102nd birthday on Saturday, Dec. 11. He has already composed several pieces since turning 100, so there's every hope he will keep producing more.

For some listeners, Carter represents all that is frightening, inexplicable and unacceptable in modern music; for others, he represents all that is challenging, brilliant and absorbing. There's no question about the difficulty of Carter's art. I'd say there's no question about its high value, too. The composer's atonal language, at once cerebral and vibrant, achieves an expressive power that can reach out and grab you in many surprising ways.

It remains absurd that so little of Carter's work turns up here in Baltimore, but maybe that will change. Meanwhile, let me offer you these

two short piano compositions from 1999 and 2006 by way of demonstrating Carter's uncommon imagination and saluting his 102th birthday:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:43 AM | | Comments (4)


Carter remains, for me, one of those incredibly overhyped composers whose inspiration comes (if at all) only in the tiniest spurts. I think he will just continue to decline in esteem. There are so many composers out there who are better, and even some of them don't last.

I think Carter got by on pretension, and not much else. It also seems to me that many people in our cultural climate pretend to an enthusiasm in his music that they don’t actually feel.

Dear Tim,

Thanks for posting this -- amazing, isn't it? Worth remembering that he spent a few years teaching at Peabody, 1946-48! In fact, check out the stationery for these sketches of his cello sonata:

The Evolution Series plans to feature some of his shorter pieces this season or next.


Mr. Valenti,
It is good practice to try to understand why others like something before criticizing them. A little empathy can go a long way. Stating that they must all be lying merely makes you look foolish at best, insincere at worst.

"102th" should be "102nd".

Glad to see someone is paying attention out there. I could explain that particular faux pas, but it would make me look even sillier than I do now. Thanks for alerting me. I've corrected the entry. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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