Elliott Carter ranks comfortably among the most celebrated classical American composers of the twentieth century. Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Carter’s compositions consistently earn critical acclaim from every aspect of sense and sound. He has been called a visionary, a composer of rich and flawless work, sensitive, vigorous, a master of texture and transparency. Carter’s collection of international awards and citations includes an assortment of the most prestigious honors to be bestowed on any professional, in or out of the musical realm. Among his most impressive honors were those won for his string quartet compositions. He received first prize at the International Quartet Competition for his first String Quartet and a Pulitzer Prize each for his second and third quartets. In addition to these celebrated quartets and orchestral scores, Carter composed pieces expressly for a vast assortment of instruments. His Quintet for Piano and Winds, Trilogy for Harp and Oboe, Clarinet Concerto, Gra for Clarinet, Figment for Cello Alone, Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, and Letter for English Horn Alone are typical of his diversity in instrumentation.
Carter was born Elliott Cook Carter, Jr., on December 11, 1908 in New York City. His father, was a businessman and the family was well to do. Carter’s mother was the former Florence Chambers. Elliott Carter developed an interest in music as a teenager, although as an undergraduate at Harvard he majored in English. He continued at Harvard through graduate school, where he majored in music. He studied with Walter Piston and was mentored by the noted modern composer, Charles Edward Ives. Carter graduated with a master’s degree in 1932. He went on to Europe to obtain a doctorate, because he had traveled through Europe with his father as an adolescent and developed a strong fondness for the Continent. In Paris, France, he studied with Nadia Boulanger from 1932-35 while attending École Normale; he graduated in 1935. In time Carter became acquainted with many of the great European artists of the era. He found Bela Bartók and Igor Stravinsky to be particularly engaging; Carter was known to reflect publicly that the two noted musicians were among those whom he admired the most. Stravinsky later praised Carter openly—for the 1961 Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras, and for Piano Concerto of 1967.
After completing his studies in France and with Boulanger, Carter returned to the United States where in 1939 he penned his first musical work, his neoclassic ballet Pocahontas. He spent the years from 1940-42 working as a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland where in 1941 he reworked and improved his original ballet. He completed his second work, Holiday Overture, in 1944 and two years later completed his first Piano Sonata. According to critics his style by that time was fully mature, rife with the complexity that distinguishes a great musician from all
Born Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. on December 11, 1908, in New York City, NY; son of Elliott Cook and Florence Chambers Carter; married Helen Frost-Jones, July 6, 1939; one son: David Chambers. Education: Harvard University, master’s degree, 1932, studied with Walter Piston; Ecole Normale, Paris, France, D Mus, 1935, studied with Nadia Boulanger, Paris, 1932-35.
Penned first musical work, Pocahontas, a neoclassic ballet, 1939; professor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, 1940-42; completed Holiday Overture, 1944; professor, Columbia University, 1948-50; began String Quartet series, 1950s; professor, Yale University, 1960-61; Andrew P. White Professor-at-Large, Cornell University, 1970-74; professor of composition, Juilliard School of Music, 1972-79; completed Three Occasions, 1989; completed Violin Concerto, 1990.
Awards: Juilliard Publication Award, 1940; first prize, Independent Music Publishers Contest, 1945; BMI Publication Prize, 1945; first prize, International Quartet Competition, 1953; Prize for Composition, UNESCO, I960; Pulitzer Prize for Second String Quartet, 1960, Sibelius Medal, Harriet Cohen Foundation, 1961; New York Critics’ Circle Award, 1961; Premio delle Muse, City of Florence, Italy, 1969; Pulitzer Prize for Third String Quartet, 1971; U.S. National Medal of the Arts; Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize (Germany); Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Government of France, 1988; Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, Monaco; Classical Music Hall of Fame; for Eminence in Music, Gold Medal for Music, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971; Handel Medallion, City of New York, 1978; Best Contemporary Composition, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1994; Prince Rainier Foundation Music Award, 1998; numerous honorary degrees and Guggenheim fellowships.
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others. Between 1948 and 1950 Carter served as professor at Columbia University. There he completed his Sonata for Cello and Piano in 1948 before undertaking the creation of his first award-winning String Quartet in the early 1950s.
Perhaps most notably, Carter earned a brilliant reputation for his string quartets. When his First String Quartet premiered in Rome in 1951, it caught the attention of William Glock of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Glock was immediately taken by Carter’s work and included Carter’s compositions regularly thereafter in the repertoire of radio concerts on BBC. Carter’s second String Quartet, of 1959, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1960 as well as the UNESCO prize for composition, and the New York Critics Award. Again in 1971, his third String Quartet earned the Pulitzer Prize. Nearly 25 years later Carter continued to write music for the string quartet, and 1995 marked the premiere of his String Quartet No. 5 in Belgium; he was 87 years old at the time.
From 1960-61 he held a professorship at Yale. Two works—Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra —monopolized his time throughout much of the sixties. He served as the Andrew P. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University from 1970-74 and was a professor of composition at Juilliard School of Music for much of the 1970s.
In 1988, to mark his eightieth birthday celebration, he was honored at Tanglewood, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presented the United States premiere of his Oboe Concerto to celebrate the occasion. International celebrations of his eightieth birthday were held also at the Pontino Festival in Italy and at the United Kingdom’s Huddersfield Festival. An astonishing number of Carter’s works were in fact written when he was already more than 80 years old. Of his later compositions, Three Occasions, completed in 1989 at age 81, and the 1990 Violin Concerto, completed at age 82, were hailed among his greatest works. In 1991—at age 83—he put forth a Quintet for piano and winds. In 1994, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences named Violin Concerto the Best Contemporary Composition.
Carter’s Partita was written at age 85 as a commission for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and his 1994 Adagio Tenebroso was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in celebration of the BBC Proms centennial. Not only did he present String Quartet No. 5 at age 87, but the following year he completed a Clarinet Concerto which became a particular favorite of the Ensemble Inter Contemporain, a group that had helped popularize his Double Concerto of 1961. In 1997, when the Cleveland Orchestra commissioned a composition from Carter, he created his Allegro Scorrevole, which combined with his 1993 Partita and 1994 Adagio Tenebroso To form a symphonic tryptych, called Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei. The complete work premiered on April 25, 1998, with Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Manchester’s ISCM World Music Days festival; Carter was 89 years old.
To mark the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 1998, the radio station at Columbia University celebrated with a 23-hour broadcast of Carter’s music, and performing organizations worldwide once again dedicated performances to his honor. Yet where others might have ceased to create masterpieces years earlier, Carter undertook composing the score of his first opera, a 45-minute drama, entitled What Next? The work, which premiered at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter Den Linden in 1999, received an enthusiastic reception and was widely promoted by Daniel Barenboim, who personally conducted the program. Perhaps equally impressive as the beauty of the work was the age of the composer, at 91 years. When asked how he came to undertake such a difficult task as a nonagenarian, Carter indicated that it was a long-time wish of his to write an opera, and that the libretto (by Paul Griffiths) had seemed appropriate. The years turned over again and again, and critics never ceased to admire the energy and vitality of the beloved composer, as a renewed depth of feeling characterized his later compositions.
Carter’s melodies, by his own admission, please him; they are created so that they can be recorded, for listening again and again. For these reasons the composer spends great care in creating rich and lasting music, sufficiently complex to be capable of bringing repeated pleasure to the listener. Indeed, Carter’s works are widely recorded, without hesitation, by the most talented musical groups and ensembles around the world.
The complete list of honors and awards bestowed upon Carter is extensive. He was installed as Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France in 1988. Earlier, in 1969 he received the Premio delle Muse from the City of Florence, Italy. Additionally he was awarded the Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize of Germany and the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award of Monaco. He received the Prince Rainier Foundation Music Award in 1998 and he is enshrined in the Classical Music Hall of Fame. Carter is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and Guggenheim fellowships. His works are heard regularly at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, at London’s South Bank Festival, also at festivals at Bath and Holland, and at the Venice Biennale, the Donaue-schingen Festival, and elsewhere. The Carter manuscripts are collected and permanently archived by the Paul Sacher Foundation as part of a collection of manuscripts of the greatest twentieth century composers. In David Harvey’s paraphrase of essayist D. Phil’s discussion of the complexity of Carter’s compositions, no words were spared in describing the patterns as “multilayered textures, elaborate rhythmic counterpoints, precisely measured, (uncompromising) [and] tough… in the angular lines.”
It is difficult to overestimate the energy that Carter brought to his work. After nearly a century of creativity, he remains a Sigma Alpha lota Arts Associate and boasts memberships in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Akademie der Kunste. He sits on the board of directors of the American Academy in Rome and the Naunberg Music Foundation. Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation and London Weekend Television each have produced and aired documentaries about Carter; and in 1996 Johnathan Bernard edited a collection of Carter’s writings, Elliott Carter—Collected Essays and Lectures (1937-95) for University of Rochester Press.
Carter married Helen Frost-Jones on July 6, 1939. They had one son, David Chambers Carter. In his later years, Carter took to wintering in New York and spending his summers in Southbury, Connecticut. His biography, Elliott Carter, was published in 2000 by Faber & Faber of London.
Interestingly, Carter scoffs at comparisons between himself and the great classical composers. Although his work is performed more widely in Europe than in America, he regards his style as completely modern and attributes his European popularity to circumstances of his early career.
Orchestral Music, Arte Nova.
Orchestral Music, Virgin Classics.
Clarinet Concerto, Virgin Classics.
The Works for String Quartet, Etcetera.
In Sleep, In Thunder, Wergo, 1981.
Eight Compositions, Bridge.
The Complete Music for Piano, Bridge.
Double Concerto, Electra Nonesuch.
Of Challenge and Love, Koch.
Chamber Music, Auvidis Montaigne MO.
Symphonia/Clarinet Concerto, Deutsche Grammophon.
String Quartet No. 3 (1971)/Elegy (1943) in “The Music for String Quartet, Vol. li” Etcetera, 1988.
Holiday Overture, 1944; reissued, CRI, 1991.
Variations for Orchestra (1954-1955), reissued, Deutsche Grammophon, 1994.
Choral Music, Koch International, 1998.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, second ed., Gale Research, 1998.
Billboard, February 19, 2000.
“Elliott Carter: An Annotated Discography,” http://web.ftech.net/Tioneyg (August 24, 2000).
“Elliott Carter—Biography,” B&H Composers, http://www.ny.boosey.com/composerpages/carterbio.html (August 24, 2000).
“Elliott Carter,” Sigma Alpha lota, http://sai-national.org/(August 24, 2000).
Harvey, David, Carter the Empiricist, 1997, http://web.ftech.netThoneyg (August 24, 2000).