Elliott Carter’s Childhood and Early Life
Elliott Carter was born on 11December 1908 in New York. His father Elliott Carter, Sr. was a businessman by profession and his mother was Florence Carter (nee Chambers). He became interested in music during his teenage years and he was motivated to pursue it by the composer Charles Ives, who used to sell insurance to his family. In 1924, when he was only 15 years old, he attended the premiere of The Rite of Spring in which Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing a Stravinsky piece. This would also have a huge influence in cementing his interest in music.
He completed his early education from the Horace Mann and then went to Harvard to study English and music. There he also sang at the Harvard Glee Club. At the same time, he joined the Longy School of Music where he was taught by Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. After majoring in English, he started his Master’s degree in music, which he completed in 1932. Subsequently, he went to Paris to study under the famous French composer Nadia Boulanger for four years after which he received his Doctorate in Music from one of the most reputed French educational establishments, the Ecole Normale, in Paris. By late 1935, he returned to the States and started composing music for the Ballet Caravan.
Career As A Teacher And A Composer
In 1940, he joined St. John’s College at Maryland as a teacher and worked there for four years. He taught several courses including music while at the same time rephrasing and perfecting his original ballet that he composed for the Ballet Caravan. By 1944, he had finished his second work, Holiday Overture, and after two years, he completed composing his first piano sonata. By now, he had perfected his style, incorporating flavorsome intricacy in his compositions that distinguished his works from others, a sign of a truly great musician.
In the course of World War II, Carter worked for the Office of War Information. After the war ended, he took a teaching position at the Peabody Conservatory and worked there from 1946 to 1948. He then joined Columbia University as a Professor and worked there for two years. During this time, he composed a sonata for piano and cello and started making his first award-winning String Quartet. He also taught at Queens College from 1955 to 1956 and at Yale University from 1960 to 1962. In 1967, he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Three years later, he was appointed the Andrew P. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and in 1972, he was made a professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music. In 1985, he was honored with the National Medal of Arts.
Undoubtedly, Elliott Carter gained immediate popularity for his String Quartets. In 1951, when his String Quartet No. 1 was premiered in Rome, William Glock, who was a member of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), attended the performance and was very influenced by his music. Immediately after that, he started including Elliott Carter’s compositions frequently in the collection of radio concerts presented on BBC. When his String Quartet No. 2 premiered in 1959, it too was critically appreciated and bought him both name and fame. He also received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 for the String Quartet No. 2. This composition also landed him two other awards—the UNESCO prize for composition and the New York Critics Award. Carter’s String Quartet No. 3, which premiered in 1971, won him the Pulitzer Prize for the second time in 1973.
In 1988, he was honored at Tanglewood to mark his 80th birthday. This occasion was also celebrated by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival by premiering his Oboe Concerto in the United States. His birthday was also celebrated at the Pontino Festival, in Italy, and at the Huddersfield Festival, in the United Kingdom. Elliott Carter was very prolific even when he was well into his 80s. In fact, some of the works composed during this time are considered to be his best. In 1989, at the age of 81, he completed his latest composition called the Three Occasions and the next year, he finished the Violin Concerto. Both these works are amongst his greatest and excellent compositions. Besides this, he composed a Quinet for piano and winds, in 1991, and, in 1994, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences conferred the Violin Concerto the Best Contemporary Composition. For almost 25 years, Carter had kept on composing String Quartets and it was in 1995 that he presented his String Quartet No. 5 in Belgium. At that time Elliott Carter was 87 years old. Elliott Carter came to Carnegie Hall, New York, for the grand celebration of his 100th birthday on 11December 2008. There the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine performed the Stravinsky piece that he had listened to as a 15 year old at the same place, to commemorate his birthday. Another piece, which he composed in 2008, called the Interventions for Piano and Orchestra was also performed by Levine and pianist Daniel Barenboim. At the age of 90, in 1990, he composed his first opera What Next? And, by the time he became 100 years old, he had composed an astounding forty pieces of work. He composed three more pieces after his 100th birthday.
Awards And Achievements
Elliott Carter had been honored with the Pulitzer Prize two times (1960 & 1973) and is the first composer to receive the United States National Medal of Arts. He also received Germany's Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize and the New York Critics Award. In 1988, he was bestowed with the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France. In recent times, Carter has been honored with the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, presented by the Principality of Monaco. Apart from this, he is amongst the few composers to be elected to the Classical Musical Hall of Fame. In 2007, on 7 February, Elliott Carter was honored with the Trustees Award (a lifetime achievement award given for contributions to music other than performance) by the Grammy Awards.
The works composed at the beginning of his career were highly influenced by the style of Harris, Copland, Paul Hindemith and Stravinsky and are mostly neoclassical. His works such as Pocahontas for Ballet Caravan and the Holiday Overture represents a combination of Igor Stravinsky's neo-Classicism and the American populism of Aaron Copland. Works such as Piano Sonata and Cello Sonata use more conflict and rhythmic complexity. In his String Quartet No. 1, Carter developed ‘metrical modulation’, which is also used with more perfection in his wonderful works such as Orchestra, Double Concerto and the String Quartet No. 2. The String Quartet No. 3 has two duos pitted against each other so as to play in different tempos. According to Claus Adam of the Juilliard Quartet it is the toughest work which the quartet had ever played.
Till now Elliott has given more than 600 performances of his works all around the world. Some of his noted works include “Symphony No. 1”, “The Defense of Corinth”, “Piano Sonata”, “Cello Sonata”, “String Quartet No. 1”, “String Quartet No. 2” (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960), “Variations for Orchestra”, “Double Concerto for Harpsichord”, “Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras” (which Igor Stravinsky hailed as a masterpiece), “Piano Concerto”, “Concerto for Orchestra”, “String Quartet No. 3” (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973), “Oboe Concerto”, “Violin Concerto” (which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 1993), “String Quartet No.5”, “Clarinet Concerto”, “Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei”, and “Cello Concerto and What Next?”
Elliott Carter married Helen Frost-Jones on 6 July 1939 and they had only one child, a son named David Chambers Carter. Since 1945, he has lived in Greenwich Village.