American composer Elliott Carter dies aged 103

A life which spanned generations

Elliott Carter
Published: November 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

Composer Elliott Carter has died just a month shy of his 104th birthday.


Carter, who completed his last piece in August 2012, was a towering presence in contemporary music. His work brought him two Pulitzer Prizes as well as a clutch of titles and awards.

His best-known works include a Cello Sonata from 1948 and a Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras written in 1961. But he also completed his first opera, What Next? when he was 90.

Carter was born in 1908 in Manhattan and became a protégé of Charles Ives at Harvard in 1927. Carter read English for his first degree before deciding to concentrate on composition. He went on to study with Gustav Holst among others, before heading to Paris to learn with Nadia Boulanger in 1932.

His first piece to be heard in public was incidental music for a production of Sophocles’s Philoctetes in 1933.

His early works, including his 1942 First Symphony, were more melodic than his astonishingly complex later music. Carter later said: ‘As a young man, I harboured the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.’

His First String Quartet, written during a stay in Arizona in 1950, marked a turning point in Carter’s music, as he explained in an 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.’

The result was a method of musical composition which he called ‘metrical modulation’, a system which gave the impression of constant changes of tempo. His Second String Quartet – for which Carter won his first Pulitzer prize – uses this system, as does the Double Concerto (1961).

Speaking in 1978, Carter dismissed concerns that people didn't always warm to his music. ‘There are many kinds of art. 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.’

As Carter approached his 100th birthday in 2008, his music was frequently heard in concert halls and the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood was entirely devoted to his work. He was also the first living composer to have a centenary concert at the BBC Proms.

The attention, however, made him uneasy, something which he joked about in an interview, saying ‘It’s a little bit frightening, because I’m not used to being appreciated. So when I am, I think I’ve made a mistake.’

Carter was married to the sculptor and art critic Helen Frost-Jones, who died in 1998. They are both survived by their son, David, and a grandson.

Controller of Radio 3, Roger Wright said: 'Elliott Carter was a towering musical figure who leaves a powerful legacy through his own works and his significant influence on other composers. Radio 3 and the BBC Proms are proud to have commissioned his work and Radio 3 will be marking his contribution to music this week.'

A full obituary will be published in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale 19 December.


Photo: Meredith Heuer

Sponsored content