Composer Elliott Carter dies at 103

Composer Elliott Carter in Manhattan. (Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Composer Elliott Carter in Manhattan. (Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times) Credit:

The towering American composer Elliott Carter has died at 103 years old. His longtime associate, the clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, confirmed that Mr. Carter died peacefully of natural causes in his New York City home Monday afternoon.

Mr. Carter was one of the most respected composers of the late 20th century. His catalog included 158 works, with many added in the final decade of his life. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music and was the first composer to receive the U. S. National Medal of Arts.

“He was a remarkable man, we know that,” said Blackwell by phone on Monday evening. “Music was the most important thing in his life. He put all of his energy into composing. And the number of pieces he was able to write in the last 10 years was absolutely astounding. They were all different, he didn’t repeat himself. And he was a very generous man, and very humble in many respects.”

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Mr. Carter began his career writing in a populist neoclassical style, but beginning with his Cello Sonata of 1948, he moved steadily toward the progressive vanguard of musical high modernism. His works of the 1960s, including the landmark Double Concerto of 1961 and the hugely ambitious Concerto for Orchestra of 1969, established his reputation for music of fierce complexity and uncommon elegance. The trend of increasing intricacy, particularly in the layering of musical textures that often moved at independent speeds, continued in Mr. Carter’s work of the 1970s, including “A Symphony of Three Orchestras” and “Syringa,” in which the two vocal soloists sing in two different languages.

Mr. Carter was already in his 80s when he took on the most expansive work of his career, “Symphonia,” and he was 90 when he wrote his first opera, “What Next?” That opera was premiered in 1999, and the question in its title was repeatedly asked of the composer throughout the next decade, as he generated a seemingly endless stream of concertos, smaller works for orchestra, instrumental chamber music, and vocal works. The scores from this so-called late-late period were often distinguished by their lighter and more crystalline textures, and, in works such as the Clarinet Concerto, an almost Mozartean grace and wit.

Born in New York City in 1908, Mr. Carter decided to become a composer after hearing a performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” He often attended concerts with Charles Ives, who later wrote his recommendation for college. Mr. Carter attended Harvard University, where he did both undergraduate and graduate work, studying with the composers Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. While in Boston, Mr. Carter frequently attended BSO performances, and he later claimed that he learned “the whole repertory of older music” through those performances in Symphony Hall. He also sang with the Harvard Glee Club during performances with the BSO under Serge Koussevitzy. After Harvard, Mr. Carter studied in Paris with the doyenne of French music, Nadia Boulanger.

In recent years, the steady rise in performance levels benefited Mr. Carter’s music, as scores once deemed unplayable began to fall within the range of ambitious conservatory graduates. Among the conductors to most actively champion Mr. Carter’s music was former BSO music director James Levine.

The BSO commissioned or co-commissioned several of Mr. Carter’s works, including the Horn Concerto, the Flute Concerto, the “Boston Concerto,” “Interventions,” and “Three Illusions for Orchestra.”

“I feel I owe the Boston Symphony a lot,” Mr. Carter told the Globe in 2008, adding, “and I have done what I could to repay them.”

Mr. Carter’s 100th birthday was marked by a high-profile Levine-led BSO program in December 2008, performed in both Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall. On that occasion, Levine described Mr. Carter’s personality as “a completely irresistible and absolutely unique combination of erudition and playfulness.”

The following summer, in 2009, the Tanglewood Music Center devoted the entire Festival of Contemporary Music to Mr. Carter’s work. This unprecedented tribute included the first performance of Mr. Carter’s “Sound Fields,” given by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Stefan Asbury. The music – a study in broad, slowly unfurling chords and gradual shifts in texture – seemed to shock just about everyone in Ozawa Hall, as it sounded like nothing Mr. Carter had written before. The composer never lost his ability to surprise.

Mr. Carter was on hand that week to attend most of the concerts, and even to sit for a public interview. “These pieces of music,” he said on that occasion, “if they spoke English instead of notes, they would be very grateful.”

Mr. Carter is survived by his son, David Carter of Spencer, Indiana, and his grandson, Alexander Carter, a student at Bard College. A memorial service is being planned for next year in New York City.

This post will be updated with additional details.

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