Leading figure of American Modernism famed for uncompromising works and prolific output
The American composer Elliott Carter has died at the age of 103. Carter, along with composers like Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, was a key figure in the post-war American avant-garde, creating an American Modernist tradition in parallel with similar developments in Europe. But Carter outlived his contemporaries, and continued to write in his adventurous and ever-changing style right until the end of his long life.
Carter was born in New York City in 1908. He was not from a musical family, but was encouraged to study music by Charles Ives, who was a family friend. Carter studied within the prevailing neo-classical style of the 1930s, notably under Nadia Boulanger. In the years that followed, Carter wrote a number of works in a style similar to Copland (a close friend), most significantly his Holiday Overture of 1944.
Carter’s more radical modernist style began in the late 40s and early 50s, with his Piano Sonata, Cello Sonata and First String Quartet each moving the composer gradually closer to the uncompromising modernism that would characterise his later work. In the 1950s and 60s, Carter became a major figure on the European avant-garde scene, although performances of his work in America were rarer. However, in the late 1960s, a number of conductors working in the States – Barenboim, Boulez and Bernstein among them – premiered major orchestral works. His Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1969 for the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein was a defining achievement of this era, and Carter later described it as his favourite work.
In his later music, Carter continued his modernist innovations, but his music became more elegant and less demonstrative. Chamber music came to predominate from the 1980s onwards, although he also continued to embark on large-scale commissions. His first opera, aptly titled What Now? was first performed in 1998, when Carter was 90.
Celebrations for each of Carter’s round number birthdays have been a contual feature of the new music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. Carter continued to provide new music for these celebrations, which invariably included multiple premieres, and often of large-scale works. Carter’s most recent premiere was of Dialogues II, given on 25 October at La Scala Milan, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. His last completed work, Instances, will be performed by the Seattle Symphony next February.