Obituary: Brokeback Mountain Composer Charles Wuorinen Dies At 81

By Francisco Salazar

Composer Charles Wuorinen has died at the age of 81.

The composer died on March 11 from complications after sustaining a fall in September 2019.

Born in New York on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Wuorinen graduated from Trinity School in New York City as valedictorian in 1956 and later received a B.A. and M.A. in music from Columbia University.

However, Wuorinen was a prodigy who started composing at age five and went on to write more than 270 compositions. He was also a polymath with interests in fractal geometry, astrophysics, Egyptology and Chinese calligraphy.

Among the many compositions he went on to write are the operas “Brokeback Mountain” based on the short story by Annie Proulx which world premiered at the Teatro Real; he also wrote a piece based on Salman Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”

He also wrote a number of song cycles and songs based on the texts from the Vulgate to contemporary writers such as James Fenton, James Tate, and John Ashbery.

His styles also varied as he had a strong interest in earlier music and that influence was seen in his works “Delight of the Muses” and “The Magic Art: An Instrumental Masque drawn from the works of Henry Purcell.”

He worked with many orchestras and became the first composer Christoph von Dohnányi commissioned for the Cleveland Orchestra; “Movers and Shakers” was one such piece which would be world premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Another advocate of his work included James Levine who commissioned five orchestral works, including his Fourth Piano Concerto with Peter Serkin, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Levine also commissioned the composer to write the tone poem “Theologoumenon” (a 60th birthday gift for Levine from his longtime manager Ronald Wilford), which was later premiered by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In honor of Wuorinen’s 70th birthday, Levine also conducted two performances of Wuorinen’s “Ashberyana” at the Guggenheim Museum.

Wuorinen also worked closely with Michael Tilson Thomas, who commissioned Bamboula Beach for the inaugural concert of the New World Symphony, and Sudden Changes for the San Francisco Symphony.

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.

His final completed work was his Second Percussion Symphony, which premiered in Miami in September 2019.

A respected musician and composer Wuorinen co-founded The Group for Contemporary Music with Harvey Sollberger and was honored with many awards, fellowships, and honors including the Pulitzer Prize (for Time’s Encomium) and a MacArthur Fellowship. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is the author of Simple Composition, used by composition students throughout the world.

He is survived by his husband of 32 years, Howard Stokar.

Here is a clip from “Brokeback Mountain.”