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Portrait of Elliott Carter
Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. (born December 11, 1908) is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer born and living in New York City. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s, and then returned to the United States. After a neoclassical phase, he went on to write atonal, rhythmically complex music. His compositions, which have been performed all over the world, include orchestral and chamber music as well as solo instrumental and vocal works.


Carter's father, Elliott Carter, Sr. was a businessman and his mother was the former Florence Chambers. The family was well-to-do. As a teenager he developed an interest in music and was encouraged in this regard by the composer Charles Ives (who sold insurance to his family). In 1924 a "galvanized" 15-year-old Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the New York première of The Rite of Spring, according to a 2008 report. Carter was again in attendance (see below) at Carnegie Hallmarker, on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2008, when the orchestra, now under the baton of James Levine, again performed the Stravinsky piece as part of its tribute to Carter. Although Carter majored in English at Harvard Collegemarker, he also studied music there and at the nearby Longy School of Musicmarker. His professors included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club. He did graduate work in music at Harvard, from which he received a Master's degree in music in 1932. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger (as did many other American composers). Carter worked with Mlle Boulanger from 1932-35 and in 1935 he received a doctorate in music (D Mus) from the Ecole Normalemarker in Paris. Later in 1935 he returned to the US where he wrote music for the Ballet Caravan.

From 1940 to 1944 Elliott Carter taught in the program, including music, at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. During World War II, Carter worked for the Office of War Information. He later held teaching posts at the Peabody Conservatorymarker (1946 - 1948), Columbia University, Queens College, New York (1955-56), Yale Universitymarker (1960-62), Cornell Universitymarker (from 1967) and the Juilliard Schoolmarker (from 1972). In 1967 he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Carter has lived in Greenwich Villagemarker since 1945.

On February 7, 2009, Carter was given the Trustees Award (a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers) by the Grammy Awards.

Carter is at the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center where he gives annual composition masterclasses.

Style and works

Carter's earlier works are influenced by Stravinsky, Harris, Copland, and Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical in aesthetic. He had a strict and thorough training in counterpoint, from medieval polyphony through Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocahontas (1938-9). Some of his music during the Second World War is frankly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber. Interestingly, Carter abandoned neoclassicism around the same time Stravinsky did, saying that he felt he had been evading vital areas of feeling.

His music after 1950 is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. While Carter's chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period, Carter does not employ serial techniques in his music. Rather he independently developed and cataloged all possible collections of pitches (i.e. all possible 3 note chords, 5 note chords etc.). Musical theorists like Allen Forte later systematized this data into musical set theory. A series of works in the 1960s and 1970's generates its tonal material by using all possible chords of a particular number of pitches.

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 the Symphony of Three Orchestras utilizes the collection of six note chords. Carter also makes 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 utilizes 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 musical style. Carter's music after Night Fantasies has been termed his late period and his tonal language has become less systematized and more intuitive, but retains the basic characteristics of his earlier works.

Carter's use of rhythm can best be understood within 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. The solo piano work Night Fantasies, for example, uses a 216:175 tempo relation that coincides at only two points in the entire 20+ minute composition. This use of rhythm is part of his goal to expand the notion of counterpoint to encompass simultaneous different characters, even entire movements, rather than just individual lines.

Carter developed his technique to further his artistic goals. His use of rhythm allows his music a structured fluidity and sense of time perhaps unique in classical music. The music also is overtly expressive and dramatic. He has said that "I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble." He has also talked about his desire to portray a "different form of motion," in which players are not locked in step with the downbeat of every measure.

He has said that such steady pulses remind him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds that are not heard anymore in the late 20th century, and he wants his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane. While Carter's atonal music shows little trace of American popular music or jazz, his vocal music has demonstrated strong ties to contemporary American poetry. He has set works of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and, most recently, Wallace Stevens. Several of his large instrumental works such as the Concerto for Orchestra or Symphony of Three Orchestras are inspired by Twentieth Century poets as well.

Among his better known works are the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5); the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959-61); the Piano Concerto (1964-65), written as an 85th birthday present for Igor Stravinsky; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), loosely based on a poem by Saint-John Perse; and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). He has also written five string quartets, of which the second and third won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973 respectively. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-1996) 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.

In spite of a usually rigorous derivation of all pitch content of a piece from a source chord, or series of chords, Carter never abandons lyricism, and ensures that a text is sung intelligibly, sometimes even simply. In A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) (based on poems by Elizabeth Bishop) Carter writes colorful, subtle, transparently clear music; yet almost every pitch in the piece is derived from the content of a single sonority. While Carter seems to set up rigorous systems for deriving the pitch content of a piece, he deviates from them on occasion: not every note can be explained with the same rigor as can be done, for example, in Webern . Most of Carter's music is published by either G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers (works up to 1982) or Boosey & Hawkes (works since 1982).

Carter continues composing. Interventions for Piano and Orchestra received its premiere on December 5, 2008, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine featuring pianist Daniel Barenboim at Symphony Hallmarker in Boston. The pianist reprised the work again with the BSO at Carnegie Hallmarker in New York in the presence of the composer on his 100th birthday. Carter was also present at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festivalmarker to hear the world premiere of his song-cycle On Conversing with Paradise, based on Ezra Pound's 'Pisan' cantos 95 and the unfinished 121. The premiere, on 20th June 2009 was given by baritone Leigh Melrose and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Oliver Knussen.

Figment V for marimba with Simon Boyar was premiered in New York on 2 May 2009 and Poems of Louis Zukofsky for soprano and clarinet had its first performance by Lucy Shelton and Stanley Drucker at the Tanglewood Festival on 9 August 2009. The US premiere of the Flute Concerto will take place on 4 February 2010 with soloist Elizabeth Ostling and the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart.

Partial list of works


  • Pocahontas (Ballet) (1938-39)
  • The Minotaur (Ballet) (1947)


  • Elegy for Viola and Piano (1943)
  • Piano Sonata (1945-46)
  • Cello Sonata (1948)
  • Woodwind Quintet (1948)
  • Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Wind Quartet (1949)
  • String Quartet No.1 (1951)
  • Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (1952)
  • String Quartet No.2 (1959)
  • Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950/66)
  • Canon for 3 (1971)
  • String Quartet No.3 (1971)
  • Brass Quintet (1974)
  • Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)
  • Birthday Fanfare for Three Trumpets, Vibraphone, and Glockenspiel (1978)
  • Triple Duo (1983)
  • Esprit rude/esprit doux for Flute and Clarinet (1984)
  • Canon for 4 (1984)
  • String Quartet No.4 (1986)
  • Enchanted Prelude for Flute and Cello (1988)
  • Con leggerezza pensosa for Clarinet, Violin, and Cello (1990)
  • Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991)
  • Trilogy for Oboe and Harp (1992)
#Bariolage for Harp
#Inner Song for Oboe
#Immer Neu for Oboe and Harp
  • Esprit rude/esprit doux II for Flute, Clarinet, and Marimba (1994)
  • Fragment I for String Quartet (1994)
  • String Quartet No.5 (1995)
  • Luimen for Ensemble (1997)
  • Quintet for Piano and Strings (1997)
  • Fragment II for String Quartet (1999)
  • Oboe Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello (2001)
  • Hiyoku for Two Clarinets (2001)
  • Au Qui for Bassoon and Viola (2002)
  • Call for Two Trumpets and Horn (2003)
  • Clarinet Quintet (2007)
  • Tinntinabulation for percussion sextet (2008)
  • Due Duetti for Violin and Cello (2008, 2009)


  • Tarantella for Men's Chorus and Two Pianos (1937)
  • Let's Be Gay for Women's Chorus and Two Pianos (1937)
  • Harvest Home for a capella Choir (1937)
  • To Music for a capella Choir (1937)
  • Heart Not So Heavy for a capella Choir (1939)
  • The Defense of Corinth for Speaker, Men's Chorus and Two Pianos (1941)
  • The Harmony of Morning for Women's Chorus and Chamber Orchestra (1944)
  • Musicians Wrestle Everywhere for a capella Choir (1945)
  • Emblems for Men's Chorus and Piano (1947)


  • Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord and 2 chamber orchestras (1959-61)
  • Piano Concerto (1964)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1969)
  • Oboe Concerto (1986-1987)
  • Violin Concerto (1989)
  • Clarinet Concerto (1996)
  • ASKO Concerto for Chamber Ensemble (2000)
  • Cello Concerto (2001)
  • Boston Concerto (2002)
  • Horn Concerto (2007)
  • Flute Concerto (2008)

Large Ensemble

  • Penthode for Ensemble (1985)
  • Dialogues for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (2003)
  • Mosaic for Harp and Ensemble (2004)
  • R√©flexions for Ensemble (2004)
  • Wind Rose for Wind Ensemble (2008)



  • Symphony No. 1 (1942, revised 1954)
  • Holiday Overture (1944, revised 1961)
  • Variations for Orchestra (1954‚Äď1955)
  • A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976)
  • Three Occasions for Orchestra (1986-89)
#A Celebration of Some 150x100 Notes
  • Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretiam Spei (1993-96)
#Adagio Tenebroso
#Allegro Scorrevole
  • Three Illusions for Orchestra (2002-04)
#Fons Juventatis
#More's Utopia
  • Soundings for Piano and Orchestra (2005)
  • Interventions for Piano and Orchestra (2007)
  • Sound Fields for String Orchestra (2007)

Solo Instrumental

  • Piano Sonata (1945-46)
  • Night Fantasies for Piano (1980)
  • Changes for Guitar (1983)
  • Scrivo in Vento for Flute (1991)
  • Gra for Clarinet (1994)
  • 90+ for Piano (1994)
  • Figment for Cello (1994)
  • A 6-letter Letter for English Horn (1996)
  • Shard for Guitar (1997)
  • Two Diversions for Piano (1999)
  • Four Lauds for Solo Violin (1999, 1984, 2000, 1999)
#I. Statement - Remembering Aaron
#II. Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi
#III. Rhapsodic Musings
#IV. Fantasy - Remembering Roger
  • Retrouvailles for Piano (2000)
  • Figment II for Cello (2001)
  • Steep Steps for Bass Clarinet (2001)
  • Retracing for Bassoon (2002)
  • Intermittences for Piano (2005)
  • Catenaires for Piano (2006)
  • HBHH for Oboe (2007)
  • Figment III for Double Bass Solo (2007)
  • Figment IV for Viola Solo (2007)
  • Matribute for Piano (2007)
  • Figment V for marimba (2009)


  • My Love is in a light attire for Voice and Piano (1928)
  • Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred for Voice and Guitar (1938)
  • A Mirror on Which to Dwell for Soprano and Ensemble (1975)
  • Syringa for Mezzo-Soprano, Bass-Baritone, Guitar and Ensemble (1978)
  • Three Poems of Robert Frost for Baritone and Ensemble (1942, orchestrated 1980)
  • In Sleep, in Thunder for Tenor and Ensemble (1981)
  • Of Challenge and of Love for Soprano and Piano (1994)
  • Tempo e Tempi for Soprano, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1998-99)
  • Of Rewaking for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra (2002)
  • In the Distances of Sleep for Voice and Ensemble (2006)
  • Mad Regales for Six Solo Voices (2007)
  • La Musique for Solo Voice (2007)
  • Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008) for mezzo-soprano and clarinet
  • On Conversing with Paradise (2008) for baritone and chamber orchestra

Partial discography

Notable students


  1. "Celebrating a Birthday as Well as a Score" by Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times 12-13-2008
  2. "Recording Industry Salutes Musical Alums." The Horace Mann Report. Vol 106: Issue 9. January 23, 2009. (Retrieved February 9, 2009)
  3. 'Minimalism is death'. Telegraph, 26 July 2003.
Doering, William T. Elliott Carter: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1993.

External links



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