Born in New York, Elliott Carter studied English literature and music at Harvard. From 1932 to 1935, he worked with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. From 1936 to 1940, Elliott Carter was musical director of the Ballet Caravan and then taught at St John’s College in Maryland. He was then a consultant for the American Office of War Information. He divided his time between composition and teaching. He still teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Queens College, Yale University, Cornell University and the Juilliard School.
From 1937 onwards, he published numerous articles about music, in particular chronicles about American musical life in the Modern Music revue as well as essays on different composers (Ives, Stravinsky, Piston, etc.), his own music, jazz, film music, opera or the composer’s place within contemporary society.
Elliott Carter devoted himself essentially to composition from the 1950s onwards and received numerous awards for his works (Pulitzer Prize, Gold Medal form the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize), which were commissioned by world renowned orchestras, the greatest soloists and numerous chamber music ensembles.
He broached numerous different musical genres, except religious music and opera. However, the majority of his instrumental works and his three vocal cycles include a subjacent “operatic” dimension. He owes his musical vocation to his interest in the modern music of the 1920s combined with his insatiable curiosity for all new artistic forms.
His encounter with Ives, who encouraged him to become a composer, was decisive. In the 1930s, under the pressure of the political events and influenced by Nadia Boulanger’s teaching, he moved closer to a neoclassical style. It was only at the end of the 1940s that he succeeded in finding his own language, which was founded on the sense of continuity and the individualisation of the different layers of composition. His music was demanding and resembled neither the Americanised styles of Copland or Bernstein nor serial experimentation, which he sometimes judged severely. He composed his first quartet in 1950.
Elliott Carter built up his work very gradually with great independence. An immensely cultured man, he accomplished a synthesis between the 20th century’s diverse musical tendencies and musical conceptions belonging to very different eras and cultures. His uncompromising, solidly based music never sought to seduce and blossomed incessantly with ever-increasing freedom. As Andrew Porter said, “with Elliott Carter, there is no bad music”.
A Documentary by Allan Miller