Elliott Carter, American Modernist Composer, Dies at 103

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Elliott Carter, the American composer whose formidably complex music helped to define 20th-century modernism, died in Manhattan Monday at 103. He died of natural causes, five weeks shy of his 104th birthday.

Virgil Blackwell, his close friend and assistant, confirmed the news.

Carter’s intricate, atonal idiom intrigued, delighted and bewildered several generations of performers and listeners, but it was the remarkable late-life burst of creativity that many found especially astonishing. Between the ages of 90 and 100, he composed more than 40 published works, with over a dozen more following since he passed the century mark.

Carter won numerous awards including the National Medal of Arts and the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and 1973, for his second and third string quartets, respectively. He wrote six quartets in all, along with major works like the Double Concerto (1961), Night Fantasies for piano (1980) and What Next?, a one-act opera from 1997. 

Born in Manhattan in 1908, Carter's interest in modern music was fired up by his encounters with Charles Ives, the most radical of the early 20th-century American modernists. In the mid-1920s, the 50-year-old Ives took him to Carnegie Hall and recommended him to the dean of Harvard University. After receiving his master's degree from Harvard, Carter traveled to Paris to refine his technique with Nadia Boulanger, from 1932 to 1935.

In 1939, Carter married the sculptor Helen Frost-Jones. They had one son, David Carter, of Spencer, Indiana. Frost-Jones died in 2003 after 64 years of marriage. 

During World War II, Carter was a musical adviser for the New York branch of the government's Office of War Information. He went on to hold several teaching posts, including at the Juilliard School, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and three Ivy League Universities (Columbia, Cornell and Yale). He lived in Greenwich Village since 1945.

Among Carter’s high-profile champions in recent years were the Boston Symphony, the Juilliard Quartet and conductors James Levine and Pierre Boulez. He was venerated in contemporary-music circles while at the same time, performances of his works would unfailingly send orchestra patrons rushing towards the exits. 

In a 1992 Associated Press interview, Carter described his works as "music that asks to be listened to in a concentrated way and listened to with a great deal of attention."

"It's not music that makes an overt theatrical effect," he said then, "but it assumes the listener is listening to sounds and making some sense out of them."

If Carter's music never shed its dense, conceptual rigor, some critics found a softening of his language in recent years. A 100th birthday concert at Carnegie hall in 2008 featured the premiere of his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra. In his review, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, "the 17-minute piece — though brainy and complex, like all of Mr. Carter’s scores — was somehow celebratory: lucidly textured, wonderfully inventive, even impish. This was the work of a living master in full command."

More details to follow.