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Elliott Carter, Methuselah of American Composers, Dies

Composer Elliott Carter
Composer Elliott Carter poses at an undisclosed location in this undated photo released to the press on June 5, 2012. Photographer: Meredith Heuer/Boosey & Hawkes via Bloomberg

Elliott Carter, the American composer whose long life and career produced a remarkable coda of creativity in his 90s, has died. He was 103.

Carter died today in New York, the Associated Press reported. Boosey and Hawkes, the music publisher, didn’t give a cause of death, AP said.

Called America’s great musical poet by critic Andrew Porter, Carter was feted on his 100th birthday, Dec. 11, 2008, with a concert at Carnegie Hall that included the New York premiere of a piece for piano and orchestra titled “Interventions,” which he had composed at 98. Daniel Barenboim was at the piano while James Levine conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Levine, an important supporter of Carter, led the same orchestra in the October 2005 New York premiere of the composer’s “Three Illusions.” The crowd cheered with such fervor that Levine repeated the work’s middle portion, “Fons Juventutis” (“Fountain of Youth”), a fitting tip of the hat to Carter’s vitality.

His late-in-life fecundity provoked an inevitable question: What if he hadn’t lived so long? Though several great composers had bursts of creative energy near their deaths --Mozart and Schubert among them -- only Carter produced so much good music at such an advanced age.

’Now I’ve Found It’

“The earlier part of my life I felt I was more or less exploring what I would like to write,” Carter told the New York Times as he turned 100. “Now I’ve found it out, and I don’t have to think so much about it.”

Of the traits that characterized Carter’s music, his insatiable desire for change -- be it in meter or mood -- was the most important and consistent. He was fond of comparing his music to jazz. Like jazz, his music would dart about, riffing off itself and expanding both its formal and emotional reach in the process.

Textural clarity and economy of means were also hallmarks of his complicated scores, even those for large orchestral pieces. Though he claimed to be unmoved by public taste, his works showed profound personal feeling. Soft edges balance even sharply angled works, such as the Piano Concerto (1964-65) and the Cello Concerto (2001), composed for Yo-Yo Ma.

Piano Compositions

Through 1980, his writing for solo piano consisted of two works, the revolutionary Piano Sonata of the mid-1940s and “Night Fantasies” (1980), which the pianist-scholar Charles Rosen, a Carter intimate, termed “perhaps the most extraordinary large keyboard work written since the death of Ravel.” Then, in 1994, without obvious explanation, Carter began composing for the piano as never before, producing six new works of distilled power by 2007.

This flowering was encouraged, and maybe even provoked, by some of the era’s most important conductors. Besides Levine, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Oliver Knussen and Christoph von Dohnanyi all commissioned works from Carter.

His life, which began in New York City on Dec. 11, 1908, spanned the 20th century, and so did his musical evolution.

In his early years he was encouraged by no less than the composer Charles Ives, whose recommendation helped Carter attend Harvard College, where he majored in English. Like Aaron Copland and many other important composers, Carter studied in Paris with the formidable pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

Duke Ellington

Back in the U.S., Carter worked on the early compositions that would define his sound.

“I remember my First Symphony, which is rather conservative and somewhat jazzy, was played down at Cooper Union,” he told National Public Radio in 2008, “and Duke Ellington was in the audience. And he came back and said, ‘It seems to me, Mr. Carter, you’re interested in jazz.’”

By 1950 he had jettisoned his Stravinsky-inspired neoclassicism for territory mapped by Arnold Schoenberg. Though not a serialist per se, Carter in his mature period embraced many serialist principles while allowing himself the freedom to structure pieces as he saw fit. After “Night Fantasies,” though, his work became even more expressive.

He finally opted to write an opera, “What’s Next?” in 1997-1998, becoming by a considerable distance the oldest composer to undertake such a project, especially as a novice. Postmodern in conception and with influences as varied as Pirandello and Jacques Tati, the 40-minute, one-act work is typically fresh and not a little elliptical; the final line of Paul Griffiths’s libretto is “What --,” followed by clattering percussion and a soprano wail.

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