(bNew York, 9 June 1938). American composer. He began composing at the age of five, even before starting piano lessons. By the age of 12, despite fierce family opposition, he had chosen composition as his career. He attracted early attention by winning the New York PO's Young Composers’ Award in 1954. After graduating from the Trinity School, Manhattan, he enrolled in Columbia University (BA 1961, MA 1963), where his composition teachers included Luening, Ussachevsky and Beeson. While a student he received three Bearns prizes (1958, 1959, 1961) and four BMI Student Composer Awards (1959, 1961–3), a feat unmatched by any previous or subsequent composer.
Already a brilliant pianist and formidable conductor, Wuorinen co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, an ensemble that quickly set a new performance standard for contemporary music. Stefan Wolpe’s Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano and the Piece for Two Instrumental Units were both written for and first performed by the Group, a collaboration that was largely responsible for bringing Wolpe’s music to international attention. Wuorinen’s Second Trio (1962), one of his earliest professional works, is dedicated to Wolpe and exudes the spirited and highly rhythmic interplay of its dedicatee’s late works. The Piano Variations (1963) project a spiky, bold, pointillistic surface, reminiscent of Babbitt’s aesthetic, yet less intricate and serial only with respect to pitch.
In 1964 Wuorinen was appointed to a teaching post at Columbia. His first large-scale professional works, among them a series of chamber concertos, wide-spread acclaim. In the Chamber Concerto for Cello and Ten Players (1963), the most traditionally conceived of the group, the soloist plays a familiarly virtuosic role. Throughout its five movements, the cellist projects sharply-etched ideas and negotiates daring leaps that encompass registral extremes. The accompanying ensemble often echoes the soloist, at times also anticipating or interrupting its musical material. In contrast, the Chamber Concerto for Flute and Ten Players (1964) presents subdued and lyrical soloistic writing amid a shimmering array of exotic accompanying instruments. As the work’s single movement progresses, the flute's lines lengthen, eventually ‘taming the unruliness’ of the accompanying forces. In terms of form and timbre, this work is among the most striking of the composer’s early efforts.
In 1968 Wuorinen embarked on Time’s Encomium, his major electronic work. Addressing one of the fundamental dilemmas of electronic music – the fact that all renditions of a work will be identical – it takes the precision of the electronic medium as its theme, guiding the listener towards an awareness of the infinite variety of lengths and subtle variations in timbre of highly differentiated core units. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Other honours included an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1967) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1968). A year after becoming the youngest American composer to win the Pulitzer, however, Wuorinen was denied tenure at Columbia, a decision that provoked intense controversy. Later academic appointments included positions at the Manhattan School (1971–9) and Rutgers University (1984– ).
During the late 1960s Wuorinen began to reconsider the premises of Babbitt’s time-point system, a way of linking the intervals of a 12-note row to points in musical time. He reasoned that if this linkage could influence musical time locally, as the determinant of rhythmic patterns, it might be able to influence formal design as well: small intervals could imply short musical sections, while large ones implied longer musical stretches. Thus, a background structure could be created that would be inextricably linked to the note row from which principal pitch ideas were derived. Wuorinen applied these ideas, with varying degrees of rigour, in most of his subsequent works; they became the basis of his compositional treatise, Simple Composition (New York, 1979/R).
The ensuing years brought growing recognition in the form of commissions and performances from the nation’s leading orchestras, and a second Guggenheim Fellowship (1972). The Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra (1972), commissioned for Michael Tilson Thomas, Paul Zukofsky and the Boston SO in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Fromm Foundation, was given its première at Tanglewood in 1972. In 1974 Stravinsky's widow invited Wuorinen to compose a work based on her husband's last sketches (Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, 1975). A commission from the Cleveland Orchestra led to the composition of Tashi (1976). Further commissions from groups such as Speculum Musicae, Parnassus, the Da Capo Players and the New York New Music Ensemble, added to Wuorinen’s growing catalogue of chamber works.
Where early serialists had been reluctant to create pitch hierarchies in atonal contexts, Wuorinen saw an opportunity to ‘bring back an aspect of tonality that perhaps had been discarded unnecessarily’. Pitch centres accentuate crucial background structures in works such as Ringing Changes (1970), the Violin Concerto (1972) and Speculum speculi (1972). An attention to colour, often projected through an expanded role for percussion, also characterizes music of this period. In the Tuba Concerto (1970), the juxtaposition of three disparate timbral choirs is particularly distinctive. The opera, The W. of Babylon (1971–5), however, is the crowning achievement of these years. Invoking the spirit of Mozart, it represents the composer at his most fluent and ebullient.
In the late 1970s Wuorinen began to simplify the surface of his music. In the Second Piano Sonata (1976) and Fast Fantasy (1977), long strings of melodic ideas are spun continually and mellifluously, often turning back upon each other in unexpected ways. In Archaeopteryx (1978), the Two Part Symphony (1978), the Second String Quartet (1979) and The Blue Bamboula (1980) there is less overt counterpoint and greater playfulness and wit than in earlier works. Simple motives also assume greater importance. A declamatory E frames the ricocheting passage-work of The Winds (1977); F Major triads shape the slowly evolving lines of the opening of Fortune (1979). While writing these works, Wuorinen became fascinated with fractal geometry, in particular the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, whose observations seemed to confirm his intuitions about musical structure and form.
With the beginning of the 1980s, Wuorinen’s music became more rhythmic, regaining also some of its former contrapuntal complexity. There is a wide-ranging freedom and breadth in the sweeping tapestries of the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1988), commissioned by the Library of Congress, the String Sextet (1989), written for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and A Winter's Tale (1991). New York Notes (1981), written for the New York New Music Ensemble, embraces both old and new formal elements. Striking among the many orchestral works of this period is the Third Piano Concerto (1983), a large-scale, three-movement design.
In 1985 Wuorinen was appointed composer-in-residence with the San Francisco SO, a relationship that resulted in four major works: Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra (1983), The Golden Dance (1986), Machault mon chou (1988) and Genesis (1989). The last of these is an exuberant re-telling of the Creation story, including jubilant hymns of praise and meditative orchestral interludes. The first movement intertwines melodies from all seven Gregorian chant masses on the Creation text; in a lush central movement God’s words are sung by a female voice, starkly projected above the narration. Also in 1985 Wuorinen received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and began to organize and conduct a series of concerts (until 1989) entitled New and Unusual Music, presenting works by such disparate composers as Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, George Perle, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman.
An invitation by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux to compose a work for the New York City Ballet in 1987 resulted in Wuorinen’s cello concerto Five. After the score attracted the attention of Peter Martins, Wuorinen was commissioned to write a second ballet, Delight of the Muses (1991), for the company. Commissions for a transcription of the Schoenberg Op.31 Variations (1996) and the Dante Trilogy of three works (1993–5), followed.
Wuorinen’s large corpus of works in many important genres distinguishes his compositional achievement as a powerful compendium of late 20th-century musical thought. His more than 200 compositions are marked by dazzling virtuosity, innovative formal design and an outward exuberance that belies a controlled internal rigour. As critic Michael Steinberg has noted, Wuorinen’s music fuses the physicality of Stravinsky’s style with Schoenbergian structural principles; it both reconciles and extends the traditions of these two composers. An innovator professing to care more about ‘the evolutionary … than the revolutionary’, Wuorinen’s most important contribution may be the development of a highly sophisticated 20th-century musical language that responds to the grand musical visions of centuries of musical predecessors.
LOUIS KARCHIN (text), JASON CARUCCI (work-list, bibliography)
The Politics of Harmony (masque, 1, R. Monaco), A, T, B, 2 fl, 2 tuba, 3 perc, pf, 2 hp, 2 vn, 2, db, 1967; New York, 28 Oct 1968
The W. of Babylon (The Triumph of Love over Moral Depravity) (Baroque burlesque, 2, R.C. Bruce), 8 solo vv, nar, orch, 1975; San Francisco, 20 Jan 1989
Solo inst: Concert, db, 1961; Fl Variations I, 1963; Janissary Music, perc, 1966; Fl Variations, II, 1968; The Long and the Short, vn, 1969; Vc Variations I, 1970; Vn Variations, 1972; Vc Variations II, 1975; Gui Variations, 1994; Vc Variations, III, 1997
Choral: Be Merry all that be Present (medieval Eng. carol), SATB, org/4 insts, 1957; The Prayer of Jonah, chorus, str qnt, 1962; Super salutem, TTBB, 9 brass, perc, pf, 1964; Mannheim 87.87.87 (hymn text), chorus, org, 1973; An Anthem for Epiphany (Bible), SATB, org, tpt, 1974; The Celestial Sphere (orat, W. Fuller, Bible), SATB, orch, 1980; Mass, S, SATB, vn, org, 1982; A solis ortu, SATB, 1989; Genesis (orat, Bible), SATB, orch, 1989; Missa renovata, SATB, fl, 3 trbn, timp, str, 1992
Solo: 2 Lute Songs, male vv, 1954 [after T. Campion]; Te decet hymnus, Mez, B, pf, org, timp, 1954; Madrigale spirituale sopra salmo secundo, T, Bar, 2 ob, db ad lib, 2 vn, vc, db, 1960; Symphonia sacra, T, Bar, B, 2 ob, 2 vn, db, org, 1961; A Message to Denmark Hill (cant., R. Howard), Bar, fl, vc, pf, 1970; A Song to the Lute in Musicke (attrib. R. Edwards), S, pf, 1970; 6 Songs (C. Britton), Ct/A, T, chbr ens, 1977; Ps xxxix, Bar, gui, 1979; 3 Songs (Britton), T, pf, 1979; Twang (W. Stevens), Mez, pf, 1989; A Winter’s Tale (D. Thomas), S, cl, hn, vn, va, vc, pf, 1991 [arr. S, pf]; Christes Crosse, S, pf, 1994 [after T. Morley]; Lightenings VIII (S. Heaney), S, pf, 1994; Fenton Songs (J. Fenton), S, pf trio, 1997 [arr. 2 gui, vn, vc]