Elliott Carter, born December 11, 1908, in New York, New York, was a composer, and musical innovator whose erudite style and novel principles of polyrhythm, called metric modulation, won worldwide attention. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, in 1960 and 1973.
Carter, who was born of a wealthy family, was educated at Harvard University (1926–32), where he first majored in English and later studied music with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. His interest in music dated from his teens and was fostered by the composer Charles Ives, who was Carter’s neighbour in 1924–25.
Carter began composing seriously in 1933, while studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. His early works displayed an original diatonic style that was strongly influenced by the rhythmic and melodic patterns of ancient Greek music and literature. Among his early works were choral and instrumental pieces and a ballet. Two pieces from the early 1940s—The Defense of Corinth for narrator, men’s chorus, and two pianos (1941) and Symphony No. 1 (1942)—were especially representative work of that period.
Carter’s Piano Sonata (1945–46) marked a turning point in his stylistic development; in it he used a complex texture of irregularly cross-accented counterpoint within a large-scale framework. In the Cello Sonata (1948) the principles of metric modulation were well established. In a 2002 radio interview, Carter said, “Everybody hated it. I couldn’t get it published. Now it’s taught in most universities and it’s played all the time.” The composer’s innovative rhythmic technique culminated in his String Quartet No. 1 (1951), characterized by the densely woven counterpoint that became a hallmark of his style. Both that quartet and the String Quartet No. 2 (1959; Pulitzer Prize, 1960) became part of the standard repertory. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) marked another phase of Carter’s development, leading to a serial approach to intervals and dynamics. The Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras (1961), which won rare praise from Igor Stravinsky, displayed Carter’s interest in unusual instrumentation and canonic texture (based on melodic imitation). The conflict generated between the two orchestral groups and the great difficulty of the concerto were mirrored in his Piano Concerto (1965). Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra was first performed in 1970 and the String Quartet No. 3, for which he won a second Pulitzer Prize, in 1973.
The 1980s began a major creative period for Carter. Some of his more frequently performed works from that and subsequent decades include the Oboe Concerto (1987); Violin Concerto (1990), a recording of which won the 1993 Grammy Award for best contemporary composition; String Quartet No. 5 (1995); the playful Clarinet Concerto (1996); the ambitious Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993–96; “I Am the Prize of Flowing Hope”); an opera, What Next? (1999), about six characters in the aftermath of a car accident; the Cello Concerto (2000), first performed by Yo-Yo Ma; and a continuing string of commissions beyond the composer’s 100th birthday. Major orchestras and other performers around the world increasingly played his music, and he became one of the few contemporary composers whose works entered the standard repertoire.
Carter was the first composer to receive the U.S. National Medal of Arts (1985); the governments of France, Germany, Italy, and Monaco also awarded him high honours. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Referring to the “wit and humour…anger…lyricism and beauty” found throughout Carter’s works, the critic Andrew Porter labeled the composer “America’s great musical poet.”