Pianist Gail Quillman
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
I met Gail Quillman at her studio in downtown Chicago in mid-March of
1989. Her soft-spoken demeaner belied the knowledge and wisdom she
presented in both her music and speaking.
Portions of the conversation were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
to promote concerts and celebrations of Leo Sowerby.
Here is the entire interview . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Let’s talk about Leo Sowerby.
How did you get so immensely interested in him?
Gail Quillman: He was one of my teachers.
When I was a freshman at the American Conservatory, I studied theory with
him, starting out in his harmony class. It was love at first sight,
I must say.
BD: Was it love at first sight, or love at first
Quillman: Sight. The hearing came much
later. He was a wonderful man with a great twinkle in his eye all
the time, even when he was being very strict. At one of our first classes,
as he was grading my homework he told me I had the best stems in the class,
which was very entertaining, and the whole class loved it. That formed
the base of our relationship. It was a very good student-teacher
relationship. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and I just loved
BD: Did this love work both ways?
Quillman: I think so. He liked me, too.
A couple of months later, I was around the corner in an old used-book-and-music
store, and ran into one of my fellow students. He asked me how I
liked the Conservatory, and I said I just loved it. He asked who was
my favorite?” and I said, “Leo Sowerby, of course! He’s a great man.”
That fellow student said he had written a lot of music, and showed me about
five stacks each of which was a foot high. The next time I went into
class, I backed in very modestly and humbly, thinking that I was in the
presence of this great man all this time.
BD: When you came to discover the music that he
had written, was there anything that surprised you?
Quillman: He had great emotional depth, but it
was big and important, which was just the opposite of the personal image
that one got from knowing him. That was a great surprise.
BD: Are you still discovering new things in these
Quillman: Oh yes, every time. To me, he’s
the equivalent of Brahms — it’s
endless discovery. Every time you play it, there’s something new.
BD: In all of the music that you’ve played, have
you ever run across anything that you wish you could have changed just
a little bit? Maybe move a note here, or change a dynamic?
Quillman: Oh, no! [Laughs] When one
rehearsed with him, you’d get through a whole work of many pages, and
after you’d finished he’d say, “Now, on page thirty-two, I wrote an F-sharp.”
He knew his music.
BD: When you play these pieces over and over again,
do you change your interpretive style at all over the years? Do you
play them the same way now that you did when you first learning them?
Quillman: I try to be more true to the score each
time. Whatever music I’ve played, I’ve tried to be true to the score.
BD: Is there really only one way to play that
score, or any score?
Quillman: No, I don’t think so. One interprets
when reading the score.
BD: Is there a little bit of you when you play
Quillman: I like to think there’s a lot of Mr.
Sowerby in the score, and I hope it comes through that way. I hope
what I’m playing is Sowerby. That’s what I want it to be.
BD: Do you ever run across any pieces that you
just don’t care for, and you leave that work aside?
Quillman: Of Sowerby’s music? No, I haven’t
come across anything I didn’t care for.
BD: He was a superb teacher of theory and composition.
Did you study composition with him, also?
Quillman: Oh yes, composition and music history.
He was also a wonderful music history teacher. He had many out-of-print
books, and he’d quote from the books. It was wonderful.
BD: He lived until 1968. Toward the end
of his life, was he particularly pleased with the then growing avalanche
of recordings of all kinds of music?
Quillman: He didn’t speak of it to me, no.
BD: Was he optimistic about where music was going?
Quillman: I’m sure he was.
BD: Do you do any composing yourself?
Quillman: [Emphatically] No! It’s
a full-time job, and if one performs, one can’t also compose... at least
I have never been able to.
BD: You’re both a performer and a teacher.
How do you balance those two portions of your life?
Quillman: It’s very difficult finding enough time
for myself and my students. But teaching enriches one’s performance.
It emphasizes what you’re trying to do yourself.
BD: So, you really learn at the same time that
Quillman: Oh, absolutely. It’s the best teacher
there is. As a matter of fact, when I first began studying theory,
Dr. Sowerby was already living in Washington, and I was very thrilled that
I had been put in the theory department at the Conservatory. I wrote
to him and told him about it, and he wrote back and said, “There’s nothing
like teaching for a good a review.” [Both laugh] So, that’s
what teaching is.
BD: Was he pleased to be here in Chicago?
Did Chicago offer enough outlets for him to perform and to write and to
have his compositions played?
Quillman: If he had been displeased, he wouldn’t
have indicated it to anyone. He was the kind of person who did the
work when it was time to do the work, and he did it as thoroughly as possible.
I don’t think he was negative at all.
BD: Is the sound of his music always positive?
Quillman: I think so. [Photo
at left of Leo Sowerby is from the Library of Congress]
* * *
BD: You’ve been teaching piano since 1960.
Have you also been teaching theory and history?
Quillman: Not history. I’ve taught theory,
composition, counterpoint, harmony, sight-singing, and piano.
BD: How has teaching of music to young students
changed in nearly thirty years?
Quillman: My teaching has changed in as much as
I have changed, because I’ve gotten older. My teaching has gotten
more precise, and more individual.
BD: Are there differences between the students
of 1960 and now?
Quillman: Oh, sure! [Laughs] The students
in 1960 were very determined to express their individuality, and now they’ve
become more serious about the music itself. It’s
not so much about themselves as getting into the music, and communicating
that way. In the 1960s I was teaching at the Conservatory, so I had
a lot of college people, and their comments indicated they couldn’t get
into it, or they couldn’t do this, or they couldn’t do that. There
was a lot of attitude, and now people study because they want to.
They’re much more optimistic, and they don’t have the expectations from
music that they did in the ’60s. Back
then, music was some sort of answer, and now it’s some sort of quest.
It’s an education; it’s a richness; it’s a luxury.
BD: What, for you, is the purpose of music in
Quillman: It keeps the universe going, actually.
[Laughs] It’s the one form of communication that’s the most spiritual
of all of the arts. I believe that. I often say to my students,
“Be careful of what you’re putting out. Don’t put out mistakes. Do
you really want to put that into the air? Let’s be careful about
what we communicate here.”
BD: How is someone who is writing a piece, or playing
a piece, able to tell whether what they’re putting out is right or a mistake?
Quillman: Their teacher tells them.
BD: Yes, but then they’ve got to get away from
the teacher and be on their own. So how can they learn to discern
Quillman: If they discern what’s true to them,
then that’s right.
BD: Will that change over each lifetime?
Quillman: Undoubtedly, many times.
BD: As you teach young pianists, do you find that
the whole shape of society is influencing the way they come to the piano,
as well as the way they come to the classroom?
Quillman: [Ponders a moment]
BD: Let me change it a little bit. Again,
with this avalanche of recordings, do you feel that students are more informed
about all kinds of music today than they were twenty or thirty years ago?
Quillman: I think so, and there’s a hunger for musical
education in parents. They’ve realized that this is an essential
part of their child’s upbringing. One mother told me that music teaches
her child how to study everything else, and how to learn everything else.
When a child studies music, they go to a lesson and there’s
something given to them, or shown to them. Then it’s up to them.
They go home for a week, and what they do with it is up to them.
It’s not like going to school every day, and learning this is right and this
wrong. In music, they have to make that discovery for themselves,
and that’s one of the only areas in their life where that happens. It’s
BD: We’re talking basically about concert music.
Is concert music really for everyone?
Quillman: No, but it doesn’t have to be. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Frank Ferko, and David Schrader.]
BD: Should we try to get the kids who go to rock
concerts, into the opera houses and concert halls?
Quillman: They’ll get there sooner or later.
After all, if Mr. Solti’s
planning to play at Madison Square Garden, anything can happen. [Both
laugh] Look at the movie scores — Mozart,
Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff are all getting into it.
BD: Almost unwillingly, or unwittingly.
Quillman: Unwittingly is the better word.
BD: When you play a concert, do you try to include
some new music, or music of Sowerby each time?
Quillman: Oh, absolutely.
BD: What do you expect of the audience that comes
to hear one of your concerts — if
anything at all?
Quillman: I expect them to enjoy the music.
BD: All of it??? Even the unfamiliar?
Quillman: Yes, even the unfamiliar! Music
all comes from the same source, and there’s something in it for everyone.
BD: Do you go to great lengths to express the
Sowerby works in any different way than you do Beethoven, or Haydn, or
Quillman: Only in that I know his personality, and
I knew him personally. I somehow feel that I knew Haydn, too.
I feel quite close to Haydn, and he’s one person that I would really have
liked to have known personally. They all had different personalities,
and it’s important for a performer to know as much as possible about the
personal life of the composer that they’re playing. It’s more important
to me than listening to other performances of the music.
BD: Performers should dig in, and read biographies,
and get into that person’s life?
Quillman: Yes. The spirit of the person
is what should come through the music.
BD: Rather than listening to other performances?
BD: Do you keep up with other performances yourself
at all, or not really?
Quillman: As a rule, I don’t like to listen to
other performances of the pieces that I’m working on myself. I like
it to come directly through me. If I’m working on a Beethoven piece,
for instance, I enjoy listening to a Beethoven symphony, or a quartet to
get to know Beethoven the person, rather than another pianist’s interpretation
BD: Besides solo piano pieces, do you also include
some chamber works?
Quillman: Yes, we have a trio, La Musica Gioiosa.
BD: Joyful Music!
Quillman: Right, that’s it!
* * *
BD: From the vast repertoire of solo and chamber
music, how do you decide which pieces you will spend some time on, and
which you’ll have to let go?
Quillman: Right now, my main interest is Leo Sowerby’s
music, and getting it published. The way I’m going to get it published,
I hope, is to play it enough so other people will want to play it, and
then the publishers will realize that there’s a demand for it. As
to the trio, there are three of us, so we suggest different things, and put
our programs together that way.
BD: Did Sowerby write a lot of chamber music?
Quillman: We have found three trios, and I have
access to two of them. So we’ll be performing those.
BD: Where’s the third? Is it locked up in
a vault some place?
Quillman: I don’t know. It’s a very young
work, and it’s undated, so it may be lost.
BD: You’ve never ever seen it?
Quillman: No, I haven’t seen it.
BD: Do you know anything about it other than it’s
just an entry in the catalogue?
Quillman: It’s catalogued, yes.
BD: Now you’ve got this one recording out. Are
you going to be putting out more recordings yourself?
Quillman: Hopefully, yes, I plan to.
BD: Are they solo, or chamber works?
Quillman: Both. I’m working on a Passacaglia,
Interlude, and Fugue at the present time, which is a solo work, and
then we hope to record the two trios of 1911 and 1953.
BD: Are the three pieces that are on your solo CD
very different from one another, or are they similar in structure and style?
Quillman: They’re all different. The Sonata
is a big work, probably the most important piano work that is overlooked.
The Suite is a shorter work, and a more recent work, and
the Passacaglia is, as the name implies, after an organ sostenuto
bass work. It’s very different.
BD: Sowerby was an organist as well as a composer.
Are his piano works pianistic, or are they organistic, but written for
Quillman: They are pianistic because, although it’s
not well known, Sowerby was a masterful pianist. When he was younger,
he was quite a brilliant pianist. He had one of his concerts in Chicago.
He played the piano part for the Concerto [March 5, 1920], and
it was later that he got into playing the organ.
BD: Did you hear him play the piano, and play
his own works?
Quillman: No. I heard him play the piano when
he corrected our studies and compositions, but I didn’t hear him play his
BD: Are there any recordings of him playing?
Quillman: I don’t know. I doubt it.
He was a very modest man.
BD: That seems like a contradiction, to be a
composer and yet be a modest man. How can you reconcile those two?
Quillman: He may have been one of the chosen ones.
BD: He was a great composer in your eyes?
Quillman: Oh, yes.
BD: What is it about his music, or any music,
that makes it stand above the crowd and become great music?
Quillman: Number one, the spirituality of the
music. Number two, the fact that the music survives. No matter
who plays it, it’s worth a great, great deal.
BD: No one can kill it?
Quillman: Nobody can kill it! It comes through,
it really does.
* * *
BD: You’re a performing pianist, and you go and
play on different instruments. How long does it take you to adjust
to each new instrument that you play?
Quillman: Sometimes never! [Laughs]
BD: Keyboardists are a victim of whatever instrument
is put in front of them. They can’t carry it around with them.
Quillman: Well, luckily, I was taught in the tradition
to play with a light arm, and be quite relaxed. I have found that
rather than trying to play the piano, if I just play the music, then the
piano is going to sound its ultimate best. So I’ve
ceased fighting pianos.
BD: You just bring out as much as you can?
Quillman: I just play the way I play, and it may
be a subconscious adaptation on my part. My hands may just adapt
BD: Is the music really flowing through your
hands, or are you becoming part of that music, and becoming the sound that
comes out of the piano?
Quillman: One hopes to be becoming the music
— mind, heart and hands. I think
of that when I play.
BD: When you’re recommending that young students
start studying a piece, or a series of pieces, do you have favorites that
you pick on all the time, or do you tailor each lesson plan to the individual
Quillman: Each individual. I’m always looking
for new things. I very seldom repeat myself.
BD: So, once you get beyond the basic technique...
Quillman: ...yes, then it’s very individual.
BD: How did you wind up in Uruguay?
Quillman: There was a competition there. When
I would compete, I’d see the same people in Spain and Italy, and you talk
about where the next contest was going to be, and try to make it. I
suppose I found out about it that way, and went to it.
BD: Did you win that competition?
Quillman: No, I didn’t win that one. I can’t
remember what I did, but I won a prize.
BD: Is that the best way to go for young pianists
— to do whole bunches of competitions?
Quillman: I found it was invaluable. When one
is from Chicago, and you spend maybe fifteen years competing, and playing
at the music clubs, and using up what Chicago has to offer. You
get very localized, and the competitions are really eye-opening. It
was wonderful. The first time I went to compete I didn’t do very well,
but it gave me a real sense of where I stood internationally. In Chicago
you get involved with all the local things, and all of a sudden you say,
“Here I am! I’m an American!” and you find this whole bigger scope
opens up. It’s valuable just for that.
BD: Is there any chance that all the studios and
all of the schools in America, and the world, are turning out too many
young concert pianists?
Quillman: Oh, I don’t think so. I think
there’s room. There aren’t enough halls. That’s what there’s
not enough of. People would love to play, but there aren’t enough
facilities, and there’s not enough support. That’s what we need.
We need small halls. There is wonderful talent, especially here in
BD: You have a son. Have you
encouraged him to go into music, or have you urged him to stay out of
Quillman: He went into music, and then he went
into business. [Laughs] His heart is with music, but he found
it wouldn’t support him.
* * * *
BD: You and the Trio play in a music shop?
Quillman: At the Steinway dealer, yes. It’s
a beautiful sound.
BD: Is that nice to play in that kind of environment?
Quillman: People have loved the series.
They think it’s wonderful to be so close to the musicians. It’s
informal, and very friendly. They love it. We’ll also be playing
at the Newberry Library, and while that will be a more formalized setting,
it will be the same kind of thing. We will be on a level with the
audience, so it’s going to be nice.
BD: Do you talk to the audience, and explain the
music a little bit, or just come out and play?
Quillman: We come out and play, but there is coffee
and sherry afterwards. That’s when we talk.
BD: Do you like the response that you get from
Quillman: We’ve gotten wonderful response.
I never dreamt that we would get such a lovely response. People love
BD: What advice do you have for audiences who come
to hear piano recitals, chamber music, even orchestra concerts?
Quillman: To enjoy it. Let the music come
BD: They shouldn’t be asked to do any work, or
be involved in the performance?
Quillman: No, no. If they became involved,
they’d get in the way. The less selfless that they are, the more
they’ll enjoy the music, and the more they’d listen. The less they
think the better. The music will speak to them.
BD: You view music as an emotion, rather than
a cerebral activity on the part of the listener?
Quillman: One could react to it emotionally,
but one doesn’t necessarily have to. A better term would be ‘spiritual’
rather than ‘emotional’.
BD: You seem to have the spirit of the music inside
you, and it comes out.
Quillman: I’d love it if that were true.
BD: What is next on the calendar for you?
Quillman: One of my goals is to perform Sowerby’s
Concerto. I’m going to be working on that as soon as I get
BD: You’ll learn it, and then induce someone to
Quillman: Absolutely, yes.
BD: What kinds of pianos do you have in your studio?
Quillman: I now have a Stein and a Knabe.
The Stein was one of 2000 made by a man who worked for Story & Clark,
and decided to go off on his own. It’s a very good piano, but he
couldn’t sustain his business, so he only made a few thousand.
BD: It’s got a good action, and a good feel?
Quillman: Yes, it’s a good piano.
Charles Frederick Stein established his firm in Chicago in 1924 after
many years of working with Mr. Hampton L. Story (of Story & Clark).
The factory was located at 3047 West Carroll St., Chicago. Mr.
Stein’s personal vision was to build the world’s finest pianos, and his
instruments were known to be of superior quality and craftsmanship.
Charles Frederick Stein went out of business in 1942 with the
onset of World War II. The firm only built pianos for 18 years, and
instruments by Charles Frederick Stein are quite rare today.
At first the firm built only grand pianos and grand player pianos,
but later introduced upright and studio pianos to their line in 1931. One
of Charles Frederick Stein’s more memorable inventions was a “tone chamber”
located between the strings and soundboard, patented in 1934.
BD: Do you like the response of the Knabe?
Quillman: Yes, it’s also a good piano.
BD: Do you always teach on one and let the student
play on the other, or do you go back and forth?
Quillman: Usually I teach on one, and have the
student on the other.
BD: I like being in this studio.
Quillman: It’s very Gothic. [After looking
around the room a bit, we came back to Sowerby] It was in 1962
that he sent me the manuscript of the Sonata.
BD: Then he was in Washington, DC?
Quillman: Yes. He sent it with the instructions
that I was just to copy the fugue, which is the third movement, because
he was still revising the first two movements. I had written to
him, asking him for a contest piece. I was in a scholarship competition,
and so he sent that to me to copy. In a letter he said, “It’s a pretty
good fugue, but it really tears the place apart!” He later sent
me two other copies, one that was complete and revised. Then in 1968
he sent me another copy, which I thought was strange. It just came
out of the blue, and he had a letter with it in which he told me that he
felt I deserved it. I wrote a thank you note, but didn’t have a stamp.
When I got the newspaper the next day, I read of his death, and I thought
that it was his way of communicating to me.
BD: You have been championing his music ever since?
Quillman: Ever since. I felt that it was
meant for me to do.
BD: Should every major composer have a champion,
either a conductor or a performer that will just simply focus in on that
one composer, and present the music?
Quillman: That happens, ultimately there seems
to be a person who sees something in the music that other people haven’t
seen. There is no other Sowerby! Sowerby is an outstanding
American composer, and people are just now beginning to realize the intrinsic
worth of the music. It’s unique. The Fugue
was the jolliest thing that he had ever written, and that’s when I decided
it was time to record it.
BD: I’m glad you’ve been able to interest the record
company in doing it.
Quillman: I am too, and it wasn’t hard going.
I had written to Angel Records and sent them a tape, and they recommended
me to New World. They were doing American twentieth-century music,
and in a few days they just accepted it, and agreed to do it. So,
it was very lucky.
BD: I’m glad he has such an able spokeswoman as you!
Quillman: Oh, thank you.
BD: Tell me about how you met William Ferris.
Quillman: We were both students of Sowerby. We
passed each other in the hall, and became quite friendly. There are
offices next to my studio here, and I was playing through the Sonata
a couple of years ago when John Vorrasi came to my
door and said, “That’s Sowerby! I know that’s Sowerby!” I said
it was. They were doing a ‘Remembering Leo concert’, and in conjunction
with that, they were having a program at the Newberry Library. So,
they asked me to play the Sonata there. That’s the night I
felt Sowerby was really with us. The Ferris Chorale was also going
to perform The Throne of God, and record it.
BD: Thank you so much for all of your work, and for speaking
with me today.
Quillman: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
© 1989 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Quillman’s
studio in Chicago on March 16, 1989. Portions were broadcast on WNIB
the following year, and again
in 1995 and 2000. This transcription
was made in 2022, and posted on this website
at that time. My thanks to
British soprano Una Barry for her
help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this
website, click here.
To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as
well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until
its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared
in various magazines and journals since 1980, and
he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to
visit his website for
more information about his work, including
selected transcripts of other interviews, plus
a full list
of his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.