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Charles Wuorinen, uncompromising modernist composer, dies at 81
Composer Charles Wuorinen leads his ‘It Happens Like This: cantata for four singers and twelve players on poems of James Tate’ at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., August 3, 2011. Wuorinen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and formidable advocate for modernist music, high culture and the composer’s worth, died on March 11. He was 81. Michael J. Lutch/The New York Times.

by William Robin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Charles Wuorinen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and formidable advocate for modernist music, high culture and the composer’s worth, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 81.

His publicist, Aleba Gartner, said the cause was complications of a fall suffered in September.

Wuorinen, who won the Pulitzer in Music in 1970 at age 32, composed works for major orchestras including the Boston and San Francisco Symphonies while maintaining a prickly yet charming public persona.

He received a surge of attention in 2004 when the New York City Opera premiered his opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” based on a novel by Salman Rushdie. That was followed by a commission to compose an opera based on Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” which was also the basis of the 2005 movie of the same name.

Wuorinen gained a reputation as a combative proponent of 12-tone composition, a cerebral idiom he mastered in hundreds of eloquent works. His combativeness extended to his inveterate defense of Western classical music against what he saw as the threat of popular culture.

Wuorinen was part of a generation of postwar modernists who found a new home in the academy, uncompromising avant-gardists who saw themselves as inheritors of the European tradition.

“If my friends and I decide today that there will be no orchestras, there won’t be in 50 years,” he said in 1973. “Our influence is long-range. We are the future.”

In the opening to his 1979 guidebook for composers, “Simple Composition,” Wuorinen wrote: “While the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers, it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.”

Despite such pronouncements, he strenuously denied that he was part of a domineering atonal vanguard, as some critics alleged. “It’s not that a bunch of beady-eyed theoreticians are forcing innocent students to do terrible, nameless things,” he said in 1997. “The whole story is a big fake.”

Wuorinen was remarkably prolific, with a corpus of 279 pieces often suffused with brainy wit as well as influences from Renaissance and medieval music. Over time, his output became less forbidding than his reputation.

“His music used to be chilly and desiccated, a hothouse product, wearing its dissonance as a spiky shield to dissuade all comers,” the critic Tim Page wrote in 1986, describing a new orchestral work, “Movers and Shakers.”

“Mr. Wuorinen’s harmonic language is still uncompromising,” he added, “but ‘Movers and Shakers’ has passages of aching lyricism, and many moments of sheer, visceral excitement.”

Charles Peter Wuorinen was born on June 9, 1938, in Manhattan. His father, John, emigrated from Finland and worked in factories before earning a doctorate at Columbia University, where he was subsequently chairman of the history department. His mother, Alfhild (Kalijarvi) Wuorinen, earned a master’s in biology from Smith College.

Charles grew up in the elite intellectual environs of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he developed a deep connection to the classical canon and began writing music at age 5. Though his parents discouraged a career in composition, he found support from the eminent historian Jacques Barzun, a family friend.

From an early age, he studied with Columbia composers, including Vladimir Ussachevsky and Jack Beeson. He won a Young Composers’ Award from the New York Philharmonic at 16.

He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia in 1961 and a master’s in music there in 1963 and soon became a major voice on the academic scene, with icy, dense pieces such as his String Trio and Piano Variations.

Wuorinen constructed a system of lucid, hyper-intellectual 12-tone writing in which intervals between notes structured a piece’s rhythm and form. His style elaborated the theories of his colleague Milton Babbitt; it also combined the rhythmic vitality of Igor Stravinsky with the atonal vocabulary of Arnold Schoenberg.

In a larger sense, Wuorinen shared the midcentury modernist ethos of Babbitt, who articulated a new vision in an infamous 1958 article titled “Who Cares if You Listen?” His outlook was that American composers, like Cold War scientists and mathematicians, could find refuge for their avant-garde experiments in the university.

In 1962, with the flutist and composer Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen founded the Group for Contemporary Music, a pioneering ensemble dedicated to the exacting realization of complex works.

But his academic career remained at times uncertain: As a result of departmental politics, he was denied tenure at Columbia in 1971, only a year after he had earned the Pulitzer for his innovative electronic work “Time’s Encomium.” He went on to teach at many universities, including Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers, as well as at the Manhattan School of Music. He was both beloved and feared by his students.

In the 1980s, Wuorinen held a major residency with the San Francisco Symphony and became a reliable interview subject for journalists seeking a contrarian and recondite perspective on the state of the arts.

“We have reached the stage, under the impulse of cultural populism, where we are incapable of measuring or acknowledging artistic merit except in terms of commercial success,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “We don’t distinguish between the committed, passionate audience and the trend-seeking yuppie audience. We just count bodies and measure sales.”

As minimalism and neo-Romanticism began to find new audiences and institutional support, eclipsing his style of choice, Wuorinen was not quiet about his concerns. “What we have is the quick fix, the need for instant self-gratification,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “And that accounts for this utterly unchallenging, unprovocative kind of music.”

He would deliver such remarks with a sly smile, knowing that they were bound to rankle. He clung steadfastly, if at times predictably, to his conservative beliefs; in 2018 he said that awarding the Pulitzer to the hip-hop musician Kendrick Lamar marked “the final disappearance of any societal interest in high culture.”

If such harangues seemed to come from a singular aggrieved voice, they also carried a broader message: that classical composers deserved to be recognized for their contributions to American society. “Without the composer at the center of musical culture, there can be no musical culture,” he wrote in 1967. (That his advocacy often involved demonizing popular culture was, for Wuorinen, a given.)

He was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He wrote six scores for the New York City Ballet, and his vast catalog also includes notable works for voice as well as percussion.

Under the direction of Gerard Mortier, City Opera commissioned Wuorinen to write “Brokeback Mountain.” But the company folded before it could be presented.

In his reimagining of Proulx’s story, a tale of doomed love between two Wyoming cowboys, the character Ennis sings in Schoenberg’s technique of sprechstimme, a cross between speaking and singing, but slowly opens up into lyrical lines as he falls in love with the bold Jack.

“In older operas there would be an illegitimate child or difference of social classes,” Wuorinen told The Guardian. “Same-sex love, especially when it takes place in an environment where it’s absolutely forbidden, is a contemporary version of the same eternal problem.”

“Brokeback Mountain” received mixed reviews upon its world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2014. It received its belated American debut at the revived City Opera in 2018, also to a mixed reception. (Anthony Tommasini of The Times wrote that “the score often seems relentlessly busy and ineffectively intricate.”)

In recent decades, conductor James Levine became a champion of Wuorinen’s music, commissioning major works including a cogent Fourth Piano Concerto for the Boston Symphony and “Time Regained,” a fantasia and homage to early music, for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Both works featured pianist Peter Serkin, who died this year.

When the Met fired Levine over allegations of sexual misconduct, Wuorinen publicly defended him. In 2018 he asked: “Can’t you ever distinguish between the man and his work? Whatever happened about innocent until proven guilty?”

Wuorinen is survived by his husband, Howard Stokar, with whom he lived for decades in a grand brownstone on the Upper West Side.

His final completed work was his Second Percussion Symphony, which the New World Symphony premiered in Miami in September.

In 1974, Vera Stravinsky gave Wuorinen permission to write a piece based on incomplete sketches by her husband, Igor; the result, “A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky,” is a tautly compelling masterwork with an acerbic but moving lament at its center.

That same year, Wuorinen wrote an article for High Fidelity, titled “We Spit on the Dead,” noting the widespread disrespect that he said was accorded to his lodestars Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

“It is enough to make anyone sick,” he wrote, “and if you are a composer, nausea will be neither a stranger nor solace of recourse to you. But the prospect of enduring a lifetime of calumny, succeeded by posthumous defilement, urges on us the need for some form of adequate compensation in this life, now, for the work of art and art of composition.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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