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FORGED IN A COMMON FIRE: Dave Brubeck (left) and Elliott Carter.
Photos by (Brubeck) Richard Drew/AP and (Carter) Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images
FORGED IN A COMMON FIRE: Dave Brubeck (left) and Elliott Carter.

Taut strings struck

Music | The deaths of Dave Brubeck and Elliott Carter mark the end of a musical world

Issue: "Roe v. Wade turns 40," Jan. 26, 2013

When the legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck passed away on Dec. 5, one day before his 92nd birthday, it was difficult not to consider his passing from the American scene in relation to the passing of the serious-music composer Elliott Carter at 103 exactly one month before.

In some ways, they were strikingly different. Brubeck, having scored the first platinum-selling jazz album with Time Out in 1959 (largely on the strength of its single “Take Five”), was a household name and, for over 50 years, a symbol of the transformative possibilities of jazz both socially and musically.

Carter, on the other hand, while well known among followers of modernist composers and their legatees, devoted his genius to writing some of the most demanding music the world has ever heard. Only with his 100th birthday did celebrations of his work attract the attention of anyone but the most intellectually and aesthetically attuned.

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But there were similarities too, and not just musical ones. Brubeck served under Patton in World War II. One day before he was to be sent to the front, he was discovered to be a pianist and made a bandsman, thus being spared what he believed to have been certain death. Carter, who had already undertaken composition and taught music, served during World War II in the Office of War Information and had come from a long line of soldiers: His grandfather had fought in the Civil War.

Brubeck racially integrated his military combo and thus helped integrate the armed services. As for Carter, it would be interesting to know what he made, both at the time and later, of the treasonous, anti-American broadcasts made at the time by one of his favorite poets, Ezra Pound, some of whose work he would eventually set to music.

Forged in a common fire, Brubeck and Carter went on to light up the American musical firmament. Brubeck, whose musician mother played for a Presbyterian church, developed a generically Christian sensibility that helped him develop not only into a lover of the Ten Commandments but also into a solid husband and father. In 1980—following a dream in which he set to music the missing piece of a Mass he’d been commissioned to write—he joined the Roman Catholic Church.

Carter was a family man as well, remaining the faithful husband of one wife (whom he outlived by eight years) in that epicenter of fluid mores, Greenwich Village.

One of Carter’s heroes was the seminal American composer Charles Ives, who numbered among his formative musical experiences the playing of the organ for churches in New England. Ives would later become famous for incorporating hymn melodies, among other folk tunes, into his uniquely American musical pastiches.

Brubeck also loved Ives and considered him the first serious composer enlivened by a jazz sensibility. Brubeck’s “They All Sang Yankee Doodle” was an Ives homage.

And, not surprisingly, both Carter and Brubeck loved and drew inspiration from the greatest musician and composer of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, who dedicated most of his output to the glory of God.

So what do the nearly simultaneous passings of Brubeck and Carter mean for our turbulent times? That the Mayans were right and the world’s expiration date was Dec. 21, 2012?

If you’re reading this, obviously no.

That a world, however, has expired is indisputable. “The whole firmament hummed and twanged like a taut string that has been struck,” wrote John Buchan in his novel Greenmantle the year Carter was born.

He was describing war. He may as well have been describing Brubeck and Carter at their best.

This article was originally published online on Dec. 26, 2012.

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