Home » Uncategorized » Elliot Carter and his Clarinet Concerto

Elliot Carter and his Clarinet Concerto

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Elliott Cook Carter Jr. (December 11, 1908 – November 5, 2012) was an internationally recognized American composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, in 1960 for his String Quartet No. 2 and in 1973 for his String Quartet No. 3.   He was born in Manhattan, NY, on December 11, 1908, the son of a wealthy lace importer, Elliott Carter Sr. and his his wife, the former Florence Chambers. As a teenager, Elliot Jr. developed an interest in music, and received encouragement in this regard from Charles Ives, who sold insurance to Carter’s family. While he was a student at the Horace Mann School, he wrote an admiring letter to Ives, who responded and urged him to pursue his interest in music. In 1924, a fifteen-year-old Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in the New York première of The Rite of Spring,

When Carter attended Harvard, starting in 1927, Ives took him under his wing and made sure he went to the BSO concerts conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, who programmed contemporary works frequently. Although Carter majored in English at Harvard College, he also studied music there and at the nearby Longy School of Music. His professors at Harvard included Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club and did graduate work in music at Harvard, from which he received a master’s degree in music in 1932. He then went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, as did many other American composers, at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. Carter worked with Boulanger from 1932 to 1935, and in the latter year received a doctorate in music (Mus.D.). Later that same year, he returned to the US and wrote music for the Ballet Caravan.

On July 6, 1939, Carter married Helen Frost-Jones. They had one child, a son, David Chambers Carter. He lived with his wife in the same apartment in Greenwich Village from the time they bought it in 1945 to her death in 2003.  From 1940 to 1944, he taught in the program, including music, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. He had a strict training in counterpoint, from medieval polyphony to Stravinsky, and this shows in his earliest music, such as the ballet Pocahontas (1938–39). Carter’s earlier works, such as his Symphony No. 1 (1942) and Holiday Overture (1944), are influenced by Stravinsky, Harris, Copland, and Hindemith, and are mainly neoclassical in nature. Some of his music during the Second World War is fairly diatonic, and includes a melodic lyricism reminiscent of Samuel Barber.  During World War II, he worked for the Office of War Information and 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).

After the Second World War, in works such as his Cello Sonata (1948) and String Quartet No. 1 (1950-51) Carter began to develop a signature rhythmic and harmonic language, which he continued to refine to the very end of his life.   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 did not employ serial techniques in his music. Rather he independently developed and cataloged all possible collections of pitches (i.e., all possible three-note chords, five-note chords, etc.). Igor Stravinsky hailed Carter’s Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras (1961) and Piano Concerto (1967), as “masterpieces.”   In 1967, he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in 1981, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize; in 1983 the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts by the MacDowell Colony; and in 1985 the National Medal of Arts.  He was on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he gave annual composition master classes.

Carter composed his only opera What Next? in 1997-1998, with a libretto by Paul Griffiths, at the behest of conductor Daniel Barenboim for the Berlin State Opera. The work premiered in Berlin in 1999 and had its first staging in the United States at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2006 under the baton of James Levine.   On December 11, 2008, Carter celebrated his 100th birthday at Carnegie Hall in New York, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Daniel Barenboim played his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra written that year. Between the ages of 90 and 100 he published more than 40 works, and after his 100th birthday he composed at least 20 more.  On February 7, 2009, he was given the Trustees Award, a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers, by the Grammy Awards.  In June 2012, the French government named him a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur.

A leading figure of modernism in the 20th and 21st centuries, Carter’s prolific career spanned over 75 years, with more than 150 compositions, often marked with a sense of wit and humor, which are known and performed throughout the world; they include orchestral, chamber music, solo instrumental, and vocal works. He was extremely productive in his later years, publishing more than forty works between the ages of 90 and 100, and over twenty more after he turned 100 in 2008.  Carter’s last completed orchestral work, Instances (2012), was premiered by the Seattle Symphony in February 2013.  He completed his final last work, Epigrams for piano trio, on August 13, 2012, and it was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in June of 2013.  Carter died of natural causes on November 5, 2012 at his home in New York City, NY, at age 103.

The following works by Elliot Carter are contained in my collection:
Clarinet Concerto (1996).

Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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