Celebrating the 103 years of Elliot Carter's Life: Reflecting on the Great Composer's Ties to the Queen City

By Lauren Fink

Elliot CarterIn addition to the John Cage Festivities this week at CCM, another major event has happened in the musical world: one of the century’s greatest composers, Elliot Carter died on Monday, Nov. 5th, at 103 years of age.

Born on Dec. 11th, 1908, at age 15 Carter met composer Charles Ives who was an extremely influential mentor, introducing Carter to contemporary composers and musicians and encouraging his musical development. Throughout the 1920s, Carter spent most of his summers in Europe studying the scores of composers from the second Viennese school – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – and eventually matriculated to Harvard University. At Harvard, where he studied with Gustav Holst, Carter received a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Music.  In 1932, Carter went to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique, in addition to taking private lessons with Nadia Boulanger (who was a notable teacher of many other famous composers, like Aaron Copland and Philip Glass). Carter returned to the US in 1936, mainly residing in New York.  Throughout his career he taught at Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Julliard, Peabody Conservatory, Queens College, and St. John’s College.  He was also composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome and Berlin.

Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt Letter

Click on the letter to view a larger version

Carter’s compositional output includes music for chamber ensemble, orchestra, chorus, solo instruments, theatre, and ballet. He has won numerous prestigious awards; including two Pulitzers, the Prix de Rome, and Germany’s Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize (other Siemens recipients include Benjamin Britten, Oliver Messiaen, Pierre Boulez).  Of special note, Carter was the first composer to receive the National Medal of Arts, which was awarded to him by President Reagan.

In reflecting on his prolific musical achievements, I decided to search ARB’s bio files, wondering whether the University of Cincinnati had any special connections to Elliot Carter. As it turns out, CCM awarded Elliot Carter an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree on January 19, 1989.  This event happened in conjunction with Carter’s 80th birthday festivities, which included guest lectures by Carter during his four day stay in Cincinnati, as well as CCM and CSO performances of his music. The honorary degree, recommended by CCM composition faculty, was conferred upon Carter by UC president, Joseph Steger. Our files include letters of endorsement for this endeavor, as seen on right in a letter written by Milton Babbitt, which states, “I can conceive of no undertaking more superogatory than that of presuming to certify the position and the attainments of Elliot Carter, for his position long has been an exalted one and his compositional attainments are among the most importantly distinguished not just of our time but of all musical time.” In another letter, former CCM professor of composition and theory, Jonathan Kramer, declares that out of the three C’s of American music – Copland, Cage, and Carter – Carter is “the original and the intellectual.” Carter’s music is ripe in individualism, emotion, and compositional complexity.

Elliot Carter recordIt seems to have taken the Cincinnati public a little longer to agree, however.  In the 1983-84 season the CSO performed Carter’s Variations for Orchestra (1955) and was met with multiple letters of complaint. The following season, though, music director Michael Gielen decided to program Carter’s Piano Concerto (1965).  Fearing audience distaste for this magnificent work, which is often considered even more complex than Variations, John Kramer decided to invite Carter to Cincinnati to talk about his music. This is the birth of CCM’s Visiting Composers Program and Cincinnati’s appreciation for Elliot Carter. In ARB files detailing the event, Carter was “an articulate, patient, intelligent lecturer.”  He spoke at both CCM and Music Hall, and his piece was met with great applause; perhaps due to the help of his lectures, audiences were able to connect with the composer and his music. The Piano Concerto was recorded by WGUC-FM (90.9 mHz) and released by New World Records, on an LP which also included Variations. Carter was particularly fond of this recording and pianist Ursula Oppens’ interpretation of his concerto.

Interestingly, the week after the triumphant performance of Carter’s Piano Concerto, WGUC listeners ranked it 8th on their “top 40” list of favorites to be subsequently broadcast (right before Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture!).  Fascinatingly, another tie to Cincinnati comes from WGUC’s Ann Santen, whose husband commissioned Elliot Carter to write a piece for her birthday. This piece, Enchanted Preludes, was written for cello and flute, drawing its title from a poem by Wallace Stevens: The Pure Good of Theory, “All the Preludes to Felicity,” stanza no.7:

Felicity, ah! Time is the hooded enemy,
The inimical music, the enchanted space
In which the enchanted preludes have their place.

For more information on these or any other holdings of the Archives and Rare Books Library, please call (513)-556-1959, email archives@ucmail.uc.edu, check out our website at http://www.libraries.uc.edu/libraries/arb/index.html, or visit us on the 8th floor of Blegen Library.