Mr. Carter’s career was like some of the towering cathedrals of Europe: so long in the making that it reflected the dramatic shifts in artistic style that take place over a century. A late bloomer — he didn’t find his mature voice, or the style for which he was best known, until age 40 — Mr. Carter eventually received acclaim by some critics and composers. Igor Stravinsky was credited with calling Mr. Carter’s “Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras” (1961) the first American masterpiece.
Much of Mr. Carter’s music was difficult to play, difficult to listen to and, judging by the slow pace of Mr. Carter’s output, difficult to write. Yet it also embodied a certain simplicity. As Mr. Carter aged, he emphasized the connections between his music and the world around it. He said that he sought to represent the pace of the 20th century: the acceleration and deceleration of an airplane rather than the regular beats, and horses’ hooves, of 18th- and 19th-century music.
Mr. Carter experimented most notably with meter, or rhythm, and challenged audiences to follow multiple instruments that played simultaneously to different beats.
“A piano accelerates to a flickering tremolo as a harpsichord slows to silence,” wrote composer and musicologist David Schiff, describing Mr. Carter’s music. “Second violin and viola, half of a quartet, sound cold, mechanical pulses, while first violin and cello, the remaining duo, play with intense expressive passion. Two, three or four orchestras superimpose clashing, unrelated sounds. A bass lyrically declaims classical Greek against a mezzo-soprano’s American patter.”
Mr. Carter said that his music presented society as he hoped it would be: “A lot of individuals dealing with each other, sensitive to each other, cooperating and yet not losing their own individuality.”
Mr. Carter continued composing until shortly before his death, his works ranging from ballets to vocal, instrumental, chamber and orchestral pieces. At age 90, he premiered his first opera, appropriately called “What Next?.” The program for his 100th birthday celebration at New York’s Carnegie Hall included a new work, “Interventions,” conducted by James Levine with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. It was an impressive showing for a composer described earlier in his career as “a musical loner.”
Elliott Cook Carter Jr. was born Dec. 11, 1908, to a prosperous family in New York City. He was able to identify all the music in his parents’ collection before he learned to read.
Mr. Carter attended the private Horace Mann School in New York but spent much of his childhood in Europe; his father, a pacifist lace importer, first took him there to show him the destruction wrought by World War I. The family’s travels helped expose Mr. Carter to the music of revolutionary composers such as Stravinsky, Alexander Scriabin and Arnold Schoenberg — three men who helped determine that Mr. Carter would not grow up to be a lace importer, as his family had hoped. Mr. Carter often said that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which he heard as a teenager at Carnegie Hall, inspired him to become a composer.