Elliott Carter composed his Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952) in the midst of a burst of creativity following the forming of his new musical idiom, which was first shown in his Cello Sonata (1948). For the Cello Sonata, Carter began his work by making sketches for a vivace for cello and piano, which was to be the first movement. He was trying to come up with a new way in which to bring the two instruments together into an original sonority. The composer fully succeeded in the second and third movements of the Cello Sonata, where he made his first use of tempo modulation. Carter then decided to re-do the first movement in his new idiom. Carter's leap in style was soon finalized with the completion of his First String Quartet (1951), for Carter had been preparing during the years after the Cello Sonata. The String Quartet was written while Carter isolated himself in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ. His next two large works helped to show that his new musical language could be applied to any genre or mood. The Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord was written in 1952. Next, Carter turned his attention to the Variations for Orchestra (1953 - 1954). After a period of rest and reflection, Carter made his next creative leap which was shown in his next work, the Second String Quartet (1959).
The Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord was commissioned by Sylvia Marlowe, a harpsichordist, to be performed by her Harpsichord Quartet in 1952. The other members of her ensemble were Claude Monteux, Henry Shulman, and Bernard Greenhouse. The work was first performed by this group at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York on November 19, 1953. By this point, the musical world was not fully aware of Carter's new style, as the First String Quartet had yet to be performed publicly. Carter decided that Marlowe, who was not known for championing advanced music, would not appreciate an ultra-modern work. Instead of returning to his old tendencies, he used his new language in a more relaxed, less complicated manner. This compositional pattern of a calmer work following the revolutionary piece is common in Carter's career, as well as other ground-breaking composers, such as Beethoven.
The first movement of the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord is based on the sound principles of the harpsichord. This keyboard instrument is characterized by its sharp, percussive attack and its extremely rapid decay of sound. Carter utilized the other instruments to display the harpsichord's unique sound. The special features of the modern harpsichord form the basis of the second movement. These special features include pedal stops, which help to produce a wide array of tone colors in the harpsichord. The last movement is the most extreme of the Harpsichord Sonata, which explodes on the listener with a multitude of tempo modulations. The piece ends serenely, echoing the opening movement.