Home / Compositions / Fourth Piano Concerto

Fourth Piano Concerto

3(picc)-2-2-bcl-2-cbsn; 4-2-3-1; perc (3), timpani, strings, solo piano

Charles Wuorinen is a kind of radical-traditionalist composer. Working prolifically in all genres of his medium, he seems to have embraced wholeheartedly the old ideal of the composer-as-craftsman. At the same time, many of his works update and reconstitute the conventional genres in terms of affect, instrumentation, and form. While his musical language is based significantly on pre-existing methods, he has extended and refined those methods in highly individual ways to fit his own expressive needs. His output of 200-plus compositions is notable for its diversity and range, each new piece exploring new territory, yet an integrity and consistency of voice—a boundless, sometimes restless energy is one characteristic—is present throughout his more than forty-year career.

Like any artist’s, Wuorinen’s work has its precedents. His musical language is rooted in the twin poles of 20th-century musical thought, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. His affinity for the latter is such that, after Stravinsky’s death in 1971, his widow Vera provided Wuorinen with Stravinsky’s final sketches for use in his A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. The influence is most apparent in Wuorinen’s incisive rhythms, clarity of texture, and imaginative instrumental combinations. Schoenberg’s spirit is present, at the very least, in Wuorinen’s use of many of the principles of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.

By the time he entered ColumbiaUniversity in the late 1950s, Wuorinen had already been composing for more than a decade, and had won awards for his efforts. Although he worked with Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia, his real teachers were scores by Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Stefan Wolpe, and others. Upon leaving Columbia with a master’s degree, Wuorinen established a reputation among his colleagues as an attentive and talented conductor and an outstanding pianist. He shared with his closest colleagues a level of virtuosic musicianship that was becoming currency in those years, as accomplished musicians expanded the limits of their instruments and abilities through exposure to the new musical horizons of the post-World War II era. As the composer relates, he was “surrounded from a very early age by extraordinary, remarkable virtuosi.” He never set out to write “difficult” music, but wrote with an awareness of the responsibility of collaborating with outstanding musicians who wanted, and needed, to be challenged. This was in fact a crucial factor in Wuorinen’s development of his personal compositional style. He wrote, in part, to explore the possible.

In 1962 Charles Wuorinen teamed up with composer-flutist-conductor Harvey Sollberger to form the Group for Contemporary Music, an ensemble dedicated to providing sufficient concentration and rehearsal time to the music of the present, including works by the Group’s own members. Many of the dramatic, sensationally virtuosic pieces through which Wuorinen’s reputation flourished in the 1960s—including the Chamber Concerto for Cello and Ten Players (1963) and chamber concertos for flute, oboe, and tuba, were written for and performed by the Group.

Even as Wuorinen developed a contemporary voice with sometime reference to the past, he also explored some aspects of modern technological media as an extension of the traditional instrumental ensemble. One of his most celebrated works is the tape piece Time’s Encomium, for which he became the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1970. Other works incorporating pre-recorded sound include New York Notes and Bamboula Squared; he has also written three concertos—the Second Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra (commissioned for and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra), and the cello concerto Five—that call for electronic amplification of the solo instrument. In a larger sense, these works are one facet of a seemingly endless fascination with unique combinations of instruments, as in his Ringing Changes for twelve percussionists, his Chamber Concerto for Tuba with Twelve Winds and Twelve Drums, Buttons and Bows for cello and accordion, or the Trio for Bass Instruments (bass trombone, tuba, and double bass), to name an arbitrary few. This imagination carries over into the various instrumental combinations possible in his more traditionally scored works for orchestra or standard genres; among these are the opera The W. of Babylon, several Masses, the oratorio The Celestial Sphere, numerous concertos, string quartets, and other works.

Wuorinen has long had a reputation for intellectual and cultural curiosity. His 1990s triptych for the New York City Ballet, The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession, and The River of Light, is based on episodes from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. His Epithalamium pieces take their collective title from a type of poetic ode (in honor of nuptials), and he has set texts ranging from the Bible to the Latin Mass to modern poetry. Fractal geometry in the work of Benoit Mandelbrot and others influenced his pieces Bamboula Squared and Natural Fantasy; there are pieces with such evocative titles as Archeopteryx, Hexadactyl, and Dodecadactyl (only one of which refers to an actual bird, of course).* An interest in early music, some of which entered the repertory of the Group for Contemporary Music, in part led Wuorinen to explore appropriation of preexisting materials, as in his Bearbeitungen über des Glogauer Liederbuch (1962), based on music of the fifteenth century. He has revisited this approach throughout his career, as in the Stravinsky Reliquary and Machault Mon Chou and the recent string quartet Josquiniana.

Wuorinen’s widely varied compositional interests are mirrored by a broad range of other musical activities. In addition to performing as conductor and pianist, he has taught throughout his professional life, first at Columbia, and also at Princeton, Yale, the University of Iowa, Rutgers, SUNY/Buffalo, and many other institutions. He lectures frequently throughout the country. He has been a visiting faculty member at the TanglewoodMusicCenter, most recently in August 2001, serving as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. He was the San Francisco Symphony’s composer-in-residence from 1985 to 1989, writing The Golden Dance, Machault Mon Chou, and Genesis for that orchestra. In 1979 he published a textbook, Simple Composition. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he has been honored with numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and membership in the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Letters as well as the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences. Wuorinen’s works have been commissioned by numerous organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, and New York City Ballet, among many others.

Wuorinen’s opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories, with a libretto by the poet James Fenton based on Salmon Rushdie’s novel of the same name, was premiered at New York City Opera to acclaim last fall. Current projects include Ashberyana, a cycle of John Ashbery settings for baritone, string quartet, trombone, and piano, to be premiered as part of the “Works in Progress” series at the Guggenheim Museum next month; a twenty-minute orchestra piece for the MET Orchestra and James Levine entitled Theologoumenon for next season; a short concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh for Columbia’s Miller Theatre, and a brief “warm-up” piece for piano and orchestra for Peter Serkin.

Throughout his career, from the virtuosic early works to his most recent compositions, Wuorinen has had an interest in the details of compositional craft. Using as a springboard the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and building on aspects of musical organization pioneered by Milton Babbitt, Wuorinen in the 1960s found new ways to integrate the large-scale form of his pieces with small details of pitch and rhythm. By the 1970s he had begun to reconsider the potential of the hierarchies of pitch and harmony found in tonal music. His music of the past three decades incorporates his development of these possibilities, often resulting in a clarity of foreground elements—melodic and harmonic motion, in particular—avoided in earlier works. A strong sense of pulse also reentered the music. In works like the new Fourth Piano Concerto, these elements are developed organically, often intuitively, articulating the form of the piece “from the top down”—that is, from the overall structure down to the details of measure and moment.

Prior to the present concerto, Wuorinen had not written a piece for piano in a solo role since completing his Third Sonata in 1986; his Third Concerto dates from 1983. Nor had Wuorinen ever written a solo vehicle for pianist Peter Serkin, although in the mid-1970s he’d written two works called TASHI, a chamber piece and a kind of concerto grosso, for Serkin’s quartet of the same name. The idea for the Fourth Piano Concerto grew out of conversations between Serkin and Wuorinen that took place over several years.

It was Serkin who suggested a Wuorinen commission to Boston Symphony Orchestra Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg, who proposed the idea to then Music Director Designate James Levine in spring 2002, during planning for Levine’s first season as Music Director. Levine immediately embraced the idea, and Wuorinen’s piece became one of three new commissions scheduled for premiere under Levine’s direction for 2004-05 (the others being John Harbison’s Darkbloom, also on this program, and Babbitt’s Concerti for Orchestra, premiered this past January). Wuorinen began working on the piece in late spring 2002 and continued, with interruptions, until October of the following year.

The piece is in three large but interrelated sections, marked Part I, Part II, and Part III. The first section is about eleven minutes in length, the second about seven, and the third about six, with the general feeling of the piece becoming more active, excited, even aggressive over its course. Although each movement leads right into the next, they are separated by brief resonating fermatas. The respective roles of soloist and orchestra are very much in the way of a traditional concerto of the Classical or Romantic eras, in contrast with the composer’s three earlier concertos.

Each of the large parts begins with a readily audible musical gesture. The first and second parts open with archetypes of pianistic display—the first, broad arpeggios for the soloist, defining a harmonic space, and the second with big, four-octave chords. These two gestures, along with the repeated-note texture that begins the third part, are all present to varying degrees throughout the piece. Beyond these moments, the soloist’s part ranges from lyric and contrapuntal, with a supple metric flexibility built into the rhythm, to quite brilliant and virtuosic.

-Robert Kirzinger, for the BSO

 *His Lepton for celesta, harp, and piano is named after one of his cats. A lepton is a subatomic particle; Lepton, the cat, was so named because she is herself small, and was frequently “leapt-upon” by an older cat. Whether, like the subatomic particle her namesake, she has a spin of 1/2 and is not subject to strong force is open to interpretation.