Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter’s earliest works date from the late 1920s, so he is verging on his eightieth year as a composer – surely the longest creative life for a major composer in history.  As a result, Carter’s career serves as a guide to the various evolutionary stages in twentieth- (now twenty-first-) century music, as well as an exemplar of the development of a personal style.  Among his best-known works are his chamber pieces, which often seek to develop a distinct musical personality for each member of the ensemble.

Early Life and Studies

Born on December 11, 1908, Carter was part of a well-to-do New York family in the lace importing business.  In his youth he formed an interest, not supported particularly by his family, in modern music, which in the early 1920s was just beginning to be heard in the United States.  As a teenager Carter became friends with Charles Ives, the iconoclastic composer and life insurance executive.  Ives and Carter discussed music and frequently went to concerts together.  When Carter went off to Harvard in 1926, Ives wrote a recommendation for him.

At Harvard, Carter studied English literature, Greek, and philosophy.  He also worked with the music faculty, including Walter Piston.  Piston had recently been in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, and he advised Carter to do the same.

Carter spent three years in Paris working with Boulanger, mastering traditional harmony and counterpoint.  His music from this period, like that of many other American composers who had worked with Boulanger, showed the influence of the neoclassical style she favored.

Early Works

Upon returning to America, Aaron Copland, another Boulanger protégé, arranged for Carter to write for the periodical Modern Music.  Carter also served as musical advisor to his Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein’s newly formed American Ballet Company, then under the direction of George Balanchine.  He wrote two ballets for Kirstein’s company, Pocahontas (1936) (which shared a premiere with Copland’s Billy the Kid) and 4The Minotaur (1947). 

Other works of this time include Carter’s First Symphony (1942), for which Duke Ellington, who attended the premiere, expressed admiration, and the Holiday Overture (1944), celebrating the end of the war in Europe.  The music Carter wrote in this era is representative of the populist “American” sound pioneered by composers such as Copland and Virgil Thomson, with the qualification that Carter’s works tended to be somewhat more complex and less sunny than other such pieces.

Formation of a Mature Style

During World War II, Carter was assigned to the Office of War Information, where one of his tasks was overseeing the first recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto for broadcast in the newly defeated Germany.  After the war, he began a series of teaching stints, none lasting more than two years: Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Queens College, CUNY, and Yale University.  He finally settled at Juilliard, teaching there from 1964 to 1984.

Carter’s music began to move away from populism and neoclassicism in the late 1940s.  Carter has always described the evolution as a return to the music that had originally interested him – the uncompromising modernism of the 1910s and 1920s.  Through a series of works, primarily the Piano Sonata (1945-1946), the Cello Sonata (1948), and the First String Quartet (1950-1951), Carter completely overhauled his approach to composing.  The music became less melodically driven, and the range and drama grew more intense.  Finally, he began exploring tempo relations and rhythmic interplay that was more sophisticated than in any other music to date.

The major tempo-related innovation was Carter’s use of what has been called “metric modulation.”  Music had long incorporated changes of meter or tempo within movements, but they tended to be abrupt: the old tempo or meter stopped, and then the new one began.  Carter’s innovation was to incorporate the changes subtly within the music – like changing gears on a bicycle – so that one is barely aware that a change is taking place.  Instruments seem to exist together at slightly different rates of speed until one is brought to the forefront.

In the late 1950s, perhaps in response to the music of Pierre Boulez and the other European avant-garde composers, Carter’s music became more fragmented and multi-layered, although he never followed the European lead in embracing serialism. In works like the Second String Quartet (1959), in which each instrument is given its own “character” delineated by unique rhythmic and intervalic traits, and the Double Concerto (1961), with its two separate orchestras surrounded by percussion instruments, Carter set the bar of complexity and virtuosity for American music very high.

These pieces had an enormous impact on other composers.  On hearing the Double Concerto, Stravinsky remarked, “At last we can speak of an American masterpiece.”  The Second String Quartet was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Composition.  Carter also won the Pulitzer for his Third String Quartet.

Late Works

In the 1970s and 1980s, Carter turned frequently to vocal music, producing three works for solo voice and chamber ensemble that set the work of American poets: Elizabeth Bishop in A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975), John Ashbery in Syringa (1978), and Robert Lowell in In Sleep, in Thunder (1981).  Beginning in the 1980s, he also began producing small chamber pieces, writing some thirty such works since the Fourth String Quartet in 1985.  Over this same period, Carter has cultivated the concerto, writing works for cello, clarinet, violin, chamber orchestra, and orchestra.

Carter’s first opera, entitled What Next?, was premiered by the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin in 1999.  Written by New York Times music writer Paul Griffiths, the libretto tells the story of several self-centered characters, including an opera singer and an astronomer, who have survived a car accident.  The opera would count as a remarkable achievement for any composer, but it is especially astounding that a ninety-one-year-old newcomer to the genre could produce such a work.


Schiff, David: ‘Carter, Elliott (Cook)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1 June 2006), <http:www.grovemusic.com