Elliott Carter

1908 2012

Elliott Carter



Elliott Carter’s life spanned more than a century, allowing vast amounts of time and experience to influence his work, leading him to become one of the most highly regarded composers of the second half of the 20th century with his fusion of European and American styles. His music is not only innovative, but also features dramatic tendencies and complex rhythmic energy. Carter succeeded in creating a new style of music that does not fit into any other school of composition; it blends the finest traits of European modernism with American ultra-modernism.

Carter grew up very privileged, coming from a rich New York family that owned its own lace importing business. For business reasons, the family often travelled to Europe, taking the young Elliott with them. He was exposed to many European cities and spent a good portion of his childhood overseas, to the point that he spoke French before learning to read English. Despite this seemingly cultured upbringing, Elliott’s parents were not particularly interested in their son’s musical development. However, they did provide him with piano lessons as a child.

It was not until later, at the Horace Mann School, which he entered in 1922, that his interest in music (especially modern music) fully blossomed. He was also exposed to modernism in the forms of literature, film and theatre, all of which fascinated him. Interestingly enough, the modernism he experienced in regard to music had already “enjoyed” its time in Europe and was on its way out, making room for neo-classicism. America was introduced to this type of music, includingSchoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, beginning in the 1920s after its dismissal in Europe.

In the mid-1920s Carter also had the opportunity to hear live concerts of Alexander Scriabin and Maurice Ravel’s music. He was also exposed to the music ofCharles Ives and the music of the American ultra-modernists Cowell ,Varèse, Ruth Crawford and eventually Conlon Nancarrow.

Carter and Ives became friends, attending concerts together, after which they would discuss the music and Ives would parody the modern European composers, which he considered superficial, at the piano. Along with these discussions and parody performances, Carter was also tremendously influenced by Ives’ compositions, though at this time Carter had no aspirations of composing seriously.

Carter continued his studies at Harvard, for which Ives penned a letter of recommendation. He was not pleased with the music programme, and instead chose to study English literature, Greek and philosophy at the university and pursue his musical studies at the Longy School of Music, where he studied piano, oboe and solfege. During his student years at Harvard and Longy, which he completed in 1932, Carter received lessons from many notable musicians and composers, includingWalter Piston, Edward Burlingame Hill, A.T. Davidson and Gustav Holst.

Still not convinced he had the skills to compose, Carter went to study with Nadia Boulanger from 1932 to 1935; he received lessons both privately and at the École Normale de Musique. In addition to his studies with Boulanger, he also followed choral conducting lessons with Henri Expert. While many of Boulanger’s students created great works under her tutelage, such asAaron Copland, Carter was displeased with all his works from this period. At this time, he focused on strict counterpoint and early choral music, including that of Perotinus andMachaut up through the music of Monteverdi and especially J.S. Bach.

After returning to New York in 1935, Carter was appointed music director of Ballet Caravan and wrote forModern Music. His most important work from this period is his balletPocahontas (1936), which was written for Ballet Caravan and won the prestigious Julliard Publication Award in 1940. It features a modernist style that brings composers such asMilhaud, Honegger and Prokofiev to mind. Unfortunately for Carter, the premiere of his ballet was to compete with a performance of Copland’sBilly the Kid, which was written in the new style that America was ready for, one that would also influence Carter later.

During his reviews on Ives’s music, beginning with the Concord Sonata in 1939, Boulanger’s influence on him is evident, claiming it was ‘more often original than good’ due to its lack of structure. This opinion was shared by other Americans such as Copland and Virgil Thomson who had also studied in Paris.

Not only in his reviews did Carter exude Boulanger’s teachings, but also in his own compositions, which were based on polyphony and counterpoint, often using a cantus firmus. At this time, Carter focused primarily on short choral works for the choruses of Ivy League colleges, such as the Harvard Glee Club, leading him to be dubbed a “Harvard Composer”, as a result of the skilled writing and wit, without any populist or folk influences.

In the 1940s, except for a stint with the Office of War Information (1943-4) during WWII, Carter pursued his career in the field of academia. He taught at a number of schools including Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Queens College (CUNY), Yale University, MIT and Cornell University; all of these positions he held for just one or two years. It was at Julliard (1964-84) that Carter finally settled for a longer period as a teacher.

Carter simplified his style in the 1940s, following in the footsteps of the more popular American composers, beginning with his Symphony No. 1 (1942, rev. 1954) which features jazzy clarinet solos stereotypical of Benny Goodman. The Holiday Overture(1944, rev .1961) is also a good example of his change in style. This work truly shows Carter’s journey in searching for his own style. Though his music was simpler, modelled after Piston and Ives, it was still considered difficult.

Another one of Carter’s ballets, The Minotaur, was met with the same fate as Pocahontasas it was scheduled in conflict with Stravinsky’s Orpheus. In this ballet, Carter pursues a more emotional variant of the neo-classical style. It is in the next work, the Cello Sonata (1948), that Carter left the styles of others behind. Hints of this change had already appeared in works such as Musicians Wrestle Everywhere(1945) and the Piano Sonata (1945-6), which impressed the public and critics alike.

The Cello Sonata was, however, his first work to really combine the ideas of European Modernism with American ultra-modernists. After the war he edited much of Ives’ music and re-explored his view on music and rhythm. This sonata brings to mind composers such as Debussy, Cowell, Nancarrow and Ives, though it is completely unique and epic. From this point on, Carter expanded upon new compositional techniques which focus on complex polyrhythms and proportional tempo changes (also known as metric modulations). Eventually Carter’s tempos would establish a structure in his music that was previously controlled by tonality. The best example of these elements can be heard in the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5).

Carter’s style evolved yet again with the Second Quartet (1959) and Double Concerto (1961), perhaps as a result of his extended stays in Rome around this time and the influence ofBoulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Nono’s Il canto sospeso. The result was a more fragmented style full of dissonance and unpredictability and with an interest in space. These ideas are achieved in their fully glory in his Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Other works from this period include his Third Quintet (1971), Quartet (1971), Brass Quintet (1974) and Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976–7).

During the 1970s, Carter began to favour vocal works again, just as he did in the beginning of his career. He focused this time on American Poetry, especially of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and Robert Lowell. The most original of these works isSyringa, which tells the story of Orpheus between fragments of ancient Greek. From this work, he expanded to createNight Fantasies , a 30-minute meditation which focuses on four New York Pianists.

Despite old age, Carter never lost his enthusiasm for composing and managed to compose a concerto for nearly all the orchestral instruments and more. He also composed five more song cycles.

Throughout his long life, Carter was awarded numerous prizes and received many honours. He is often considered the greatest American composer after Copland.