Composer, Uninterrupted: Christian Wolff at 90

Wolff, the last representative of the New York School that included John Cage and Morton Feldman, will celebrate his birthday with a concert at Judson Memorial Church.

By Steve Smith

If artistic stature worked by osmosis, Christian Wolff could claim greatness based on that alone. “My father met Brahms,”he said, easing into conversation at a sturdy wooden table in the dining room of his Hanover, N.H., home. That meeting was in 1896, when Brahms was in Bonn, Germany, for Clara Schumann’s funeral. Wolff’s father was 6 or 7.

Wolff’s grandfather, a violinist, conductor and professor, knew Brahms personally and professionally, he said. His great-grandfather, also a conductor, was a supporter of Robert Schumann. “And my great-great-grandfather was a champion ofBeethoven’s, so there is something back there” he added, laughing at the implications of such a heritage.

Wolff, who turns 90 on Friday, is associated with a different pantheon. He is the last living representative of what’s known as the New York School of composition, a group that included John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and David Tudor. Their tight-knit circle shifted mid-century American music away from classic European models. And it radiated out, intersecting with other arts and artists who were making New York a leading center of modernism: the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the poet John Ashbery, the painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and many others.

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