“One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past,” composer Steven Stucky once wrote, “to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind . . . who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have already cleared the path ahead.”
Such was the case with his “Second Concerto for Orchestra,” the work that won him the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music. The composition was deeply informed by tradition — he called it “an homage piece to the orchestra and to my heroes,” Ravel, Stravinsky, Sibelius and Bartok. But it also was squarely in keeping with his championing of contemporary classical music, neither parroting nor repudiating some of the experimental musical motifs of his time.
Dr. Stucky, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, died Feb. 14 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 66.
The cause was brain cancer, said his wife, Kristen Stucky.
In a career straddling academia and major concert halls, Dr. Stucky spent 21 years affiliated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also wrote for major orchestral ensembles in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia.
The L.A. Philharmonic reigned large. His Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto relied heavily on a complicated framework in which letters of the alphabet were assigned to musical pitches. The piece made playful references to friends and mentors associated with the philharmonic, including architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall where the group performs, and former conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Dr. Stucky focused on orchestral work and wrote only one symphony, a short, four-part work that was praised upon its debut in 2012 for its accessibility and emotional power.
Reviewing the work, simply titled “Symphony,” New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini described Dr. Stucky’s style as “intricate, pungent yet transparent and, in the best sense, accessible.”
Dr. Stucky drew heavily from the classical canon in pieces such as “Funeral Music for Queen Mary,” a re-orchestration of three 17th-century works by the English composer Henry Purcell, and the dreamy “Partita-Pastorale (After J.S. Bach).”
He did not hesitate to draw from more contemporary material. In 2014, he adapted “The Classical Style,” Charles Rosen’s National Book Award-winning analysis of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, into a comic opera with the pianist Jeremy Denk. The work gently mocked the earnestness with which classical music is sometimes analyzed as well as the now-common refrain that classical music is dead.
Steven Edward Stucky was born in Hutchinson, Kan., on Nov. 7, 1949, and grew up in Kansas and Texas. Neither of his parents was musical, but Dr. Stucky learned the viola at a young age and wrote a pair of symphonies. (Neither was published.)
He once told a radio interviewer in Eugene, Ore., that his early years immersing himself in music transformed him into an “orchestra groupie” who “would rather be listening to an orchestra rehearsal — more even than a concert — than to do anything else.”
In 1971, he received a bachelor’s degree in music from Baylor University in Waco, Tex. At Cornell, he received a master’s degree in 1973 and a doctorate in 1978, both in music.
In graduate school, he immersed himself in the work of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, whom he later befriended. Lutoslawski’s music, he later said, had a “powerful combination of intellectual integrity and beautiful sound so that when you heard it the last thing you thought of was that sort of stereotypical, cerebral, modern composer. His music is very direct, very emotional, very communicative.”
He published a biography of the composer, “Lutoslawski and His Music” (1981), to strong reviews. The book also won an ASCAP-Deems Taylor prize. He later told the Los Angeles Times that the book “slowed my development as a composer at a fairly crucial, tender age” but taught him a good deal of “technical craftsmanship” from burrowing himself in Lutoslawski’s scores.
Dr. Stucky joined the Cornell faculty in 1980, becoming a professor and chair of the music department in the late 1990s. He was named professor emeritus in 2014, when he left Cornell to join the composition faculty at the Juilliard School in New York City.
Because many of his works premiered in academic settings, Dr. Stucky lacked prominence until relatively late in his career. His breakthrough was a 1986 work called “Dreamwaltzes,” a 15-minute conjuring of Viennese waltzes that had been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra’s summer festival. It was a popular hit and brought him to the attention of André Previn, who conducted it with the L.A. Philharmonic.
In one of the longest relationships between any American orchestra and composer, Dr. Stucky was associated with the L.A. Philharmonic from 1988 to 2009, as composer-in-residence and then as new music adviser. The orchestra commissioned his “Second Concerto for Orchestra.”
His first marriage, to Melissa Whitehead, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of three years, Kristen Frey Stucky; and two children from his first marriage.
Dr. Stucky’s later works included “August 4, 1964” (2008), an oratorio commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Stucky and the librettist, Gene Scheer, examined a day on which the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered in Philadelphia, Miss., and erroneous reports on an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin led President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War.
The piece was considered to be a criticism of the George W. Bush administration and the ongoing war in Iraq, but Dr. Stucky said that his aims for the oratorio, as for any of his works, were not strictly political.
“I think a great piece, whenever it was written, gets under our skin, makes us feel something,” he told the Aspen Times in 2013. “That’s what Beethoven was trying to do. I don’t think music teaches about mundane, everyday life. It teaches us what it is to be a human being. I’m trying to do the exact thing Verdi or Mendelssohn did — open up that spiritual space where we can all be fully ourselves.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries :