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Timeline: Elliott Carter

Every morning, for more than 75 years, American composer Elliott Carter would awaken and go to his studio to write music. Carter and his wife, Helen Frost-Jones, lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, since 1945. He was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, composing over 40 works after the age of 90. Carter’s music encompasses many of the influences and styles that shaped the last 100 years of music.

Elliott Carter was born into a wealthy family in Manhattan. He didn’t show much interest in music until his teenage years. The family’s insurance salesman, Charles Ives, encouraged Elliott to study music and devour as much contemporary work as he could find. Carter attended Harvard in the 20s and majored in English, while taking classes with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst, all under the watchful eye of Ives. After earning a Masters at Harvard, Elliott traveled to Paris to study for three years with Nadia Boulanger and complete his doctoral degree.

Carter taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the United States including Columbia, Yale, Cornell and Julliard. He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes; the first in 1960 for his Second String Quartet and the other in 1973 for his Third String Quartet. He was the first composer to receive the U.S. National Medal of Arts. He was also awarded honors in Europe and his music found an audience around the globe.

In his early works, Carter was greatly influenced by Neo-classicism. His First Symphony and Holiday Overture owe a great deal to the music of Stravinsky, Copland and Hindemith. A devotee of literature, he composed many works based on or setting the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Cummings, Frost and many others.

As he matured as a composer his work became a class by itself. Carter’s attention to formalism and complexity is unique. He didn’t follow the tenants of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row or the serialism of the early 20th century. Instead he took it upon himself to catalogue every possible relationship of pitches, every conceivable harmony available. In the 60s, this became the basis of Musical Set Theory. He also sought complexity in rhythm, creating a process of metric modulation where the pulse of the music slowly morphs from one meter to another.

Carter continued to compose every day, even well after his retirement. He completed his last work Epigrams just before his death in 2012 at the age 103.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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