Elliott Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer who fused European and American modernist traditions into seminal but formidable works, and who lived to hear standing ovations for music that was once considered anything but listener friendly, died on November 5 at his home in New York. He was 103 years old.
His assistant, Virgil Blackwell, confirmed the death but did not reveal an immediate cause.
Mr. Carter’s career resembled that of some of the most imposing cathedrals in Europe: so long in coming that it reflected the dramatic changes in artistic style that had taken place over the course of a century. A late bloomer – he didn’t find his mature voice, or the style for which he was best known, until he was 40 – Mr. Carter was ultimately acclaimed by some critics and songwriters. Igor Stravinsky called Mr. Carter’s “Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras” (1961) as the first American masterpiece.
Much of Mr. Carter’s music was difficult to play, difficult to listen to, and, judging by Mr. Carter’s slow production, difficult to write. But he also embodied a certain simplicity. As he grew older, Carter emphasized the connections between his music and the world around him. He said he sought to represent the rhythm of the 20th century: the acceleration and deceleration of an airplane rather than the steady beats and hooves of the horses of 18th and 19th century music.
Mr. Carter notably experimented with the meter, or rhythm, and challenged the audience to follow several instruments that played simultaneously to different rhythms.
“A piano accelerates to a wavering tremolo while a harpsichord slows down to silence,” wrote composer and musicologist David Schiff, describing Mr. Carter’s music. “Second violin and viola, half of a quartet, sound cold, mechanical impulses, while the first violin and cello, the remaining duet, play with intense expressive passion. Two, three or four orchestras superimpose discordant and unrelated sounds. A bass lyrically declaims classical Greek against the American crackle of a mezzo-soprano.
Mr. Carter said his music presented society as he hoped it would: “Many people deal with each other, are sensitive to each other, cooperating without losing their own individuality.
Mr. Carter continued to compose until shortly before his death, his works ranging from ballets to vocal, instrumental, chamber and orchestral pieces. At 90, he created his first opera, aptly titled “What Next?” The program for celebrating his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York City included a new work, “Interventions,” conducted by James Levine with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. It was an impressive performance for a composer described earlier in his career as “a musical loner”.
Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was born on December 11, 1908 to a well-to-do family in New York City. He was able to identify all the music in his parents’ collection before learning to read.
Mr. Carter attended Horace Mann Private School in New York City, but spent much of his childhood in Europe; his father, a pacifist lace importer, first took him there to show him the destruction caused by WWI. Family travels helped expose Mr. Carter to the music of revolutionary composers such as Stravinsky, Alexander Scriabin and Arnold Schoenberg – three men who helped determine that Mr. Carter would not become a lace importer like his family did. ‘had hoped. Mr. Carter has often said that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, which he heard as a teenager at Carnegie Hall, inspired him to become a composer.
During his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, Mr. Carter studied literature. This has remained an important part of Mr. Carter’s life: in the 1970s he wrote a cycle of vocal music based on the writings of poets such as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and Hart Crane.
In the 1930s, after obtaining a master’s degree in music from Harvard, Mr. Carter took a step that was practically essential for a generation of American composers: he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.
“It wasn’t encouraging if you wrote some really dissonant music,” Carter told The Guardian in 2006. “But, in the meantime, the world of music had changed. It wasn’t hard to think about it. , when we saw footage of Hitler, that it was the expression that had continued and produced such a terrible result in Germany, that it was the work of that kind of extravagance that had become terrifying. so thought it was time to be more orderly and more consciously beautiful, and neoclassicism seemed to have perfect logic on this.
Returning to the United States in the late 1930s, Mr. Carter first worked in the traditional mold of other Boulanger students, creating neoclassical, affordable and “American” works such as the ballet “Pocahontas”, which premiered in 1939. That same year he married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones. She died in 2003. Survivors include a son, David Carter of Spencer, Ind .; and a grandson.
In the mid-1940s, after his “Holiday Opening” was rejected by the Boston Symphony, Mr. Carter moved away from so-called accessibility, writing the “Piano Sonata” in 1945-6, the “Cello Sonata” in 1948, then in 1950-1951, the “String Quartet No. 1”, considered his first real breakthrough. The sprawling 40-minute work probed the idea of multiple perspectives in a single composition and put Mr. Carter on the map.
A performance of the quartet in Rome earned the composer a good reputation in Europe – a fame cemented in the 1960s and early 1970s by William Glock, the BBC’s music controller, who admired the works of Mr Carter. and played them on the radio.
If the first quartet won him praise in Europe, then the “String Quartet No. 2” sealed its reputation in the United States. Mr. Carter envisioned each instrument as an individual. The first violin, he said, was meant to be “fantastic, ornate and mercurial”; the second was “terse and orderly”; the viola was “expressive”; and the cello was “somewhat brash.” The work won him the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1960; the second was for “String Quartet No. 3” in 1973.
Interest in Mr. Carter and his music grew as he grew older, attracting a sort of general attention that few living composers ever receive. The subject of at least two documentaries – “A Life in Music” (1983) and “A Labyrinth of Time” (2004) – it was featured on mainstream talk shows leading up to its centenary.
Mr. Carter remained actively involved in the performance of his own work, discussing with the instrumentalists in detail the nuances of a given piece. As she got older, however, an early bedtime limited her concerts.
In addition to his two Pulitzer Prizes, Mr. Carter’s awards include the National Medal of Arts, the Edward MacDowell Medal, and two Guggenheim Fellowships. He has taught at Juilliard as well as Columbia, Yale and Cornell universities, among others.
Given Mr. Carter’s continued praise over the last six decades of his life, he had no reason to be other than optimistic about his work. But he knew he was writing for a specialist audience.
“As society changes,” he once said, “people will have to get a lot smarter and a lot sharper. And then they will like my music.
Editor Emily Langer contributed to this report.