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Profile of Elliott Carter


Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter attending the Documentary Concert at the Prada Store during the Tribeca Film Festival (New York City) on May 6, 2004.

David Holloway/Getty Image


December 11, 1908


New York, New York, U.S.A.

Also Known As:

Elliot Cook Carter, Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer. He became music director of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan in 1935. He also taught at prestigious educational institutions such as Saint John’s College, Peabody Conservatory, Juilliard School, Columbia University, Queens College, Yale University, MIT, Cornell University and Tanglewood Music Center. Innovative and prolific, he is known for his use of metric modulation (or tempo modulation), a method of seamlessly changing tempos.

Metric Modulation:

An excerpt from Alan Baker's 2002 interview with Elliot Carter sheds more light into this technique: "In that one, the idea was to have various layers of rhythms going on at the same time, at different speeds, and then move from one system to another. That involved what some people called later metric modulation or tempo modulation which involved, lets say, if an instrument is playing 5 notes to every beat, and then these 5 notes are in groups of three, you then produce a new rhythm. The whole piece is built on this system of constantly switching from one speed to another, not suddenly, but like shifting gears in a car." - An interview with Elliot Carter By Alan Baker, American Public Media, July 2002

Type of Compositions:

Choral music, instrumental pieces, orchestral works, concerti, string quartets, piano pieces, an opera, a ballet, to name a few.


When Carter was around 16 or 17 years old, he met his then neighbor Charles Ives. Ives became his mentor and encouraged him to pursue music. Carter attended Harvard University where he first majored in English literature before studying music with American composer Walter Piston and English composer Gustav Holst. He then traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Carter's serious foray into composing began in the early 1930s, but his most creative period was during the 1980s.

Selected Works:

Symphony No. 1, The Defense of Corinth, Piano Sonata, Cello Sonata, String Quartet No. 1, String Quartet No. 2 (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960), Variations for Orchestra, Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras (which Igor Stravinsky hailed as a masterpiece), Piano Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra, String Quartet No. 3 (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973), Oboe Concerto, Violin Concerto (which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 1993), String Quartet No.5, Clarinet Concerto, Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei, What Next? and Cello Concerto.

Interesting Facts:

  • In 1985, he became the first composer to receive the U.S. National Medal of Arts
  • Received the Gold Medal for Music from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • Became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • In 1953, he was awarded the Prix de Rome for his "String Quartet No. 1."
  • His works have been commissioned by major organizations (i.e. Fromm and Ford foundations, New York Philharmonic).
  • Awarded the Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize from Germany
  • In 1988, he was made "Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the Government of France.
  • Received the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award
  • Elected to the Classical Music Hall of Fame
  • Aside from Ives, he was also friends with Copland, Cowell and Varese.
  • Carter celebrated his 100th birthday in 2008 at New York's Carnegie Hall. Daniel Barenboim and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Carter's 2008 piano concerto.
  • In 2009, he received the Grammy's Trustees Awards.
  • More Information:

    For more on Elliott Carter, visit his page at the Boosey & Hawkes Web site.

    Related Video:

    Listen to Elliott Carter's Pulitzer Prize-winning "String Quartet No. 2" courtesy of YouTube.

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