America wasn't formed as an art colony. Far from it. Whatever art flourishes here does so on infertile ground; as with some wines, that sort of inhospitable soil can actually produce a uniquely powerful product. Such is the music of Elliott Carter.
Beginning stylistically as part of the Americanist movement of the '20s through the '40s — along with composers like Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, and the godfather from afar, Charles Ives — Elliott left them all to follow his own direction, no longer nationalist in tone, as uncompromisingly complex as his vision required, unconcerned with the People, but perhaps more concerned with the workings of the musical human mind, and where his own would lead him.
Elliott was educated at Harvard University under the direction of Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. He was encouraged early on by Ives, and studied in Paris during the '30s. He has taught at such noteworthy institutions as the Peabody Conservatory, Yale University and the Juilliard School. His many works over the years have earned him prestigious recognition, including a Prix de Rome, two Guggenheim Fellowship Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes for his second (1960) and third (1973) string quartets.
His is not an easy music to approach, although it always rewards entry. There is enough in it to continue to intrigue and engage the best performers, as it has up to now. For this reason I think it will survive. Most music dies with the composer. This has always been the case, usually because there isn't enough in the particular composer's music to invite us to continue playing it. (Once in a while gems are found from the past, but let us not forget that Mendelssohn did not discover Bach, though he brought his music to the grand public.) I suspect Elliott's music will ensnare young performers for some time to come, and I can't say that honestly about a good deal of other music I hear around coming from my own time.
(Composer William Bolcom won the Best Classical Contemporary Composition GRAMMY in 2005 for "Bolcom: Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience.")