Elliott Carter Studies Online

VOLUME 4 (2021)

Victory in Liège? Elliott Carter and the Diplomacy of International Competitions

Daniel Guberman

[ 1 ] Elliott Carter rose to international prominence partly by winning a string quartet competition sponsored by the city of Liège, Belgium in 1953. The letters reprinted here shed light on how he parlayed this seemingly unremarkable competition into significant professional advancement, even though he ultimately was deemed ineligible for the prize. We see, first in a 1953 letter from Carter to the competition’s organizers, his attempt to interpret the competition’s rules in his favor, and then how, in collaboration with his close friend and colleague Nicolas Nabokov, he began the process of leveraging the recognition resulting from the prize for numerous other opportunities. From these letters we gain insights not only into Carter’s flair for self-promotion, but also into the emerging cultural Cold War, and the expansion and increasing prominence of competitions in international musical life.

[ 2 ] When I began examining Carter biographies, I was struck by the many references to this prize.(1)See for example Schiff 1983, 152; Schiff 1998, 55; and Rao 2014, 181. By some measures Carter had a late start to his career, but by the early 1950s he had held numerous meaningful professional positions, including serving as Music Director for Ballet Caravan (later the New York City Ballet), teaching at St. John’s College, and working for the Office of War Information. And in 1950 he received a Guggenheim fellowship to compose the First String Quartet, an award that seemed more prestigious than the Liège prize in my mind.(2)Carter also won a Guggenheim in 1945 to support the composition of his Piano Sonata (1945-1946) (Wierzbicki 2011, 50). Initially, I lacked an understanding of the prestige economy of composition in the late 1940s and early 1950s as well as the ways in which this small competition elucidates the intersection of arts and politics during the Cold War.

[ 3 ] Although the quartet was awarded the Liège prize on September 29, 1953, it was deemed ineligible when information about its prior performances and impending publication by American Music Publishers (AMP) reached the organizers. The Walden Quartet had given the world premiere at Columbia University on February 26, 1953, as evident in an October 10, 1952 letter from Carter to Walden violist John Garvey:

I have just received an announcement from Columbia University that the Walden Quartet is giving the world premiere of my quartet on Feb. 26. I am delighted indeed and wish to thank you for attacking my difficult work so bravely.

Do you think that your quartet would be interested in making a commercial record of the work at that time? Or would you rather wait? I am quite sure that I can arrange this as there is a recording fund at the ACA [American Composers Alliance]. Likewise there is some question of Columbia Records doing some music of mine on the chamber music series and perhaps this tie up could be made.

I will do what I can to get a reasonable critic to come to this concert, but, as you realize this particular series is seldom covered by the press.(3)Elliott Carter to John Garvey, October 10, 1952, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

[ 4 ] The world premiere of the quartet thus took place nearly two months before the Liège submission deadline of April 30, 1953. Two additional performances took place before the submission deadline, one on March 28, 1953 at the University of Illinois and the other on April 10, 1953 at the University of Oklahoma. It was also performed shortly after the deadline, on May 4, 1953 at the Y.M.H.A. Auditorium in New York City as part of the International Society for Contemporary Music annual festival. In May 1953, Carter signed with AMP to publish the score.(4)Guberman 2012, 152 n. 28.

[ 5 ] Carter learned that he won the competition in a letter from M. Lecomte dated September 29, 1953, which does not survive. Carter began to reap the auxiliary benefits of winning a European prize almost immediately. In a letter dated October 1, 1953, only two days after Carter learned he had won the competition, Harold Spivacke of the Library of Congress sent a note to congratulate him. He also suggested mounting a performance of the Quartet in Washington, D.C., and offered to take the work’s manuscript into the Library of Congress collection.

[ 6 ] Spivacke’s letter illustrates the problematic position of many American composers. They were told that America would support its living composers, but government officials only became interested in promoting American works after their value had been established in Europe. This difficult position explains why Carter fought so hard to ensure that he could find a compromise to keep the award, and why he continued to declare that the piece had won even after learning he was ineligible. Apparently Carter had worried that without the prize Spivacke would lose interest in the quartet. In his reply to Carter’s (now lost) letter of December 7, 1953, Spivacke writes:

I was really surprised to read your letter of December 7. I had already heard about your difficulty at Liège but this was not what surprised me. I refer of course to your assumption that I would lose interest in your work. After all a group of fellows sat around and decided that it was a good work and we are therefore anxious to hear it. I remember you saying that the Waldens know it but in case it does not prove feasible for us to get hold of a score and parts for performance by some other group [sic]?(5)Harold Spivacke to Elliott Carter, December 21, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. Spivacke had already arranged for the commission of the Sonata for Two Pianos in August of that year (through the Koussevitzky foundation). Ultimately, however, Carter never completed the piece. See Meyer and Shreffler (2008, 122).

[ 7 ] Even as he assured Carter that his interest in the quartet was not because of the award, Spivacke repeated that it was the approval of the (presumably European) jury that was of primary importance. In the months between Spivacke’s initial expression of interest and his reassurance that this interest would continue even if Carter were declared ineligible for the prize, we find letters reflecting Carter’s attempts to ensure he could accept it.

[ 8 ] After learning that his quartet had won, Carter immediately began to fear that it would be deemed ineligible. As stated earlier, the contest rules clearly stated that the work must be an unknown and unpublished manuscript, yet Carter’s quartet had already received multiple performances and was under contract for publication. Before writing back to the prize committee Carter sought advice from Richard French of AMP; this letter, dated September 30, 1953, does not survive. French responded on October 7, 1953 that he did not have the original rules, but if the publication and premiere were requirements and not merely rewards Carter had disqualified himself. However, he assured Carter that, if possible, AMP would be happy to collaborate with the city of Liège on the publication of the work.(6)Richard French to Elliott Carter, October 7, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

[ 9 ] Carter waited almost a month to respond to Lecomte’s letter informing him that he had won the prize. During that time he reached out to prominent leaders in American musical life including Spivacke, Nabokov, and Olga Koussevitzky of the Koussevitzky Foundation (a sponsor of the competition), to share the news, promote his success, and garner support. After seeing very positive responses from these leading figures in American culture, Carter carefully constructed his response to the prize committee. The letter does not express the joy, gratitude, or excitement we might expect in a response to receiving an award. I read the letter as an attempt to acknowledge his victory while being unconcerned with its tangible benefits. He recognized that in the emerging postwar artistic landscape, the cultural capital of European recognition held significantly more value than the promised performances and publication.

[ 10 ] Here is Carter’s October 21, 1953 letter to M. Lecomte in its entirety, with my own interpolations:

I have received no word from you since you sent me the telegram informing me that I was to receive the first prize in the String Quartet Competition, concluded on September 29. During that time I have found a copy of the regulations of the competition and would like to discuss them with you.

In submitting the quartet, I felt that I was conforming to Article 3 – ‘The work should be a manuscript, unpublished and unknown to the public.’ For although the work had been performed twice in the United States up to that time, it was played in both cases before university audiences, once at Columbia University and once at the University of Illinois in what could be called private performances. Since submitting the score on April 30, 1953, it was performed at an ISCM concert in New York and at a festival in California, always by the Walden Quartet. If, in your opinion, this disqualifies the work, I shall be ready to abide by your decision.

[ 11 ] Carter continued by acknowledging his quartet’s difficulty:

As for ‘Article II. – The work ranking first will be imposed at the competition for “Quartet Performance” in 1955.’ I realize that this work is of excessive difficulty. I know that it took the Walden Quartet many months to learn the work and that, from the article in the ‘London Times’, your quartet needed a conductor which does not surprise me. For this reason, I should be inclined to be lenient in this demand and possibly make the work an alternate one with some other one.

[ 12 ] Next, he addressed publication issues, declaring that Richard French and AMP would be happy to arrange for a joint publication:

As for ‘Article 12 b – The City of Liège will publish the first prize work in 300 copies; c) the winner of the first prize work will receive 50 complimentary copies of the published work.’ Some months after submitting the quartet to your contest, I signed a contract with [Associated Music Publishers]… For the publication of the quartet, I have written Mr. Richard F. French of that concern to ask him what he would advise doing and he thought that an agreement between the City of Liège and Associated could easily be worked out…

[ 13 ] Finally, Carter turned to exclusive performance rights promised to the Liège quartet, proposing they maintain European rights while the Walden Quartet continue to perform it in the United States:

As for “Article 13 – The “Quatuor Municipale de Liège alone will be authorized to perform the work awarded the first prize until the date of publication.” Would you be willing to amend this to exclude the United States, since the Walden Quartet have several engagements to perform the work this winter in the USA? In any case, I would appreciate your letting me know the publication date, as well as your answers to all these matters at your very earliest convenience.(7)Richard French to Elliott Carter, October 7, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

Elliott Carter to M. Lecomte, October 21, 1953, Rome.

Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation. Used by permission.

[ 14 ] The picture of Carter that emerges from this letter is one of a highly engaged and strategic composer. Carter’s care and precision in his language comes across particularly in his interpretations of the competition’s rules. For example, he distinguishes “public” performances from those in university settings, which he deems private. Aware that these legalistic arguments may not meet with the committee’s approval, he also provides another option. If the committee really wants a world premiere, perhaps they could substitute the second place work in the performance due to the difficulty of Carter’s composition. (In Carter’s words he would be “lenient” in the demand for performances.) When we consider Carter’s willingness to give up both the performances and the publication in Liège, it becomes clear that he was mainly interested in the prestige of the prize.

[ 15 ] Carter’s marshalling of Nabokov’s assistance demonstrates how he used the Liège prize to leverage existing connections toward even greater distinction in the public sphere. By this point, Nabokov was well on his way to becoming an international impresario with significant backing from the United States government.(8)Brody 2014. Nabokov achieved a major milestone in his career as cultural ambassador and diplomat in spring 1952 through organizing a large-scale festival in Paris integrating American and European artists and musicians, including Stravinsky, Balanchine, Berg, and a revival performance of Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts featuring Leontyne Price. Plans for a follow-up festival in Rome emerged quickly, with a greater focus on emphasizing the works of emerging artists.(9)Giroud 2015. Here is Nabokov’s letter in its entirety, dated November 9, 1953:

In the next few days you will probably receive a letter from Radiodiffusion Italy to ask you about the possibility of the Quatuor Municipal de Liège’s participation in the performances we are organizing in Rome in April 1954.

For my part, I am writing to let you know about the performances that I am responsible for organizing (a job entrusted to me by the three principal organizations that are collaborating on these performances—the Centre Européen de la Culture, the Congrès pour la Liberté de la Culture and Radiodiffusion Italy).

To give you an idea of what we are preparing, I am attaching a memorandum outlining the program for the International Conference of Composers, Music Critics, and Performers, as well as the International Composition Competition, which will take place in Rome between 4 and 15 April 1954.

We would like to have the Quatuor Municipal de Liège participate in the concerts, which will take place during the Conference. They will be funded by R.A.I., but the programs will be selected by the executive committee for performances.

We would like them to play Elliott Carter’s quartet, which won first prize at the Concours de Liège, and to which my friend Paul Collaer tells me, the Quatuor Municipal de Liège has exclusive rights. We have included this quartet on the program for 4 April, but of course we can change the date according to the quartet’s availability.

If the quartet could come to Rome, we would also like them to perform other quartets that we have put on the program for our Conference, including Copland’s piano quartet and perhaps one or two others. I will let you know which ones as soon as I receive your response.

I ask you to remember that our budget is very limited, and that the expenses taken on by the R.A.I. to produce the concerts for the conferences are already very high. We wonder if it would be possible for the Relations Culturelles of the Belgian government, or perhaps the city of Liège, to subsidize travel costs for the quartet to and from Rome.(10)Nicolas Nabokov to Louis Poulet, November 9, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. Translation by Daniel Guberman. (Original French below.)

Nicolas Nabokov to Louis Poulet, November 9, 1953.

Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation. Used by permission.

[ 16 ] The letter shows how Nabokov navigated this situation to fulfill his own political ambitions in addition to promoting the work of his close friend. On the one hand, the competition offered an opportunity to expand the Rome festival in a strategic manner. He would be able to include additional international performers while also promoting an American composer who happened to be his friend. If the Liège Quartet did come to the festival, Nabokov’s programming choices could also introduce additional American works into their repertoire, including Copland’s Piano Quartet.

[ 17 ] Despite these efforts, Carter was notified in a letter of November 24, 1953 that his quartet was officially disqualified.(11)Letter from Louis Poulet to Elliott Carter, November 24, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. (Text and translation below.) However, through his negotiations and wide-ranging discussions the piece received a great deal of recognition and interest, perhaps more than it would have if he had followed all of the rules and granted the Liège quartet exclusive performance rights for an extended period of time. Even though Nabokov failed to convince the Liège quartet to perform the work in Rome, Carter’s quartet remained on the festival schedule. (It was performed by the Parrinen Quartet near the end of Carter’s stay in the city.) Combined with Spivacke’s promise of a performance in Washington, D.C., Carter’s non-victory resulted in performances in two major cities, one an important European center. Thus, he could return to the United States with significant European credentials in time for the forthcoming recording, which he continued to negotiate with the American Composers Alliance and Walden Quartet.

[ 18 ] Perhaps Nabokov knew that the Liège Quartet wouldn’t take him up on his offer. He certainly knew about their supposed difficulties in performing Carter’s quartet, and Carter, throughout his career, remained cautious regarding potentially poor performances of his works. By suggesting that the Liège quartet prepare several new and unfamiliar works in a short time frame, I suspect that Nabokov may actually have been trying to discourage them from accepting his offer. He could then add Carter’s quartet to the festival schedule and invite other performers of his and Carter’s choosing, and this is indeed what happened.

[ 19 ] Taken together, these letters illustrate how Carter leveraged his opportunities in order to promote his emerging international career and reputation. The narrative of the First Quartet’s victory in the Liège competition remains an important part of the work’s reception history. In a 1970 program note, Carter states that the piece “won an important prize.”(12)Carter 1970. Carter makes a similar statement in a series of interviews conducted with Allen Edwards between 1968 and 1970: “[the quartet] won the prize at Liège” (Edwards 1971, 35). Further, elliottcarter.com, managed by Carter’s primary legatee the Amphion Foundation, states that “Carter had to renounce the prize because the first performance had already been given,” a continuation of the narrative put forth in the introduction to the 1994 edition of the score, where he wrote: “After almost a year of not hearing from Liège, I allowed the Walden Quartet to give the first performance.”(13)Carter 1994. [The ElliottCarter.com website has now been updated to rectify the error –Eds.] This lasting ambiguity reflects the ways in which despite being ruled ineligible, Carter continued to use this competition as a means of self-promotion in a cultural environment where music became closely intertwined with international politics and diplomacy.


1. See for example Schiff 1983, 152; Schiff 1998, 55; and Rao 2014, 181.

2. Carter also won a Guggenheim in 1945 to support the composition of his Piano Sonata (1945-1946) (Wierzbicki 2011, 50).

3. Elliott Carter to John Garvey, October 10, 1952, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

4. Guberman 2012, 152 n. 28.

5. Harold Spivacke to Elliott Carter, December 21, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. Spivacke had already arranged for the commission of the Sonata for Two Pianos in August of that year (through the Koussevitzky foundation). Ultimately, however, Carter never completed the piece. See Meyer and Shreffler 2008, 122.

6. Richard French to Elliott Carter, October 7, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

7. Elliott Carter to M. Lecomte, October 21, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung.

8. Brody 2014.

9. Giroud 2015.

10. Nicolas Nabokov to Louis Poulet, November 9, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. Translation by Daniel Guberman.

“D’ici quelques jours vous recevrez probablement une lettre de la Radiodiffusion Italienne, vous demandant les conditions d’une participation éventuelle du Quatuor Municipal de Liège aux manifestations musicales que nous organisons ici à Rome au mois d’avril 1954.

Moi de mon côté, je vous écris tout d’abord pour vous informer sur le caractère de ces manifestations l’ont j’ai la responsabilité d’organisateur (responsabilité qui m’a été confiée par les trois organismes principaux qui collaborent pour réaliser ces manifestations, c.à.d. le Centre Européen de la Culture, le Congrès pour la Liberté de la Culture et la Radiodiffusion Italienne).

Pour vous donner une idée de ce que nous préparons je vous joins un mémorandum, qui expose le plan général de la Conférence Internationale des compositeurs, critiques musicaux et interprètes, ainsi que du Concours International de Composition, qui se dérouleront à Rome entre le 4 et le 15 avril 1954.

Nous aimerions beaucoup avoir le concours du Quatuor Municipal de Liège dans le Programme des Concerts, qui auront lieu pendant la Conférence et dont la responsabilité financière est à la charge du R.A.I., mais dont les programmes sont décidés par le Comité Exécutif de manifestations.

Il s’agirait surtout de l’exécution du quatuor d’Elliott Carter, qui a gagné le prix au Concours de Liège et dont le Quatuor Municipal de Liège, comme me le dit mon ami Paul Collaer, a l’exclusivité. Nous avons inclus ce quatuor dans le programme du 4 avril, mais nous pourrions naturellement le changer de date selon les possibilités du Quatuor.

Si le Quatuor pouvait venir à Rome, nous aimerions qu’en plus de Carter il puisse présenter d’autres quatuors que nous avons mis aux programmes de notre Conférence, parmi lesquels se trouvant le Quatuor avec Pianoforte de Copland et peut-être 1 ou 2 autres dont je vous signalerai les noms aussitôt que j’aurai votre réponse.

Je vous prierai toutefois de tenir en considération le fait que notre budget est très limité et que les dépenses entreprises par le R.A.I. pour réaliser la partie “ Concerts ” de notre Conférence est déjà énorme. Nous demanderions donc s’il pouvait être envisagé une subvention de côté de Relations Culturelles du Gouvernement Belge ou bien de la municipalité de la ville de Liège, qui couvrirait les frais de voyage aller et retour du Quatuor de Liège à Rome.”

11. Letter from Louis Poulet to Elliott Carter, November 24, 1953, Elliott Carter Collection, Paul Sacher Stiftung. Translation by Marguerite Boland.

“Au reçu de votre lettre, transmise par Monsieur Collaer membre du jury, le Comité d’Organisation n’a pu que constater l’irrégularité de votre participation au Concours et la regretter très vivement.

Il a été contraint de prononcer votre disqualification «pour vice de forme»: «Monsieur CARTER n’a pas respecté l’article troisième des statuts, qui exige des concurrents la présentation d’une œuvre inédite et inconnue du public.» Cette décision, je le répète, a été prise à regret, mais était rendue nécessaire afin de sauvegarder les principes d’organisation du Concours.

J’ai pris les dispositions nécessaires pour vois faire parvenir le plus rapidement possible vos partitions. Mes collègues désirant conserver le fruit de leur travail, vous écrivent, par ailleurs, afin d’obtenir votre accord pour conserver les parties qu’ils ont travaillées.

Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.”

“On receiving your letter, passed on by Mr. Collaer, member of the adjudication panel, the Organizing Committee had to admit the irregularity of your participation in the competition and regrets it sincerely.

We have been forced to disqualify you on a “technicality”: “Mr. CARTER did not adhere to article three of the regulations that requires competitors to enter a work that is new and unknown to the public.”

This decision, I reiterate, has been made regretfully but was deemed necessary in order to safeguard the principles of the competition.

I have taken the necessary actions to return your scores to you as soon as possible. Furthermore, my colleagues wish to preserve the fruits of their work by keeping the parts that they have worked on and will write to you to obtain your agreement to do so.

Yours Sincerely”

12. Carter 1970. Carter makes a similar statement in a series of interviews conducted with Allen Edwards between 1968 and 1970: “[the quartet] won the prize at Liège” (Edwards 1971, 35).

13. Carter 1994. [The ElliottCarter.com website has now been updated to rectify the error –Eds.]

Works Cited

Brody, Martin. 2014. “Cold War Genius: Music and Cultural Diplomacy at the American Academy in Rome.” In Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000. Edited by Carol J. Oja, Felix Meyer, Wolfgang Rathert, and Anne Shreffler, 375-87. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer.

Carter, Elliott. 1970. “String Quartet No. 1.” Program note included with the Nonesuch recording of the piece by The Composers Quartet.https://www.elliottcarter.com/compositions/string-quartet-no-1/

Carter, Elliott. 1994. “Program Note.” In String Quartet No. 1 (1994 Edition). New York: Associated Music Publishers.

Edwards, Allen. 1971. Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Giroux, Vincent. 2015. Nicolas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Guberman, Daniel A. 2012. “Composing Freedom: Elliott Carter’s ‘Self-Reinvention’ and the Early Cold War.” Ph.D. diss. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Meyer, Felix, and Anne C. Shreffler. 2008. Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Documents and Letters. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press.

Rao, Nancy Yunhwa. 2014. “Allegro scorrevole in Carter’s First String Quartet: Crawford and the Ultramodern Inheritance.” Music Theory Spectrum 36, no. 2: 181-202.

Schiff, David. 1983. The Music of Elliott Carter. London: Eulenberg Books.

Schiff, David. 1998. The Music of Elliott Carter. Revised 2nd edn. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wierzbicki, James. 2011. Elliott Carter. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.