Brandi Williams Biography

Elliott Carter, an American modernist composer, was known for his erudite style and metric modulation. Despite his parents’ discouragement, his early interest in modern music continued to grow, leading him to study with influential mentors such as Charles Ives and Nadia Boulanger. After earning his PhD from École Normale de Musique de Paris, Carter returned home to begin his career as a composer while also teaching at prestigious institutions. Throughout his life, he published over 60 works and received numerous accolades, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Elliott Cook Carter Jr.
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Helen Frost-Jones (m. 1939–2003)
    • Father: Elliott Carter Sr
    • Mother: Florence Chambers
    • Children: David Chambers Carter
  • Born Country: United States
  • Composers
  • American Male
  • Died on: November 5, 2012
  • Place of death: New York City, New York, United States
  • City: New York City
  • U.S. State: New Yorkers
  • More Facts
  • Education: École Normale de Musique de Paris, Harvard College, Longy School of Music, Horace Mann School

Childhood & Early Years

Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was born on December 11, 1908 in Manhattan, New York City. His father, Elliott Carter Sr. was a wealthy lace importer. His mother’s name was Florence Doris Carter nee Chambers. He was possibly his parents’ only child.

Little is known about his childhood except that he had a bourgeois upbringing and often accompanied his father on his business trips to Europe. The visits enabled him to learn French and Flemish at first hand.

He had his schooling at the prestigious Horace Mann School and developed an interest in modern music while studying there. However, his parents, who wanted him to inherit his father’s business, found his passion for modern music rather annoying. Nonetheless, they provided him with some early piano lessons.

Over the time, he became attracted towards the works of modernist composer, Charles Edward Ives, writing a letter to him in appreciation of his work in 1922. Although there is confusion about how they met there is no ambiguity about the fact that Elliot was greatly influenced by the elder musician.

While some sources say that Ives, who was also a successful insurance agent, came to sell insurance policies to Senior Carter, while others claim in that he was neighbour in 1924-1925. Still others claim that Elliot met Ives through a sympathetic school teacher sometime in 1924.

Attending the première of The Rite of Spring in 1924 was another important event in his life. Conducted by Pierre Monteux, it galvanized fifteen years old Carter, making him more determined to become a musician.

Impressed by his determination, Ives took the boy under his wings. Under his tutelage, Carter learnt to appreciate ultra-modernist musicians like Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Ruth Crawford etc. Ives also took him to Serge Koussevitzky’s concerts, later critiquing the works of Debussy, Stravinsky or Prokofiev, whom he considered superficially modern.

In 1926, Elliot Carter graduated from school and entered Harvard University with English as his major. Ives wrote a letter of recommendation for him, describing him as “rather an exceptional boy. He has an instinctive interest in literature, and especially music.”

At Harvard University, he first majored in English and then studied music with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst, eventually earning his Masters degree in music in 1932. Concurrently, he also studied music at nearby Longy School of Music, and also sang with the Harvard Glee Club.

In 1932, he traveled to Paris, where he studied music at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, receiving his Doctorate in Music (Mus.D.) in 1935. During this period, he became acquainted with many great European artists including Bela Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.

In Paris, he also studied privately with Nadia Boulanger, acquiring a technical grounding in neoclassicism. He started to compose seriously from 1933. Although his early works displayed an original diatonic style and were competent, they did not give any sign of exceptional promise. Neither did he consider them worth preserving.

Early Career

In 1939, Elliott Carter returned to USA to become the music advisor for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. He was commissioned to compose a neoclassic ballet called Pocahontas in the same year. Another of his important works of this year was Heart Not So Heavy for a cappella choir. However, neither was commercially successful.

In 1940, he joined St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, possibly as a faculty member, working there till 1942. Thereafter, as United States got involved with the ongoing Second World War, he began working for the Office of War Information.

After the war ended, he held teaching posts at several institutes, including Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Yale University, Cornell University and Juilliard School. Concurrently, he continued to pursue his passion, composing Symphony No 1 in 1942 and Holiday Overture in 1944, both of which demonstrated a neoclassical style.

By 1945, he realized that if he wanted to establish himself, he would have to give up neoclassicism and develop a distinctive style of his own. The first fruit of such thoughts was Piano Sonata (1945-1946), which is considered by many to be the turning point in his stylistic development.

Continuing to reinvent himself, he developed his signature rhythmic and harmonic language for the first time in works like Cello Sonata (1948). Meanwhile in 1947, he composed his second and last ballet, The Minotaur, which was choreographed by George Balanchine and John Taras.


In 1954, Elliot Carter got his first major breakthrough with String Quartet No. 1. Partly composed in the Arizona Desert in 1950-1951, he received his first prize for it in 1953 from the International quartet-writing competition. Eventually, the work was premiered in Rome in April 1954 by the Paris-based Parrenin Quartet.

Another of his significant works of early 1950s was Variations for Orchestra. Composed between 1953 and 1955, the work was premiered in April 1956, receiving critical acclaim from music critic like Anthony Tommasini.

His next important work, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, was completed in August 1961. It was followed in 1964-1965 by another masterpiece, Concerto for Piano.

In 1969, he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate their 125th anniversary, writing Concerto for Orchestra for them. He was by then past sixty years of age and still going strong, writing his prize-winning piece, String Quartet No. 3 in 1971.

From 1972, he began teaching at the Juilliard School, concurrently continuing to work, composing A Symphony of (2) Three Orchestra from June 1976 through December. It was first performed on February 17, 1977 by the New York Philharmonic under the conductor Pierre Boulez, earning great critical acclaim.

By 1980s, he started composing by year, producing an astonishingly increased number of works. Among his later works, more significant are Oboe Concerto (1986-1987)3; Violin Concerto (1990), String Quartet No. 5 (1995); Clarinet Concerto (1996); Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993–96); the Cello Concerto (2000) and his only ballet What Next? (1997-1998)

His last major work, Dialogues II, is a composition for piano and chamber orchestra, written at the age 103. It was first performed at La Scala, Milan on October 25, 2012, a month before his death. However, his last work, Epigrams for piano trio, was completed on August 13, 2012.

Major Works

Carter’s Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras is considered a masterpiece by many music critics. Commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation and completed in August 1961, it was first performed on September 6, 1961 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

Another of his masterpieces is Concerto for Piano, which he wrote in 1964-1965. Commissioned by the pianist Jacob Lateiner and dedicated to the composer Igor Stravinsky, it was first performed at Symphony Hall, Boston on January 6, 1967, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the conductor Erich Leinsdorf.

Awards & Achievements

Throughout his life, Elliott Carter received numerous prizes, the most significant among them being two Pulitzer Prizes for Music. He received the first Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his String Quartet No. 2 and the second in 1973 for his String Quartet No. 3.

In 1985, he was awarded National Medal of Arts by the by President of the United States and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2009, he received the Grammy Trustees Award, a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Other important awards won by him include Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1981), Edward MacDowell Medal (1983) and Thomas Jefferson Medal (2005).

He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969.

He was created a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987 and a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by the French government in 2012.

In 1998, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Personal Life & Legacy

On July 6, 1939, Elliott Carter married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones, remaining with her till her death in 2003, living in the same apartment in Greenwich Village, which they had bought in 1945. The couple had one child, a son named David Chambers Carter.

He died of natural causes on November 5, 2012, at his home in New York City and was buried in the family plot at the Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. He was then 103 years old.

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