“She wasn’t encouraging if you wrote very dissonant music,” Mr. Carter told the Guardian in 2006. “But, meanwhile, the world of music had changed. It wasn’t hard to think when we saw pictures of Hitler that it was expression that had gone on and produced such a terrible result in Germany, that it was a working out of that kind of extravagance that had become terrifying. So we thought that it was time to be more orderly and more consciously beautiful, and neoclassicism did seem to have a perfect logic about it.”
Returning to the United States in the late 1930s, Mr. Carter initially worked in the traditional mold of other Boulanger students, creating neoclassical, approachable, “American” works such as the ballet “Pocahontas,” which had its premiere in 1939. That same year, he married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones. She died in 2003. Survivors include a son, David Carter of Spencer, Ind.; and a grandson.
In the mid-1940s, after his “Holiday Overture” was rejected by the Boston Symphony, Mr. Carter moved away from so-called approachability, writing the “Piano Sonata” in 1945-6, the “Cello Sonata” in 1948 and then in 1950-1, the “String Quartet No. 1,” which was considered his first real breakthrough. The sprawling 40-minute work probed the idea of multiple perspectives in a single composition and put Mr. Carter on the map.
A performance of the quartet in Rome won the composer a good reputation in Europe — fame cemented in the 1960s and early ’70s by William Glock, the controller of music for BBC, who admired Mr. Carter’s works and played them on the radio.
If the first quartet won him acclaim in Europe, then “String Quartet No. 2” sealed his reputation in the States. Mr. Carter imagined each instrument as an individual. The first violin, he said, was intended to be “fantastic, ornate and mercurial”; the second was “laconic and orderly”; the viola was “expressive”; and the cello was “somewhat impetuous.” The work won him the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1960; the second was for “String Quartet No. 3” in 1973.
Interest in Mr. Carter and his music surged as he aged, bringing a kind of mainstream attention few living composers ever receive. The subject of at least two documentaries — “A Life in Music” (1983) and “A Labyrinth of Time” (2004) — he was featured on mainstream talk shows leading up to his centennial.
Mr. Carter remained actively involved in the performance of his own work, discussing in great detail with instrumentalists the nuances of a given piece. As he got older, however, an early bedtime limited his concert-going.
In addition to his two Pulitzer Prizes, Mr. Carter’s awards include the National Medal of Arts, the Edward MacDowell Medal and two Guggenheim fellowships. He taught at Juilliard as well as at Columbia, Yale and Cornell universities, among other places.
Given Mr. Carter’s continual acclaim during the last six decades of his life, he had no reason to be anything other than sanguine about his work. But he knew that he was writing for a specialized crowd.
“As society evolves,” he once said, “people will have to become much cleverer and much sharper. And then they will like my music.”
Staff writer Emily Langer contributed to this report.