Top 100 Composers: Elliott Carter

I got my 1st Elliott Carter record in 1976: the nonesuch "Double Concerto / Duo for Violin & Piano" with the latter played by Paul Zukovsky & Gilbert Kalish. I probably already knew & had the highest respect for Zukovsky's violin playing so that was a plus. Add to that that the idea of a double concerto was probably unusual to me at the time & this record would've held promise. However, I don't remember being particularly moved by it. It was all through-notation, there was no electronics, no structured improvisation - the work was complex but it was, to my ears, more academic than it was innovative.

"Elliott Carter, at present America's most celebrated composer, has frequently confided to friends that those in responsible positions in universities, on foundation boards, and with prize committees understand nothing of the new music they hear, and that one is therefore obliged to use all the resources at hand to get what every composer wants most: his music performed, published, and recorded extensively." - Joan Peyser's "Boulez, Composer, Conductor, Enigma", p 247

Nonetheless, Carter's music was widely published & reputed to be loved by composers so I continued to be interested in it & to listen to it hoping to have that epiphany moment when I would find it profound instead of just proficient. That moment didn't come until 41 years later when I heard the CD of Ursula Oppens playing his solo piano music.

Wow. I'd heard Carter's "Piano Sonata" & "Night Fantasies" played by Paul Jacobs & they just seemed like somewhat typical 'modernist' pieces. This isn't to even vaguely imply that Jacobs isn't a good pianist. I think I'd even heard a recording of Oppens playing Rzewski before & not been moved. THEN I heard the above CD & I was astounded! This was the way Carter's music should sound! I listened to the CD over & over again, always a good sign. I never got bored. Even now, after many listenings, I still get a thrill as soon as I hear Oppens play the opening notes of pieces like "90+".

I don't know how to explain it. Was she playing a 'better' piano than Jacobs? Is the recording clearer? Is there less reverb (I'm not a big reverb enthusiast)? Is there less use of the sustain pedal? Or does she somehow just nail it?! Or was I finally just 'ready' for it after 41 years?! I don't really think it's the latter because I listen to complex contemporary classical music all the time & Carter still hasn't really distinguished himself that much in contrast to my truly favorite composers (the ones whose numbers are in red in the index).

Whatever the case may be, thanks for my deep love of the Oppens CD I've assembled a 7 volume tape compilation of Carter's work from my sizeable collection of recordings of his & I'm listening to it now as I write this. The bottom line is: the piano music: great, "Three Poems of Robert Frost": I like it, "Woodwind Quintet": I like it (but then everything on the boxset that the recording's part of is great), "Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord" & "Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras": probably great (but I love harpsichord), "String Quartet No. 2": probably great (but I neeed to study it more), & "Changes": great (but that's partially because David Starobin's so damned good). In other words, what wishy-washy words of praise I'm writing here!! If it weren't for the Oppens CD he might not be listed as one of my Top 100 Composers.


Elliott Carter Retrospective

Volume 1 of 7:

Tape 1: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

28. "Two Thoughts About the Piano" (2005-06) - 10:55 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108

01. "To Music" (1937) - 9:01 - New World NW 219 record

02. "Three Poems of Robert Frost" (1942) - 4:30 - Unicorn UN1-72017 record

03. "Voyage" (1942) - 5:19 - Unicorn UN1-72017 record

02. "Three Poems of Robert Frost" (1942) - 4:46 - Bridge BCD 9014 CD

04. "Elegy" (1943) - 4:15 - Arditti String Quartet - ET'CETERA KTC 2507 CD

05. "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" (1945) - 3:22 - Gregg Smith Singers - Vox Box SVBX 5353 record


Tape 1: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

06. "Piano Sonata" (1945-46) - 22:18 - Paul Jacobs: Piano - nonesuch 79047 record

04./07. "Elegy for String Quartet" (1946) - app. 8:00 - Composers String Quartet - New England Conservatory NEC-115 record


Volume 2 of 7:

Tape 2: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

06. "Piano Sonata" (1945-46) - 23:31 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108

08. "Woodwind Quintet" (1948) - 14:52 - The Dorian Quintet - Turnabout VoxBox 5307 record


Tape 2: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

09. "String Quartet No. 1" (1951) - 38:03 - Arditti String Quartet - ET'CETERA KTC 2507 CD


Volume 3 of 7:

Tape 3: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

10. "Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord" (1952) - approximately 20:00 - Columbia Masterworks MS 6176 record

11. "String Quartet No. 2" (1959) - 20:47 - Arditti String Quartet - ET'CETERA KTC 2507 CD


Tape 3: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

12. "Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras" (1961) - approximately 22:36 - Epic LC 3830 record

13. "Concerto for Orchestra" (1970) - 23:05 - CRI SD 469 record


Volume 4 of 7:

Tape 4: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

12. "Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras" (1961) - 22:36 - nonesuch H-71314 record

14. "Canon for Three" (In memorian, Igor Stravisky) (1971) - approximately 1:03 - Gerard Schwarz - Desto DC-7133 record

15. "String Quartet No. 3" (1971) - 20:12 - Arditti String Quartet - ET'CETERA KTC 2507 CD


Tape 4: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

14. "Canon for Three" (1971) - 1:03 - Thomas Stevens, Mario Guarneri, & Roy Poper: Trumpets - Crystal Records / Recital Series S361 record

16. "Duo for Violin and Piano" (1973-74) - 17:24 - Paul Zukovsky: Violin, Gilbert Kalish: Piano - nonesuch H-71314 record

14. "Canon for Three" (In memorian, Igor Stravisky) (2nd version) (1971) - approximately 1:03 - Gerard Schwarz - Desto DC-7133 record

17. "A Mirror on Which to Dwell - Six Poems of Elizabeth Bishop" (1975) - 19:31 - Columbia Masterworks M 35171 record


Volume 5 of 7:

Tape 5: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

17. "A Mirror on Which to Dwell - Six Poems of Elizabeth Bishop" (1975) - 17:09 - Bridge BCD 9014 CD

18. "Symphony of Three Orchestras" (June-December, 1976) - 15:42 - Columbia Masterworks M 35171 record


Tape 5: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

19. "Syringa" (1978) - 18:53 - Bridge BCD 9014 CD

20. "Night Fantasies" (1980) - 26:28 - Paul Jacobs: Piano - nonesuch 79047 record


Volume 6 of 7:

Tape 6: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

19. "Syringa" (1978) - 19:53 - CRI SD 469 record

20. "Night Fantasies" (1980) - 19:48 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108


Tape 6: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

21. "In Sleep, In Thunder" (1981) - 18:59 - nonesuch 9 79110-1 F record

22. "Triple Duo" (1983) - 19:32 - The Fires of London - nonesuch 9 79110-1 F record


Volume 7 of 7:

Tape 7: Side A of a 90 minute tape:

21. "In Sleep, In Thunder" (1981) - 20:31 - Bridge BCD 9014 CD

22. "Triple Duo" (1983) - 18:44 - The New York New Music Ensemble - GM2047 CD


Tape 7: Side B of a 90 minute tape:

23. "Changes" (1983) - 6:57 - David Starobin: Guitar - Bridge BDG 2004 record

24. "String Quartet No. 4" (1986) - 20:47 - Arditti String Quartet - ET'CETERA KTC 2507 CD

25. "90+" (1994) - 4:55 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108

26. "Two Diversions" (1999) - 7:28 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108

27. "Retrouvailles" (2000) - 1:38 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108

29. "Matribute" (2007) - 2:05 - Ursula Oppens - ÇEDILE CDR 90000 108






Elliott Carter, Composer Who Decisively Snapped Tradition, Dies at 103

James Estrin/The New York Times

Elliott Carter, working on a score in his apartment in Greenwich Village in 1996. He won two Pulitzer Prizes.


Published: November 5, 2012

Elliott Carter, the American composer whose kaleidoscopic, rigorously organized works established him as one of the most important and enduring voices in contemporary music, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 103 and had continued to compose into his 11th decade, completing his last piece in August.


An Appraisal: Elliott Carter, Master of Complexity (November 7, 2012)

In Carter's Music, Look for the Plot (October 27, 1991)

Elliott Carter at a concert celebrating his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in 2008.

Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Mr. Carter with Aaron Copland, right, in 1981.

Richard Termine for The New York Times


Mr. Carter with James Levine, applauding, in 2006.

Fred Plaut/Columbia Records


Mr. Carter in the mid-1950s. His work was considered difficult.

His death was announced by Virgil Blackwell, his personal assistant. Mr. Carter died in his Greenwich Village apartment, which he and his wife bought in 1945 and where he had lived ever since.

Mr. Carter's music, which brought him dozens of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, could seem harmonically brash and melodically sharp-edged on the first hearing, but it often yielded drama and lyricism on better acquaintance. And though complexity and structural logic were hallmarks of his works, the music he composed in the decade leading up to his widely celebrated centenary, in 2008, was often more lyrical, if not necessarily softer at the edges.

Mr. Carter, a protégé of the American modernist Charles Ives, acknowledged that his works could seem incomprehensible to listeners who were not grounded in the developments of 20th-century music. Even trained musicians sometimes regarded his constructions as too difficult to grasp without intensive study. Yet he had many advocates among players, and his works were frequently performed and recorded.

"As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public," he once explained to an interviewer who asked him why he had chosen to write such difficult music. "I learned that the public didn't care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested."

Mr. Carter never lacked for commissions from major orchestras, soloists and chamber groups, and late in life he was able to impose conditions on those who sought his works. He refused to be held to deadlines, saying he would release his compositions when he felt they were ready. And for many years he would not accept commissions from orchestras that had not played his earlier music.

Long before he began enforcing that rule, however, many of Mr. Carter's works had found their way into the active repertory. In the mid-1980s, he observed that hardly a year went by without at least one New York performance of his Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano With Two Chamber Orchestras (1961). His Cello Sonata (1948) is considered one of this century's finest additions to that instrument's repertory, and his solo keyboard works, the Piano Sonata (1946) and "Night Fantasies" (1980), are performed regularly and have been recorded several times.

Mr. Carter continued to explore new ground into his later years. He avoided opera for most of his career because, as he put it in 1978, "American opera is a novelty, to be played once and that's all, even when they're good pieces," and because he doubted he could find a libretto that interested him. Yet when he was 90 he completed his first opera, "What Next?"

The opera, with a Dadaistic libretto by Paul Griffiths, a former music critic for The New York Times, had its premiere in 1999 at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. It had its American premiere in a concert version at Symphony Center in Chicago in 2000 and its first staged performance in the United States at Tanglewood in 2006 - an event filmed and released on DVD.

As Mr. Carter's centenary neared, the frequency with which his music could be heard only increased, making it clear that for at least two generations of young performers, even his thorniest works held little terror. In the summer of 2008, for example, the entire Festival of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center was devoted to Mr. Carter's work, with performances of dozens of pieces from every stage of his career (including several premieres). Mr. Carter attended most of the concerts. There were many such tributes that year, and the attention unnerved him, he said.

"It's a little bit frightening, because I'm not used to being appreciated," he said in an onstage interview at Zankel Hall the night after a celebration with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "So when I am, I think I've made a mistake."

Despite his years, he remained vital almost until the end. His last composition, "12 Short Epigrams," a piano work for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, was completed on Aug. 13. Another piece, "Instances," for Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony (commissioned with the Tanglewood Music Center), was completed in April.

In June, in what Steve Smith, writing in The Times, called a "miracle of continuing miracles," the New York Philharmonic performed the premiere of "Two Controversies and a Conversation." (Mr. Smith called it a "pocket-size double concerto.")

"The applause for Mr. Carter, wheelchair bound but characteristically animated," Mr. Smith wrote, "resounded thunderously."

Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was born in Manhattan on Dec. 11, 1908, the son of a wealthy lace importer. While he was a student at the Horace Mann School, he wrote an admiring letter to Ives, a New Englander with a crusty manner who nevertheless responded and urged him to pursue his interest in music. When Mr. Carter attended Harvard, starting in 1927, Ives took him under his wing and made sure he went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, who programmed contemporary works frequently.

At Harvard, Mr. Carter completed a bachelor's degree in English before deciding to study composition seriously. He studied with a group of celebrated teachers, including Walter Piston, Edward Burlingame Hill and Gustav Holst. He also received advice from Ives, although their friendship cooled after Mr. Carter made the mistake of showing Ives some compositions he had written in a neo-Classical style.

In 1932, after completing his master's degree, Mr. Carter went to Paris for three years of study with Nadia Boulanger, both privately and at the École Normale de Musique. While in Paris in 1933, he was commissioned to write incidental music for a production of Sophocles' "Philoctetes" at the Harvard Classical Club. The work was his first to be performed in public.

Mr. Carter returned to the United States in 1935, settling first in Cambridge, Mass., and then in New York City, where he began writing criticism for the influential journal Modern Music. In 1937 he began a two-year term as music director of Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan, for which he wrote the ballet "Pocahontas" (1939), a work with echoes of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and the residue of an early interest in the music of the Elizabethan virginalists.

He also wrote incidental music for Orson Welles's Mercury Theater. A choral work, "To Music," won a 1938 contest sponsored by the Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration.

In 1939 he married Helen Frost-Jones, a sculptor and art critic. She died in 2003. Their son, David, survives Mr. Carter, as does a grandson.

Mr. Carter's works of this early period are in neo-Classical and neo-Romantic styles, their modernism kept in check because, as he later explained, the acidic experiments of the avant-garde seemed wrong for a world that was gripped by the Depression. Trying to write music that would appeal to a wide public, he composed an amusing setting of "The Siege of Corinth" (1941), to a Rabelais text, and his First Symphony (1942), an essay in a melodic, almost pastoral style.

By the mid-1940s Mr. Carter had won several prizes but had made little headway with the public, and he began to regard his consonant style as an unrewarding compromise. In the Piano Sonata (1946) and the Woodwind Quintet (1948), he began writing with a sharper edge, and in the Cello Sonata he started the investigation of contrasting materials that remained a fascination. In this case the contrast was between a freely flowing, lyrical cello line and a disciplined, almost marchlike piano part.

Desert Interlude

The turning point in Mr. Carter's style came in 1950, when a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters allowed him to leave a teaching post at Columbia University and spend a year in southern Arizona, outside Tucson. During that year in the Sonora Desert he wrote a single 45-minute work, his First String Quartet.

Recalling his desert sojourn, Mr. Carter said in a 1960 interview: "I had been waiting for just such an opportunity to give form to a number of novel ideas I had had over the previous years, and to work out in an extended composition the character, expression and logic these ideas seemed to demand. I felt that I was constantly pushing into an unexplored musical realm."

Internal Oppositions

What he came up with was a process he called "metrical modulation." Each instrument has a distinct personality and moves at an independent rhythm. The effect is of a constant change of tempos. Thereafter, virtually all of Mr. Carter's works were driven by the tension between independent and starkly contrasting elements.

In the Second String Quartet (1959), for example, each instrument is given its own distinct vocabulary of intervals and rhythms. In the Double Concerto of 1961, the piano and harpsichord, each allied to its own chamber orchestra, speak in languages appropriate to their timbres. In the first half of the work, the opposing groups move toward consensus; in the second, they split apart.

Between the 1950s and the late 1970s, Mr. Carter typically spent several years on each new work and saw every piece as an opportunity to overcome new challenges, some purely musical and others narrative and dramatic.

"I just can't bring myself to do something that someone else has done before," he said in 1960. "Each piece is a kind of crisis in my life."

Starting in the late 1980s Mr. Carter's production picked up speed, and by 2005 he was routinely producing streams of works, albeit short ones, every year, sometimes at the request of musicians who admired his work and sometimes spontaneously for musicians he admired.

When asked why his early works took so long to complete, Mr. Carter explained that his method of composing dictated his speed. "I like to sound spontaneous and fresh, but my first sketches often sound mechanical," he said. " I have to write them over until they sound spontaneous." Many of his scores were completed only after he had filled thousands of pages with sketches. He meticulously dated and saved these, an idea he said he got from Igor Stravinsky. Mr. Carter intensified his use of contrasting forces in works like the Third String Quartet (1971) and the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977). In these compositions the main ensemble is divided into subgroups, each of which is given a distinct set of movements. The movements are played simultaneously with those performed by competing groups. But they are not played in a conventional way, from start to finish. Instead, the players may be asked to play part of a first movement, all of a second and part of a third before returning to where they left off in the first.

In works like "Syringa" (1978), a vocal setting of the poet John Ashbery's updated version of the Orpheus legend, the internal oppositions are set forth more clearly. As a mezzo-soprano offers an understated account of the Ashbery text, a bass vehemently sings fragments of Greek classical texts.

"I regard my scores as scenarios," Mr. Carter said in 1970, "for the performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and as participants in the ensemble."

That interest remained with him. His String Quartet No. 5 (1995), for example, conveys his fascination with a quartet's rehearsal methods, including the debates between players about phrasing and coloration. The work is in 12 connected movements, five of which are interludes that describe the discussions, with one player offering a phrase from the section just heard and the others responding with embellishments, humorous turns or consternation.

Some listeners found his music cerebral, elitist and devoid of emotion. Even some who respected Mr. Carter's erudition and the detail inherent in his compositional method were unmoved by his music.

Reviewing the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) when Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in the work's world premiere, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Times, "It may be a tour de force of its kind, but to me it is essentially uncommunicative, dry and a triumph of technique over spirit."

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Carter's music began to return to forms that he had not addressed since the 1940s.

With "A Mirror on Which to Dwell" (1975) and "Syringa," he began reconsidering the voice, and he continued his exploration in "In Sleep, in Thunder" (1981) and "Of Challenge and of Love" (1994), vocal chamber works that in retrospect seemed steps on Mr. Carter's path to opera.

Around the same time, "Night Fantasies" (1980), an evocative description of the fleeting states of thought one experiences between sleep and wakefulness, was the first in a stream of solo instrumental pieces for guitar, violin, trombone, flute, harp, clarinet, cello and piano. He also composed a series of concertos for various instruments, including oboe, violin and clarinet, and a 50-minute orchestral triptych, "Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei." Indeed, Mr. Carter began composing at a brisk pace in the mid-1980s. Instead of spending several years writing a single piece, he was writing a handful of pieces a year.

Moreover, they seemed to reach out to listeners in a way that the earlier works had not. The Oboe Concerto (1987) and the Violin Concerto (1990) were decidedly lyrical, even though Mr. Carter's harmonic language remained essentially dissonant. And in the "Triple Duo," (1983) the dialogues within and between the three independent instrumental groups are slyly witty and even overtly comic.

Two Decades, Two Pulitzers

Mr. Carter taught at several American conservatories and colleges, including the Peabody Conservatory, Queens College, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell and the Juilliard School.

He was awarded Pulitzer Prizes for his Second String Quartet in 1960 and his Third String Quartet in 1973. A recording of his Violin Concerto won a Grammy Award for best contemporary composition in 1994.

Among his many awards was the National Medal of Arts, bestowed in 1985. In September, France awarded him the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor. Mr. Carter was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963 and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969.

Mr. Carter did not seem bothered by objections to the difficulty of his music, and he expressed confidence that it would eventually be understood.

"There are many kinds of art," he said in 1978, when asked what he had to say to concertgoers who felt that great music should have tunes that could be whistled. "Some kinds are hard to understand for some people, and easy to understand for others. But if the works are very good, then finally a lot of people will understand them. And it seems to me that if a work has something remarkable to say, then someone who wants to whistle it will find something in it to whistle. But these things are very subjective.

"Just this morning, I had a call from Ursula Oppens, who is playing my Piano Concerto. She said, 'I finally know all the tunes in your concerto.' I said, 'Which tunes are those?' And she whistled one. So there you are."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 7, 2012

An obituary on Tuesday about the composer Elliott Carter misstated, in some editions, the given name of the musical director of the Seattle Symphony, for which Mr. Carter composed the piece "Instances" this year. He is Ludovic Morlot, not Pierre Morlot. The obituary also misidentified the venue where the American premiere of Mr. Carter's opera "What Next?" was performed. It was at Symphony Center in Chicago, not at Carnegie Hall. And because of an editing error, the obituary misstated the year that Mr. Carter's wife, the former Helen Frost-Jones, died. It was 2003, not 1998.








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