Elliott Carter

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Carter in the 2000s. Elliott Carter.jpg
Carter in the 2000s.

Elliott Cook Carter Jr. (December 11, 1908 – November 5, 2012) was an American modernist composer. He is one of the most respected composers of the second half of the 20th century, having combined elements of European modernism and American "ultra-modernism" into a distinctive style with a personal harmonic and rhythmic language, after an early neoclassical phase. [1] [2] [3] [4] His compositions are known and performed throughout the world, and include orchestral, chamber music, solo instrumental, and vocal works. Carter was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

20th century Century

The 20th (twentieth) century was a century that began on January 1, 1901 and ended on December 31, 2000. It was the tenth and final century of the 2nd millennium. It is distinct from the century known as the 1900s which began on January 1, 1900 and ended on December 31, 1999.

Neoclassicism (music) music genre

Neoclassicism in music was a twentieth-century trend, particularly current in the interwar period, in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of "classicism", namely order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late Romanticism, as well as a "call to order" after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music.

Orchestra large instrumental ensemble

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which combines instruments from different families, including bowed string instruments such as the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, brass instruments such as the horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba, woodwinds such as the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, and percussion instruments such as the timpani, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, and mallet percussion instruments each grouped in sections. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes appear in a fifth keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and, for performances of some modern compositions, electronic instruments.


Born in New York, he had developed an interest in modern music in the 1920s. He was later introduced to Charles Ives, and later came to appreciate the American ‘ultra-modernists’. After studying at Harvard University, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s, then returned to the United States. Carter was productive in his later years, publishing more than 40 works between the ages of 90 and 100, [5] and over 20 more after he turned 100 in 2008. [6] He completed his last work, Epigrams for piano trio, on August 13, 2012. [7]

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Charles Ives American composer

Charles Edward Ives was an American modernist composer, being one of the first American composers of international renown. Previously, his music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years, but later the quality of his music was recognized and he came to be regarded as an "American original". He was also among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, with musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements, and quarter tones. His experimentation foreshadowed many musical innovations that were later more widely adopted during the 20th century. Hence, he is often regarded as the leading American composer of art music of the 20th century.

Harvard University Private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The university is often cited as the world's top tertiary institution by most publishers.


Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was born in Manhattan on December 11, 1908, the son of a wealthy lace importer, Elliott Carter Sr., and the former Florence Chambers. Much of his childhood was spent in Europe and spoke French before learning English. As a teenager, he developed an interest in music, although his parents did not give much encouragement to his interests other than providing for early piano lessons [1] , but was encouraged by Charles Ives, who sold insurance to Carter's family. While a student at the Horace Mann School in 1922, he wrote an admiring letter to Ives, who responded and urged him to pursue his interest in music. Besides that, he began to be interested in modern music as part of his broader exploration of modernism in various other art forms. [1] In 1924, a 15-year-old Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in the New York première of The Rite of Spring . [8] Carter later came to appreciate the American ‘ultra-modernists - namely Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Ruth Crawford and, later, Conlon Nancarrow. Ives often accompany Carter to BSO concerts conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, who programmed contemporary works frequently, and after that return to Ives' home to critique and parody the so-called ‘tricks’ of Debussy, Stravinsky or Prokofiev - who were composing European 'new music' Ives considered only 'superficially modern'. [1]

Europe Continent in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere

Europe is a continent located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Asia to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It comprises the westernmost part of Eurasia.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

English language West Germanic language

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.

When Carter attended Harvard University from 1926, [9] Carter majored in English but also studied music, both at Harvard (whose music course did not satisfy him) and at the nearby Longy School of Music, and sang with the Harvard Glee Club. His Harvard professors included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. Carter earned a master's degree in music from Harvard in 1932, but the course did not help make much progress in his compositional skills. Hence, Carter then moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger both privately and at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He worked with Boulanger from 1932 to 1935 (though he did not compose much music with her that he believes is worth preserving) [1] and in the latter year received a doctorate in music (Mus.D.).

Harvard Glee Club

The Harvard Glee Club is a 60-voice, Tenor-Bass choral ensemble at Harvard University. Founded in 1858 in the tradition of English and American glee clubs, it is the oldest collegiate chorus in the US. The Glee Club is part of the Harvard Choruses of Harvard University, which also include the treble voice Radcliffe Choral Society and the mixed-voice Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. All three groups are led by Harvard's current Director of Choral Activities Andrew Clark. Thomas Sheehan is the accompanist of the Harvard Glee Club.

Walter Piston American composer, music theorist and professor of music

Walter Hamor Piston Jr,, was an American composer of classical music, music theorist, and professor of music at Harvard University.

Gustav Holst English composer

Gustav Theodore Holst was an English composer, arranger and teacher. Best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, he composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved comparable success. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development. The subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, and the example of such rising modern composers as Maurice Ravel, led Holst to develop and refine an individual style.

Later in 1935, he returned to the US to write music for the Ballet Caravan. The founder of the Ballet Caravan Lincoln Kirstein commissioned Carter to compose two ballets - Pocahontas and the Minotaur - which will be among his longest works he composed during his Neo-classicism phase, though neither of them was greatly successful. [1] On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. He lived with his wife in the same apartment in Greenwich Village from the time they bought it in 1945 to her death in 2003. [5]

Lincoln Kirstein American writer

Lincoln Edward Kirstein was an American writer, impresario, art connoisseur, philanthropist, and cultural figure in New York City, noted especially as co-founder of the New York City Ballet. He developed and sustained the company with his organizing ability and fundraising for more than four decades, serving as the company's general director from 1946 to 1989. According to the New York Times, he was "an expert in many fields," organizing art exhibits and lecture tours in the same years.

Greenwich Village Neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City

Greenwich Village often referred to by locals as simply "the Village", is a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, New York City, within Lower Manhattan. Broadly, Greenwich Village is bounded by 14th Street to the north, Broadway to the east, Houston Street to the south, and the Hudson River to the west. Greenwich Village also contains several subsections, including the West Village west of Seventh Avenue and the Meatpacking District in the northwest corner of Greenwich Village.

From 1940 to 1944, he taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. During World War II, he worked for the Office of War Information. After World War 2, he held teaching posts at the Peabody Conservatory (1946–1948), Columbia University, Queens College, New York (1955–56), Yale University (1960–62), Cornell University (from 1967) and the Juilliard School (from 1972). [5] Meanwhile, in the 1950s, Carter, having edited Ives' music, turned back to his interest in the experimentalists, In response to his experience in the war, he decided to achieve an emancipated musical discourse through re-examination of all parameters of music. Notable works during this time were the Cello Sonata, the rhythmically-complex first string quartet and Variations for Orchestra. The latter two marked Carter's turning point in his career. [1]

St. Johns College (Annapolis/Santa Fe) Liberal arts college with two campuses, Annapolis and Santa Fe

St. John's College is a private liberal arts college with dual campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, which are ranked separately by U.S. News & World Report within the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges. It is known for its distinctive curriculum centered on reading and discussing the Great Books of Western Civilization. St. John's has no religious affiliation.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Columbia University Private Ivy League research university in New York City

Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in Upper Manhattan, New York City. Established in 1754, Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It is one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League. It has been ranked by numerous major education publications as among the top ten universities in the world.

In 1967, he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1981, he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, in 1985 the National Medal of Arts. In 1983 Carter was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts by the MacDowell Colony.[ citation needed ]

On February 7, 2009, he received a Trustees Award (a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers) from the Grammy Awards. [10]

In June 2012, the French government named Carter a Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur. [11]

Carter wrote music every morning until his death, [12] of natural causes, on November 5, 2012 at his home in New York City, at age 103. [13] [14]

Premieres and Notable Performances

Carter composed his only opera, What Next? , in 1997–98 for the Berlin State Opera at the behest of conductor Daniel Barenboim. The work premiered in Berlin in 1999 and had its first staging in the United States at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2006, conducted by James Levine. [15] He later considered writing operas on the themes of communal suicide and a story by Henry James, but abandoned both ideas and resolved to write no more operas. [12]

On December 11, 2008, Carter celebrated his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Daniel Barenboim played his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra , written that year. Between the ages of 90 and 100 he published more than 40 works, and after his 100th birthday he composed at least 20 more. [5]

Interventions for Piano and Orchestra received its premiere on December 5, 2008, by the BSO, conducted by James Levine and featuring the pianist Daniel Barenboim at Symphony Hall, Boston. [16] Barenboim reprised the work with the BSO at Carnegie Hall in New York in the presence of the composer on his 100th birthday. [5] Carter was also present at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival to hear the world premiere of his song cycle On Conversing with Paradise, based on Ezra Pound's Canto 81 and one of Pound's 'Notes' intended for later Cantos, and usually published at the end of the Cantos. [17] The premiere was given on June 20, 2009, by the baritone Leigh Melrose and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Oliver Knussen. [18] [19]

Figment V for marimba was premiered in New York on May 2, 2009, by Simon Boyar, and Poems of Louis Zukofsky for soprano and clarinet had its first performance by Lucy Shelton and Thomas Martin at the Tanglewood Festival on August 9, 2009. The US premiere of the Flute Concerto took place on February 4, 2010, with the flutist Elizabeth Rowe and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Levine. The last premiere of Carter's lifetime was Dialogues II , written for Barenboim's 70th birthday and conducted in Milan in October 2012 by Gustavo Dudamel. [20] The last premiere ever, which happened after Carter's death, was "The American Sublime", a work for baritone and large ensemble, dedicated to and conducted by Levine. [21]

Musical Style and Language

Carter's earlier works were influenced by Igor Stravinsky, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, and Paul Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical.[ citation needed ] He had strict training in counterpoint,[ citation needed ] from medieval polyphony to Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocahontas (1938–39). Some of his music during the Second World War is fairly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber.

Starting in the late 1940s his music shows an increasing development of a personal harmonic and rhythmic language characterized by elaborate rhythmic layering and metric modulation. [22] While Carter's chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period, Carter did not use serial techniques. Carter said, "I certainly have never used a twelve-tone row as the basis of a composition, in the way described in Schoenberg’s Style and Idea, nor are my compositions a constant rotation of various permutations of twelve-tone rows". [23] Rather, he independently developed and catalogued all possible collections of pitches (i.e., all possible three-note chords, five-note chords, etc.).[ where? ] Musical theorists like Allen Forte later systematized these data into musical set theory. A series of Carter's works in the 1960s and 1970s generates its tonal material by using all possible chords of a particular number of pitches.

Among his better known works are the Variations for Orchestra (1954–5); the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1959–61); the Piano Concerto (1964–65), written as an 85th-birthday present for Stravinsky; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), loosely based on a poem by Saint-John Perse; and the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). He also composed five string quartets, [24] of which the second and third won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973 respectively. Spaced at regular intervals throughout his mature career, they are considered by some to be the most important body of work in that medium since Bartók. [22] Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993–96) is his largest orchestral work, complex in structure and featuring contrasting layers of instrumental textures, from delicate wind solos to crashing brass and percussion outbursts.

The Piano Concerto (1964–65) uses the collection of three-note chords for its pitch material; the Third String Quartet (1971) uses all four-note chords; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) all five-note chords; and A Symphony of Three Orchestras uses the collection of six-note chords. Carter also made frequent use of "tonic" 12-note chords. Of particular interest are "all-interval" 12-tone chords, where every interval is represented within adjacent notes of the chord. His 1980 solo piano work Night Fantasies uses the entire collection of the 88 symmetrical-inverted all-interval 12-note chords. Typically, the pitch material is segmented between instruments, with a unique set of chords or sets assigned to each instrument or orchestral section. This stratification of material, with individual voices assigned not only their own unique pitch material but texture and rhythm as well, is a key component of Carter's style. His music after Night Fantasies has been termed his late period and his tonal language became less systematized and more intuitive, but retains the basic characteristics of his earlier works.

Carter's use of rhythm can best be understood with the concept of stratification. Each instrumental voice is typically assigned its own set of tempos. A structural polyrhythm, where a very slow polyrhythm is used as a formal device, is present in many of Carter's works. Night Fantasies, for example, uses a 216:175 tempo relation that coincides at only two points over its 20+ minutes. This use of rhythm was part of his expansion of the notion of counterpoint to encompass simultaneous different characters, even entire movements, rather than just individual lines.

He said that such steady pulses reminded him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds no longer heard in the late 20th century, and he wanted his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane.[ citation needed ] While Carter's music shows little trace of American popular music or jazz, his vocal music has demonstrated strong ties to contemporary American poetry. He set poems by Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore. Twentieth-century poets also inspired several of his large instrumental works, such as the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras.

Significant Works

Orchestral Works

Variations for Orchestra (1955)

Concerto for Orchestra (1969)

A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976)

Penthode (1985)

Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-1996)


Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1959-1961)

Piano Concerto (1964-1965)

Oboe Concerto (1986-1987)

Violin Concerto (1990)

Cello Concerto (2000)

Interventions for Piano and Orchestra (2007)

Voice and Ensemble

A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Syringa (1978)

In Sleep, in Thunder (1981)


Piano Sonata (1945–46)

Night Fantasies (1980)

String Quartets

String Quartet No. 1 (1951)

String Quartet No. 2 (1959)

String Quartet No. 3 (1971)

String Quartet No. 4 (1986)

String Quartet No. 5 (1995)

Chamber Works

Cello Sonata (1948)

Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (1952)

Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Triple Duo (1983)

ASKO Concerto (2000)

Partial discography

Notable students

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Interventions is a composition for solo piano and orchestra by the American composer Elliott Carter. The work was composed at the behest of the pianist Daniel Barenboim and the conductor James Levine to celebrate Carter's 100th birthday. The piece was completed on April 16, 2007 and was first performed in Symphony Hall, Boston on December 4, 2008 by Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine.


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Further reading