Charles Wuorinen, the American composer, died earlier this month. I have been thinking about him, and reading about him—walking down Memory Lane a little.
I told the following story in my “New York Chronicle” of December 2004:
A few years ago, I was in conversation with a composer acquaintance of mine. He writes in esoteric languages, this composer, but he is utterly free of political (or artistic) correctness, and he is disdainful of much contemporary music. You can talk turkey with him. I said to him, “I’m always searching for composers to admire—contemporary composers. Tell me, who’s good? Who stands out?” And he answered, quick as a flash, “Charles Wuorinen.” He didn’t name anyone else. Wuorinen, he said, is a genius, absolutely off the charts. I had never loved Wuorinen’s music, although I could see that it was exceptionally intelligent, but I said that I would listen with extra care.
I did. And incidentally, the composer with whom I was speaking was Patrick Kavanaugh, who died in 2018.
In the New York Times, there was a terrific obit of Wuorinen, written by William Robin, a musicologist at the University of Maryland. It begins,
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.
A few paragraphs down, Robin says,
Mr. Wuorinen gained a reputation as a combative proponent of twelve-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.
He was a very unusual cat, Charles Wuorinen—brilliant, sure, but also unusual. There was an independent-mindedness in him that you don’t always see among composers (and others, of course).
He was a very unusual cat.
Wuorinen made a brash statement in 1973, when he was in his mid-thirties. Indeed, the statement is virtually Leninist. William Robin quotes it in his obit. Wuorinen said, “If my friends and I decide today that there will be no orchestras, there won’t be in 50 years. Our influence is long-range. We are the future.”
I thought of a story about Ronald Reagan, as I usually do when someone says, “We are the future.”
During the student unrest of the 1960s, Governor Reagan was on one of the U-Cal campuses. A mob surrounded his limo as he tried to leave. They were chanting, “We are the future! We are the future!” Reagan bent down and reached into his briefcase. He pulled out a legal pad, scribbled something on it, then held it to the window: “I’ll sell my bonds.”
Anyway, orchestras are still with us. Charles Wuorinen and his friends must have given them a reprieve.
By the way, I told the Reagan story many years ago when I saw a blurb, or a testimonial, for Bang on a Can, a contemporary-music organization in New York. The organization had been hailed as “the future of classical music.” By sheer coincidence, the musicologist-obituarist, Mr. Robin, is writing a book about Bang on a Can, as can be seen in his bio.
Another excerpt from the obit:
In the opening to his 1979 guidebook for composers, “Simple Composition,” Mr. 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 twelve-tone system.”
A remarkable statement, right? “Atrophied,” “vestigial,” “backward-looking”! I thought of the word “deplorable,” used by Elliott Carter in 2008. I went to see the venerable composer on the eve of his hundredth birthday. Here is an excerpt from my piece:
What about the so-called Neo-Romantics such as Barber—can Carter respect them, even as he diverges from them? “Well, some of us felt that the kind of music Sam wrote had already been done, only done better than anybody could do it now. Therefore there was no reason to do it now.” Grinning, Carter says, “What Sam did was deplorable,” but his music, nonetheless, “is rather good.”
Back to William Robin, Charles Wuorinen, and that obit:
As minimalism and neo-Romanticism began to find new audiences and institutional support, eclipsing his style of choice, Mr. 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.”
Music such as Wuorinen’s is often called “challenging” and “provocative,” along with “thorny” and “uncompromising.” (I think I have hit the four major buzzwords.) But frankly, it is often simply dull.
Robin quotes Wuorinen in 1981: “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. We don’t distinguish between the committed, passionate audience and the trend-seeking yuppie audience. We just count bodies and measure sales.”
Does that seem right to you? (It largely does to me.)
I was interested in Robin’s use of the word “conservative,” in this sentence about his subject:
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.”
Say what you will about the merit of Wuorinen’s remark—I believe it took guts to make it.
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.
Allow me to go down Memory Lane again. I will quote Ned Rorem, another American composer, who in 2002 said to me,
The performer is more important than the composer in the ken of the general public, and the performer almost always performs music of the past, and all this began about 80 or 90 years ago. Before that, the performer and the composer had always been the same person: Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven.
Then the managers came in, and money got involved, and now the general public has no notion of what it is we composers do. We’re a despised minority. Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.
In any event, the composer is no longer with us, but the music he left behind is.
At the top, I spoke of my conversation with Patrick Kavanaugh, and my resolve to pay special attention to Wuorinen. I did. I heard a good number of his works—mainly premieres—and wrote about them. There was a line I kept falling back on.
“. . . the whole world proclaims Mr. Wuorinen a genius. A few of us have to take this on faith, not quite seeing it.”
And from another review: “I, for one, must take Wuorinen’s genius on faith—I am assured of it by others. And yet how long can one’s faith endure without some clear glimpses of one’s own?”
At another point, this: “I trust that Charles Wuorinen is a genius, because people I respect tell me he is, and because his scores scream Major Brain. But genius is not always enough.”
In any event, the composer is no longer with us, but the music he left behind is, and I will continue to listen to it, with respect and receptivity, or as near to receptivity as I can muster.