Charles Wuorinen, 1938-2020
It is with regret that we announce the death of Charles Wuorinen, composer of over 270 works, virtuosic pianist, and conductor. He died on Wednesday, March 11 from complications after sustaining a fall in September 2019.
Wuorinen’s music of refinement, power, technical excellence and wide-ranging emotional pallet found a home in operas, ballets, symphonies, and chamber and vocal works of all combinations and instruments. Wuorinen’s last completed work was his Second Percussion Symphony, premiered in Miami in September 2019.
In recent years James Levine became a staunch advocate for Wuorinen’s music and commissioned five orchestral works including his Fourth Piano Concerto with Peter Serkin for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas, a conductor whom Wuorinen worked with for much of his career, commissioned Bamboula Beach for the inaugural concert of the New World Symphony, and most recently Sudden Changes for the San Francisco Symphony.
The first composer Christoph von Dohnányi commissioned for the Cleveland Orchestra was Wuorinen, who produced Movers and Shakers. Oliver Knussen, a great interpreter of Wuorinen’s works, recorded A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, which enshrined musical fragments entrusted to Wuorinen at the Russian composer’s death by his widow, Vera Stravinsky.
Wuorinen wrote six works for the New York City Ballet including three scores inspired by scenes from Dante for Peter Martins, and Five: Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra with the dual purpose of it being a cello concerto for his great friend and collaborator Fred Sherry.
Wuorinen’s works for the stage include operas on Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Throughout his career Wuorinen displayed his mastery of vocal writing, setting texts from the Vulgate to contemporary writers such as James Fenton, James Tate, and John Ashbery.
Wuorinen had a strong interest in earlier music which is seen in such works as Delight of the Muses, written for the Mozart Bicentennial, Time Regained, which uses materials from Machaut, Dufay, Gibbons, and Mattei de Perugia, and The Magic Art: An Instrumental Masque drawn from the works of Henry Purcell.
In 1962 he co-founded The Group for Contemporary Music with Harvey Sollberger. The Group was the precursor of a large number of similar ensembles formed throughout America particularly in the early 1970’s, and its luminous performances were widely regarded as models to be emulated.
A prodigy who started composing at age five, Wuorinen was a polymath with interests in fractal geometry, astrophysics, Egyptology and Chinese calligraphy.
He was the recipient of many awards, fellowships, and honors including the Pulitzer Prize (for Time’s Encomium) and a MacArthur Fellowship, and he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the author of Simple Composition, used by composition students throughout the world. His longtime publisher is C.F. Peters.
He is survived by his husband of thirty-two years, Howard Stokar.