One of the 20th century’s most prolific composers, he showed no signs of slowing down in old age.
December 11, 1908 – November 5, 2012
Read Limelight‘s interview, one of the last Elliott Carter gave this year.
The doyen of American composers, Elliott Carter, has died of natural causes at his home in New York, according to his assistant Virgil Blackwell. Just a month shy of his 104th birthday, Carter was still composing prolifically until the end. His most productive period, a flourishing in his late eighties, saw the pinnacle of his style – a blend of intricate American “ultra-modernism” and a European aesthetic – in mercurial music of searing intensity.
Carter was born into a wealthy New York family but spent much of his early childhood in Europe, learning to speak French before he could read English. As a teenager, the American premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring made a lasting impression; he recalls meeting the French composer Edgar Varèse at a speakeasy during the prohibition; and Charles Ives became a friend and mentor.
Unsatisfied with the rigour of Harvard’s music program, Carter went to Paris to study with the formidable Nadia Boulanger for three years in the early 1930s. There, he immersed himself in strict counterpoint and early choral music from Perotin and Machaut to Monteverdi and Bach. He then returned to New York and held various teaching positions, notably at the Juilliard School (1964–84). Musically, Carter was one of the few composers able to straddle the divide between American innovators (Cowell, Nancarrow) and the emerging European avant-garde (Boulez, Stockhausen).
His music is remarkable for its dark textures, polyrhythms and meticulous technical approach. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice; for his Second String Quartet in 1960 and again for his third in 1973. He wrote concertos for piano, violin, clarinet, violin and oboe (the latter two premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and Heinz Holliger respectively); and vocal settings of American poets Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. It wasn’t until he had reached his nineties that he embarked upon his first and only foray into opera, at the behest of Daniel Barenboim – the chamber opera What Next? was staged this year by Victorian Opera in its Australian premiere.
In 2008, he celebrated his 100th birthday with a concert held in his honour at Carnegie Hall. In September 2012 he made Commander of the Legion of Honour. Carter continued to compose daily in his final year: his Dialogues II for piano and orchestra had its world premiere at La Scala last month with Gustavo Dudamel at the podium.
Elliott Carter is survived by his son David and a grandson. The great American composer Aaron Copland described him as “one of America’s most distinguished creative artists in any field”.