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.
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).
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