In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Elliott Carter

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Research Guides
  • Essay Collections
  • Films and Video Recordings
  • Carter’s Writings
  • Interviews
  • Archival and Internet Resources

Music Elliott Carter
John Link
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0230


Elliott Carter (b. 1908–d. 2012) was one of the leading composers in the United States from the mid-20th century until his death at the age of 103. Born in New York City, Carter was mentored as a teenager by Charles Ives, and later attended Harvard University. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris from 1932 to 1935. After his return to the United States, he was a music critic for the magazine Modern Music and music director of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. During the Second World War, he briefly worked for the Office of War Information, then held temporary teaching positions at St. John’s College and several other institutions. Carter’s music first achieved widespread international attention after his String Quartet [no. 1] was awarded the Liège Prize in 1953. (Carter later had to renounce the prize because the premiere performance had already taken place.) A performance of the quartet in Rome in 1954, organized by the composer Nicholas Nabokov (cousin of the famous novelist) and attended by William Glock, Luigi Dallapiccola, and others, established Carter’s reputation. Over the years, Carter’s music was widely acclaimed. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice (in 1960 for his String Quartet no. 2, and in 1973 for his String Quartet no. 3), and he was the recipient of Germany’s Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the Prince Pierre [of Monaco] Foundation Music Award. He was the first composer to receive the US National Medal of Arts, and was named Commander of the “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” and later Commander of the Legion of Honor, by the government of France. Carter’s music typically involves the continuous development of contrapuntally interacting textural layers, each characterized by its own harmony, rhythmic behavior, and constituent instruments. Carter’s generalization of counterpoint involves treating each layer of the texture, and often each instrument, as an individual “character-continuity”—akin to a character in a play. Beginning in the 1970s, his deep engagement with setting contemporary poetry led him to reimagine the contrapuntal layers of his music as the contending thoughts and feelings of a single lyric point of view. Much of his later music explores the ambiguity of musical portrayals of social interaction and individual consciousness. Carter’s music is fundamentally humanistic—concerned with representing social interaction and human experience as vividly as they are portrayed in novels, poems, plays, film, dance, and the visual arts.

General Overviews

The best general overview of Carter’s music in English remains Schiff 1998 (first edition 1983). Also essential are Noubel 2000, Wierzbicki 2011, the documentary film Scheffer 2004 (cited under Films and Video Recordings), and the materials and commentary collected in Meyer and Shreffler 2008. Restagno 1989 is an Italian translation of the first edition of Schiff’s The Music of Elliott Carter (1983, cited here as Schiff 1998) and several of Carter’s essays.

  • Meyer, Felix, and Anne C. Shreffler. Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008.

    A valuable compendium of documentary materials from throughout Carter’s career, together with brief commentaries on each item and abundantly documented context.

  • Noubel, Max. Elliott Carter ou le temps fertile. Geneva, Switzerland: Éditions Contrechamps, 2000.

    DOI: 10.4000/books.contrechamps.2592

    The best overview of Carter’s life and work in French.

  • Restagno, Enzo, ed. Carter. Torino, Italy: Edizioni di Torino, 1989.

    An Italian translation of the first edition of Schiff’s The Music of Elliott Carter (1983, cited here as Schiff 1998), together with Italian translations of some of Carter’s essays.

  • Schiff, David. The Music of Elliott Carter. Rev. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

    The best overview of Carter’s life and work in English. This revised and expanded edition is very different in both organization and content from the first edition, published by Eulenberg (London) in 1983. Both editions are worth consulting.

  • Wierzbicki, James. Elliott Carter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

    A brief musical biography with a good summary of Carter’s early career.

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