Death of a Pulitzer-winning US composer

The widely performed composer Charles Wuorinen died on Wednesday ‘from complications after sustaining a fall in September 2019’.

He was 81.

He leaves around 270 works, mostly written in 12-note style with complex yet elegant and accessible themes.The most attention was claimed by the opera Brokeback Mountain, commissioned by Gerard Mortier for the Teatro Real in Madrid and premiered there in January 2014. Wuorinen also received commissions from Christoph von Dohnanyi at Cleveland and James Levine at the Boston Symphony. New York City Opera premiered his opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories based on the novel by Salman Rushdie in 2004.

New York born, he founded The Group for Contemporary Music to promote such fellow-modernists as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Stefan Wolpe. He won a Pulitzer at age 32 and a Macarthur Fellowship a decade later. He taught at Columbia and Manhattan School of Music. His interests included fractal geometry, astrophysics, Egyptology and Chinese calligraphy.


photo: Nina Roberts

The record producer David Starobin writes: Charles Wuorinen died today. It was always an honor to work with him as composer, conductor and pianist. It’s truly hard to know what to say about a personality the size of Charles’s. He was much admired and reviled and that seemed to suit him perfectly. He left much more music than I know, and I was always an interested listener. Our sympathy to Howard.

The music scholar Carl Patrick Bolleia writes: A giant has left us. Rest In Peace, Charles Wuorinen. My profound condolences to Howard. Words can not express the tremendous loss being felt. I encountered Charles’ music in 2005 and was transfixed. His music would stay with you. For me, it stayed so much so, that I wrote my dissertation on his piano works. I’m grateful for his personal kindness, warmth, encouragement, and standards. “Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem sempiternam.”

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  • These composers were infinitely superior to the composers since influenced by the lamentable minimalist movement. In my opinion the most overestimated composer of our time is Steve Reich, a decent bloke otherwise. His music drives me nuts.

  • 1. Serial composition is indefensible. Psychologically it’s nonsense.

    2. Serialism was a tragedy for classical music and men like this were responsible.

    3. ‘Pulitzer-winning US composer’ – A musician has failed if winning a prize seems significant.

    • Well … I guess I could agree that serialism did seem to permit some people to have careers as composers who grasped the system but did not seem possessed of very many musical ideas, but Wuorinen had musical ideas. When the Chamber Music of Lincoln Center played in Milwaukee years ago they gave what was billed as a premiere performance of a work by Wuorinen – perhaps his string sextet? — and it was fabulously inventive and really gave the musicians some red meat to chew on (it was the usual CMSLC all-star ensemble with both Trampler and Neubauer on violas!). It really needed an immediate second performance but it was genuine music, not just an application of rules and formulas. To that point the only other piece of Wuorinen’s that I had given a fair chance to with repeated listenings was “Time’s Encomium” on the famous Nonesuch LP. I tried to get to know and like his concerto for amplified violin and orchestra (the LP was a Christmas gift from my sister) but somehow it just never happened for me. Perhaps in concert it would have been a different and more interesting experience.

    • Besides your inability to observe the simple etiquette of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (I am sure there will be some future venue to contribute one’s criticism of this composer), I fail to understand how the arising of any musical genre that has at least some following out there, is “a tragedy”.

      One might lament some supposed serialist orthodoxy in conservatories, or concert programming where you have to listen to music you don’t like in order to get the music you do like, but why deny the pleasure that serialism’s fans get out of it? There are a lot of musical genres that I don’t care for, and some of which I downright cannot stand, but I am still happy that they bring pleasure to other people out there. The range of options on offer in classical music, with something out there for everyone, is a good thing and no tragedy.

  • In 1980 I played bass trombone in the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s “The Celestial Sphere”, a major work for chorus and orchestra which received only scant attention at the time but is probably even less-noted now.

    It was commissioned by Augustana College (Rock island, IL) for the 100 anniversary of its community chorus, The Handel Oratorio Society.

    The chorus was so deflated by the music they got, and so many were dropping out, that the conductor had to declare that anyone who did not perform in this work would be barred from the traditional “Messiah” performance later that year.

    I have often felt that the music faculty member who was responsible for this completely mistaken choice was very lucky to have had his tenure approved just a couple years before.

    This debacle was not without lessons…

    -“World premieres” are easy to come by. World attention… not so much.

    -12-tone serialism and its many atonal cousins were not the important musical movement my teachers insisted it was.

    -“Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer” is an honor similar in gravitas to “Kick-boxing Champion of Belgium”

    Several years later at the University of North Texas I was taking a “20th Century Music” class and the TA teaching the class told us that the PP for “Time’s Encomium” had been acquired inappropriately, that Wourinen had needed a career boost, and had arranged to buy the votes needed to get the Prize awarded to himself.

    I have no idea if that account is true but the TA had no doubts.

  • I love Charles Wuorinen’s music. Not all of it, but a great deal. Requiescat in pace. Peace to Howard Stokar, family, and friends.

    I also love Steve Reich’s music. Not all of it, but a great deal. One is not mutually exclusive of the other.

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