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Elliott Carter

[kahr-ter]
Elliott Cook Carter, Jr. (born in New York City on December 11, 1908) is an American composer from New York City. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s, and then returned to the United States. After a neoclassical phase, he went on to write atonal, rhythmically complex music. His compositions, which have been performed all over the world, include orchestral and chamber music as well as solo instrumental and vocal works.

Biography

Carter's father, Elliott Carter, Sr. was a businessman and his mother was the former Florence Chambers. The family was well-to-do. As a teenager he developed an interest in music and was encouraged in this regard by the composer Charles Ives (who sold insurance to his family). Although Carter majored in English at Harvard College, he also studied music there and at the nearby Longy School of Music. His professors included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club. He did graduate work in music at Harvard, from which he received a Master's degree in music in 1932. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger (as did Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and many other American composers). Carter worked with Mlle Boulanger from 1932-35 and in 1935 he received a doctorate in music (D Mus) from the Ecole Normale in Paris. Later in 1935 he returned to the US where he directed the Ballet Caravan.

From 1940 to 1944 Elliott Carter taught courses in physics, mathematics and classical Greek, in addition to music, at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. During World War II, Carter worked for the Office of War Information. He later held teaching posts at the Peabody Conservatory (1946 - 1948), Columbia University, Queens College, New York (1955-56), Yale University (1960-62), Cornell University (from 1967) and the Juilliard School (from 1972). In 1967 he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Style and works

Carter's earlier works are influenced by Stravinsky, Harris, Copland, and Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical in aesthetic. He had a strict and thorough training in counterpoint, from medieval polyphony through Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocohontas (1938-9). Some of his music during the Second World War is frankly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber. Interestingly, Carter abandoned neoclassicism around the same time Stravinsky did, saying that he felt he had been evading vital areas of feeling.

His music after 1950 is typically atonal and rhythmically complex, indicated by the invention of the term metric modulation to describe the frequent, precise tempo changes found in his work. While Carter's chromaticism and tonal vocabulary parallels serial composers of the period, Carter does not employ serial techniques in his music. Rather he independently developed and cataloged all possible collections of pitches (i.e. all possible 3 note chords, 5 note chords etc.). Musical theorists like Allen Forte later systematized this data into musical set theory. A series of works in the 1960s and 1970's generates its tonal material by using all possible chords of a particular number of pitches.

The Piano Concerto (1964-65) uses the collection of three note chords for its pitch material; the Third String Quartet (1971) uses all four-note chords; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) all five-note chords; and the Symphony of Three Orchestras utilizes the collection of six note chords. Carter also makes frequent use of "tonic" 12-note chords. Of particular interest are "all-interval" 12-tone chords where every interval is represented within adjacent notes of the chord. His 1980 solo piano work Night Fantasies utilizes the entire collection of the 88 symmetrical-inverted all-interval 12 note chords. Typically the pitch material is segmented between instruments, with a unique set of chords or sets assigned to each instrument or orchestral section. This stratification of material, with individual voices assigned not only their own unique pitch material, but texture and rhythm as well, is a key component of Carter's musical style. Carter's music after Night Fantasies has been termed his late period and his tonal language has become less systematized and more intuitive, but retains the basic characteristics of his earlier works.

Carter's use of rhythm can best be understood within the concept of stratification. Each instrumental voice is typically assigned its own set of tempos. A structural polyrhythm, where a very slow polyrhythm is used as a formal device, is present in many of Carter's works. The solo piano work Night Fantasies, for example, uses a 216:175 tempo relation that coincides at only two points in the entire 20+ minute composition. This use of rhythm is part of his goal to expand the notion of counterpoint to encompass simultaneous different characters, even entire movements, rather than just individual lines.

Carter developed his technique to further his artistic goals. His use of rhythm allows his music a structured fluidity and sense of time perhaps unique in classical music. The music also is overtly expressive and dramatic. He has said that "I regard my scores as scenarios, auditory scenarios, for performers to act out with their instruments, dramatizing the players as individuals and participants in the ensemble." He has also talked about his desire to portray a "different form of motion," in which players are not locked in step with the downbeat of every measure.

He has said that such steady pulses remind him of soldiers marching or horses trotting, sounds that are not heard anymore in the late 20th century, and he wants his music to capture the sort of continuous acceleration or deceleration experienced in an automobile or an airplane. While Carter's atonal music shows little trace of American popular music or jazz, his vocal music has demonstrated strong ties to contemporary American poetry. He has set works of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and, most recently, Wallace Stevens. Several of his large instrumental works such as the Concerto for Orchestra or Symphony of Three Orchestras are inspired by Twentieth Century American poets as well.

Among his better known works are the Variations for Orchestra (1954-5); the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959-61); the Piano Concerto (1964-65), written as an 85th birthday present for Igor Stravinsky; the Concerto for Orchestra (1969), loosely based on a poem by Saint-John Perse; and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). He has also written five string quartets, of which the second and third won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973 respectively. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-1996) is his largest orchestral work, complex in structure and featuring contrasting layers of instrumental textures, from delicate wind solos to crashing brass and percussion outbursts.

In spite of a usually rigorous derivation of all pitch content of a piece from a source chord, or series of chords, Carter never abandons lyricism, and ensures that a text is sung intelligibly, sometimes even simply. In A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) (based on poems by Elizabeth Bishop) Carter writes colorful, subtle, transparently clear music; yet almost every pitch in the piece is derived from the content of a single sonority. While Carter seems to set up rigorous systems for deriving the pitch content of a piece, he deviates from them on occasion: not every note can be explained with the same rigor as can be done, for example, in Webern. Most of Carter's music is published by either G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers (works up to 1982) or Boosey & Hawkes (works since 1982).

Recent years

Carter has lived in Greenwich Village and has recently completed Interventions, to be premiered by pianist Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine when the composer turns 100 in 2008. According to John Link, Carter "is now working on a song cycle on Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos.

Partial list of works

  • Pocahontas (Ballet) (1938-39)
  • The Defense of Corinth (1942)
  • Symphony No. 1 (1942, revised 1954)
  • Elegy for Viola and Piano (1943)
  • Holiday Overture (1944, revised 1961)
  • Piano Sonata (1945-46)
  • The Minotaur (Ballet) (1947)
  • Cello Sonata (1948)
  • Woodwind Quintet (1948)
  • Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Wind Quartet (1949)
  • String Quartet No.1 (1951)
  • Variations for Orchestra (1954–1955)
  • String Quartet No.2 (1959)
  • Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord and 2 chamber orchestras (1959-61)
  • Piano Concerto (1964)
  • Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950/66)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1969)
  • String Quartet No.3 (1971)
  • Brass Quintet (1974)
  • Duo for Violin & Piano (1974)
  • A Mirror on Which to Dwell for Soprano and Ensemble (1975)
  • A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976)
  • Syringa for Mezzo-Soprano, Bass-Baritone, Guitar and Ensemble (1978)
  • Three Poems of Robert Frost for Baritone and Ensemble (1942, orchestrated 1980)
  • Night Fantasies for Piano (1980)
  • In Sleep, in Thunder for Tenor and Ensemble (1981)
  • Changes for Guitar (1983)
  • Triple Duo (1983)
  • Penthode (1985)
  • String Quartet No.4 (1986)
  • Oboe Concerto (1986-1987)
  • Three Occasions for Orchestra (1986-89)

#A Celebration of Some 150x100 Notes
#Remembrance
#Anniversary

  • Violin Concerto (1989)
  • Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991)
  • Trilogy for Oboe and Harp (1992)

#Bariolage for Harp
#Inner Song for Oboe
#Immer Neu for Oboe and Harp

  • Of Challenge and of Love for Soprano and Piano (1994)
  • String Quartet No.5 (1995)
  • Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretiam Spei (1993-96)

#Partita
#Adagio Tenebroso
#Allegro Scorrevole

  • Clarinet Concerto (1996)
  • What Next? (opera in one act) (1997)
  • Luimen for Ensemble (1997)
  • Quintet for Piano and Strings (1997)
  • Tempo e Tempi for Soprano, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1998-99)
  • Two Diversions for Piano (1999)
  • Four Lauds for Solo Violin (1999, 1984, 2000, 1999)
  • ASKO Concerto (2000)
  • Oboe Quartet (2001)
  • Cello Concerto (2001)
  • Boston Concerto (2002)
  • Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra (2003)
  • Three Illusions for Orchestra (2002-04)

#Micomicón
#Fons Juventatis
#More's Utopia

  • Mosaic for Harp and Ensemble (2004)
  • Réflexions for Ensemble (2004)
  • Soundings for Piano and Orchestra (2005)
  • Intermittences for Piano (2005)
  • Catenaires for Piano (2006)
  • In the Distances of Sleep for Voice and Ensemble (2006)
  • Horn Concerto (2007)
  • Interventions for Piano and Orchestra (2007)
  • Clarinet Quintet (2007)
  • Figment IV for Viola Solo (2007)
  • Tinntinabulation for percussion sextet (2008)
  • Wind Rose for wind ensamble (2008)
  • Duettino for violin and cello (2008)
  • Flute Concerto (2008)

Partial discography

  • Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord; Sonata for Cello and Piano; Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano With Two Chamber Orchestras. Paul Jacobs, hpschd; Joel Krosnick, cello; Gilbert Kalish, piano; The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Arthur Weisberg, cond. Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79183-2.
  • String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. The Composers Quartet. Elektra/Nonesuch 9 71249-2
  • Piano Concerto; Variations for Orchestra. Ursula Oppens, piano; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen, cond. New World Records, NW 347-2.
  • Triple Duo; Clarinet Concerto; short pieces. Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Lorraine Vaillancourt, cond. ATMA Classique, ACD2 2280.
  • Complete Music for Piano. Charles Rosen, Piano. Bridge 9090.
  • Vocal Works (1975-81): A Mirror on Which to Dwell; In Sleep, In Thunder; Syringa; Three Poems of Robert Frost. Speculum Musicae with Katherine Ciesinki, mezzo; Jon Garrison, tenor; Jan Opalach, bass; Christine Schadeberg, soprano. Bridge, BCD 9014.
  • Dialogues; Boston Concerto; Cello Concerto; ASKO Concerto. Nicolas Hodges, piano; Fred Sherry, cello; London Sinfonietta, BBC Symphony Orchestra, ASKO Ensemble, Oliver Knussen, cond. Bridge 9184.

Notable students

See also

References

Doering, William T. Elliott Carter: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1993.

External links

Interviews

Listening

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