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American composer Elliott Carter dies at 103

Composer Elliott Carter appears news conference Carnegie Hall New York 2008. Carter classical composer whose challenging rhythmically complex works earned

Composer Elliott Carter appears at a news conference at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2008. Carter, a classical composer whose challenging, rhythmically complex works earned him widespread admiration and two Pulitzer Prizes, died Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 at ag

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Updated: December 7, 2012 6:23AM

Composer Elliott Carter, widely regarded as the dean of American classical music, whose challenging, rhythmically complex works earned him two Pulitzer Prizes, died Monday in New York City, just a month shy of his 104th birthday.

A prolific composer, Mr. Carter wrote scores of works for solo voice, chorus, large orchestra and small ensemble. He continued writing almost until his death. His “Two Controversies and a Conversation,” co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, had its world premiere in June.

In an interview that month with Bloomberg News, Mr. Carter said: “I always conceived of composition as an adventure, and each one of my pieces is an adventure in a certain direction. They’re still an adventure.”

The complex way instruments interact in his compositions created drama for listeners who made the effort to understand them, but it made them difficult for orchestras to learn. He tried to give each of the musicians individuality within the context of a comprehensible whole. “This seems to me a very dramatic thing in a democratic society,” he said.

While little known to the general public, Mr. Carter was long respected by an inner circle of critics and musicians. In 2002, the New York Times said his string quartets were among “the most difficult music ever conceived,” and hailed their “volatile emotions, delicacy and even plucky humor.” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music said that at its best, his music “sustains an energy of invention that is unrivaled in contemporary composition.”

Daniel Barenboim, former music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, championed the composer’s works, and in 2000, conducted the U.S. premiere of “What Next?,” Mr. Carter’s only opera, at Symphony Center.

Mr. Carter won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his Second String Quartet; his second award came in 1973 for his Third String Quartet.

When the first National Medal of Arts awards were given in 1985, Mr. Carter was one of 10 people honored, along with such arts legends as Martha Graham, Ralph Ellison and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The lack of widespread attention didn’t seem to bother him. “I don’t think it means anything to be popular,” he said. “When we see the popular tastes and the popular opinion constantly being manipulated by all sorts of different ways, it seems to me popularity is a meaningless matter.”

Besides composing, Carter wrote extensively about 20th-century music. A collection of articles, “The Writings of Elliott Carter: An American Composer Looks at Modern Music,” was published in 1977.

Born in New York City, he became acquainted with American composer Charles Ives, who encouraged his ambitions. Mr. Carter studied literature at Harvard and then studied music in Paris under Nadia Boulanger, the famed teacher who also guided Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson.

In 1939, he married sculptor Helen H. Frost Jones. She died in 2003. They had one son, who survives him, as does a grandson.

As he turned 100, he recalled a visit to see the New York premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary work “The Rite of Spring.”

“I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard, and I wanted to do like that, too,” Mr. Carter recalled. “Of course, half the audience walked out, which was even more pleasant to me. It seemed much more exciting than Beethoven and Brahms and the rest of them.”

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