Charles Wuorinen, Uncompromising Modernist Composer, Dies at 81


Mr. 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.

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