Pianist Earl Wild
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Royland Earl Wild was born in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, in 1915. He was a musically precocious child and studied under
Selmar Janson at Carnegie-Tech University, and later with Marguerite Long,
Egon Petri, and Helene Barere (the wife of Simon Barere), among others. As
a teenager, he started making transcriptions of romantic music and composition.
In 1931 he was invited to play at the White House by President Herbert
Hoover. The next five presidents (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson), also invited
him to play for them, and Wild remains the only pianist to have played for
six consecutive presidents.
In 1937, Wild was hired as a staff pianist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra,
and in 1939 he became the first pianist to perform a recital on U.S. television.
Wild later recalled that the small studio became so hot under the bright lights
that the ivory piano keys started to warp.
In 1942, Arturo Toscanini invited him for a performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which was, for Wild,
a resounding success, although Toscanini himself has been criticized for not
understanding the jazz idiom in which Gershwin wrote. During World War II,
Wild served in the United States Navy playing 4th flute in the Navy band.
He often traveled with Eleanor Roosevelt while she toured the United States
supporting the war effort. Wild's duty was to perform the national anthem
on the piano before she spoke. A few years after the war he moved to the newly
formed American Broadcasting Company (ABC) as a staff pianist, conductor and
composer until 1968.
Wild created numerous virtuoso solo piano transcriptions including 14 songs
by Rachmaninoff, and works on themes by Gershwin. His Grand Fantasy on Airs from Porgy and Bess
was the first extended piano paraphrase on an American opera. He also wrote
a number of original works including a large-scale Easter oratorio, Revelations (1962), the choral work The Turquoise Horse (1976), and the Doo-Dah Variations on a theme by Stephen
Foster (1992) for piano and orchestra. His Sonata 2000 had its first performance
in 2003 and was recorded by Wild for Ivory Classics.
Wild recorded for several labels. Under his teacher, Selmar Janson, Wild
had learned Xaver Scharwenka's Piano Concerto
No. 1 in B-flat minor, which Janson had studied directly with the composer,
his own teacher. When, over 40 years later, Erich Leinsdorf asked Wild to
record the concerto, he was able to say "I've been waiting by the phone for
forty years for someone to ask me to play this".
In 1997 he was the first pianist to stream a performance over the Internet.
Wild, who was openly gay, lived in Columbus, Ohio and Palm Springs, California
with his domestic partner of 38 years, Michael Rolland Davis. He died aged
94 of congestive heart disease at home in Palm Springs.
Wild played often in the Windy City, including the
1970 world premiere with the Chicago Symphony of the Piano Concerto written for him by Marvin
David Levy, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]
In March of 1989, Wild was back in Chicago for a recital, and I had the
good fortune of meeting with him at the apartment where he was staying.
The conversation was good-natured and there was much laughter sprinkled into
the observations and words of wisdom.
While setting up to record our conversation, I commented that he looked
like a rock star because he was wearing sunglasses [which can be seen in the CD cover picture below],
and he mentioned that bright lights bothered his eyes. This led to my
asking about his being onstage where...
Bruce Duffie: ...you are literally in the spotlight!
Earl Wild: I
don’t pay any attention to that. Once I get started, I’m oblivious
to what else goes on. I can take it.
BD: Are you also
oblivious to the audience?
EW: No, you’re
always conscious of them. You can tell if your playing is going well
because they don’t move around too much. It’s quiet if you have
gained their interest, but if you play passages that are not really definite,
sometimes you can hear them stirring, and that’s always a very bad sign.
BD: Is it Earl
Wild that’s gained their interest, or is it Franz Liszt or Chopin?
EW: Oh, it’s
a combination. I’m one of those people that goes against that idea
of letting the composer speak for himself. He can’t! He has to
have an interpreter, and the interpreter is just as important as the composer
in that book.
EW: Yes, because
there’s so much in music that is so badly annotated first of all. Many
of the marks were placed in the music when it was first composed, and after
a few years of the interpreters playing the music they discovered better things
and better ways of doing it. Rachmaninoff once said to me that he would
have loved to have all his music put out in new editions because after he
had played it for so many years, there were so many markings that would have
been quite different. Where it’s going and where it’s been does change
with time. Therefore, to set anything is a very dangerous business.
It’s like taking a cake recipe to high altitude!
BD: Even if Rachmaninoff
had gotten his new scores, would the markings continue to change over years?
EW: I imagine
so. If you’re not willing to change as to you develop, it will die.
I’m sure that Beethoven in his sonatas would have made many different markings.
You cannot leave a pianissimo to a sudden forte or forte/piano without making
some kind of a concession. People who do this sound very stiff if they
don’t make that concession. That’s what I call ‘visual music’.
People look at the page and instead of listening.
BD: As far as
changes in markings or even changes in notes, how much interpretation do
you allow yourself?
EW: Only in certain
composers. For instance, if I see something in Liszt that would sound
better, often times like a bass note. On a modern piano, sometimes a
bass note placed in a different position will sound absolutely wonderful.
I have new editions of two volumes of Liszt that have just come out on Schirmer’s,
and I make all my suggestions concerning these changes on the bottom of the
page, but I don’t touch the original.
BD: If a young
pianist or even an experienced pianist tries these suggestions, do they then
have to play as you play to incorporate them?
EW: Oh, no!
The only way you can play well is if you do what you believe in. Most
people imitate. I know so many students who, when they’re going to play
in a piece, buy a recording of somebody that they like before they begin,
and from then on you have an imitation for quite a few years. You can’t
escape it. It’s like critics. To be a good critic you have to
have a preconceived notion of something. You have to have it.
If you go to hear the Beethoven Appassionata,
you have to have some idea of what to expect. So that is something
that’s preconceived, and if you don’t have that, you’re not a very good critic.
BD: Does the audience come with preconceived ideas,
or do they come with more open minds?
EW: It depends
on the audience. Most audiences come with nothing!
BD: Is that good
EW: I think it’s
all good. It’s just that when the artist sits up front, he’s spent his
whole life with this thing. People who are sitting in the audience come
to be ‘pleasured’, one way or the other, intellectually or emotionally.
BD: Then where
is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?
EW: I never thought
there was any difference because intellectual things are just as entertaining
as anything else. It depends upon where you want to be tickled or what
you expect. Entertaining music sometimes is considered to be a very
low-brow thing, but there is so much wonderful entertainment music in which
the listener can indulge his fantasies and his sadnesses, or his happinesses
or even his religion that one should never differentiate between that.
I like well-balanced programs that provide something for everyone.
BD: Do you feel
that every piece should touch everyone in a certain way?
EW: It can’t!
It’s impossible. You just have to hope for the best in music, and the
thing to do is to play the pieces that you like. I pick music that I
have an affinity for and that I like, and often times I like many pieces that
really don’t like me. I still enjoy playing them but I don’t program
BD: How can a
piece not like you?
EW: It’s our
psychic background; it’s our upbringing; it’s everything. Many times
people fall in love with people that they shouldn’t fall in love with, and
if they proceed and don’t recognize this, they get married and they have
a disaster on their hands. Music is the same way. Many people
in music that have fallen in love with the Muse, but the Muse doesn’t fall
in love with them!
BD: Do you feel
that you are married to each piece you program?
EW: I devote
a great deal of time to everything I play, and when I say time I mean years.
I don’t play pieces that I haven’t played for years. I learn new pieces,
but if they’re new they’re usually by composers whose music I have played
before and who I’m very familiar with. I’m familiar with the angles
of the composer. For instance, I often times learn a new piece of Liszt
or something of Beethoven that I haven’t played, but the thing that is good
about my attitude towards that is that I have taught this music for so many
years that I’m aware of all the angles. But teaching is one thing.
To pull it out of yourself is another thing. You have to go into it
just like you are a student, and if you don’t, then you get something that
might sound well inside but to the listener it doesn’t mean very much.
BD: You’re teaching
young students how to play the piano and how to interpret the music.
BD: When you’re
giving a concert, do you feel that you are teaching an audience?
EW: No, never.
That’s not my duty in life. Teaching is one thing. It’s very hard
to play in public pieces that you have recently taught because you become
terribly aware of all the pitfalls, and it becomes a very dangerous thing.
It’s better to just pick a repertoire that you’re not teaching at that time.
BD: With the vast amount of repertoire to be played,
how do you decide which works you will learn and will live with for a while?
EW: I pick things
that I love. There are millions of things that I love that I’m never
going to be able to play because I can’t live that long. I like to play
things that I’ve already known and heard everyone else play, and then I always
try to put something new in my repertoire. I learn a big piece that
I haven’t played before because if you don’t do that, you become very stale.
You become an ‘expert’ on something, and the minute you become an ‘expert’,
you’re playing starts going downhill, because you keep repeating. Beethoven
experts are the world’s worst pianists because they keep playing the same
32 sonatas year after year, and they keep growing worse or they become more
picky, or they become more bizarre, let’s say.
BD: They start
looking for things that are not in the score?
EW: That’s right.
There are so many things. Simplicity is the best thing that old age
offers. You drop all of the things that you thought were something before,
and it becomes less decorative.
BD: Do you also
come back to pieces that you have put aside for years?
EW: Oh yes, that’s
part of the business, because if you don’t put them aside and come back to
them, they grow to be rather old-hat sounding. I like to go back to
pieces that I haven’t played maybe for four or five years, and I fall in love
with them again. It’s so wonderful to do that because suddenly you
realize that things you thought were important before are no longer important.
It’s like looking back at your past life. That’s the only good thing
about growing old. When you look back, you can see the stress and strains
that should have never occurred.
BD: Then you
eliminate those this time around?
EW: Oh yes, it’s
such a wonderful feeling. It’s the only glimpse of heaven we’re ever
going to get.
BD: Until we
EW: I don’t think
we’re going to arrive there, but nevertheless...
BD: Do you not
feel that there’s an inspirational spark of the divine in the music that you
EW: That’s the
only reason I think I ever played the piano. I gave up religion when
I was ten years old because I couldn’t find in it something that was wonderful
and mysterious, and had all the things that religion has but without the business
of eternal damnation and all the foolishness that people talk about.
BD: Is music
EW: Oh yes, yes.
It’s a must. I feel that I was given the talent to work at music, so
my duty in life was to work at it and do it the best I could. You can
only do as well as you can, and one never knows how far you’ll go. But
it’s a wonderful life, and it’s a devotion which doesn’t lead particularly
to great financial things, but it is a wonderful way of life. It doesn’t
hurt anyone, and you have a certain feeling of great cleanliness when you
BD: Do you feel
that the music you play is for everyone?
EW: Oh, no.
If you put a litter of puppies under a piano and start to play, four of them
will run away screaming and two will stay and sleep! [Both laugh]
Some people are attracted to serious music, and some are not. You shouldn’t
shove music down their throats, but there is something to be said for the
schools and educating children in music when they’re very young because it
gives them something to hold onto as they grow older. Rock is pretentious
and it’s vulgar, and the authority usually comes from the wiggle of the artist.
The message is just dreary because you can get that message everywhere else
much better. It’s a terribly theatrical event, and rhythmically it’s
so old-hat. Even the most minor of the African tribes have better rhythms
and more complex rhythms. So therefore classical music has to be taught
in the schools early. As of now, many of the schools are very lacking
in that kind of education. All you have to do is look at the speech
in the schools. They’re not taught to speak either, so it’s all very
problematic. I think it’s going to straighten up in the next couple
BD: So you’re
optimistic about the future?
EW: Oh yes, very much. I was listening
to music the other day, and I thought that all of a sudden better music is
going to have something that is special because it demands attention and it’s
not egotistical. The listener doesn’t have to get up and show off,
and do their thing like wiggle their bodies! Better music has something
to attract people, and all of a sudden most of the very cheap music will
have the same effect as a bad restaurant where the food is cheap. It
has to have more texture and something that you can live with for a while.
To me there’s nothing sadder than seeing an aging rock star. No matter
how much money they’ve made, when you see this it’s very sad, and they live
in a whole phony world.
BD: You seem
to be almost ageless though! You keep going year after year and playing
Oh, I pretend I’m not getting older, but when the body will rebel then I’ll
have to stop! I’ve been very lucky because I don’t allow myself to give
in to the agonies. Every year you get another pain, or you get something
else, but you have to pretend that they’re not there, and it’s very helpful.
How long you can do this I don’t know, but I’ve been doing it rather well.
BD: Do you like
the life of a wandering minstrel?
EW: I don’t play
that much. I play maybe thirty concerts a year. I go to the Orient
every two years, and I play in England, I play in the United States, and sometimes
I go to South America, but not often.
BD: You did play
a lot more when you were younger?
EW: Yes, but
not too much more. I can’t take playing so much. The food is
terrible when you travel, especially it’s gotten consistently worse.
The hotels are less attractive, and then to play with orchestras is very
difficult because there’s never enough rehearsal time, and many of the young
conductors don’t know the music.
BD: Are we losing
a tradition of conductors?
EW: Not a tradition,
it’s just they think they can get away with something.
BD: You’ve worked
with the best including Toscanini and Stokowski.
EW: There are
a lot of good young conductors now. I just played with one the other
day. I think he’s conducted the Chicago Symphony. His name is
Joseph Giunta and he’s very good. He knew the
music, and it was wonderful. [Wild
and Giunta made a recording together which is shown at left.]
It’s so wonderful when you work with somebody who studied. I could name
you many who don’t study! [Laughs]
BD: What advice
do you have for conductors beyond just study?
EW: Well, that’s
BD: What advice
do you have for young pianists coming along?
EW: Try to think
original things to do. The Van Cliburn rodeo is coming up in the spring,
and the Russians have decided to send a lot of people. I am so tired
of listening to how much better the music is in Russia. When I taught
at Juilliard, I used to get Russian students from Moscow and from different
places, and I found that our American ones were just as good, and sometimes
better. It’s such a shame... There are so many people who study in our
great American schools — and there are maybe four or
five really first-class ones — who never get a break.
It’s given over to people who come from other countries, who are highly publicized,
who have small record contracts and who are bolstered by the publicity that
is given out by the record companies. I heard a pianist the other evening
— who shall be nameless — and I went because
I read all this publicity by the German record company. It was very
third-rate. There are at least a hundred pianists in the United States
who could have played the same program better.
EW: Every way.
You have to be very careful. In this country we should not always think
that if something’s new, or if you read how wonderful it is, that it really
is wonderful, because publicity has drowned out taste, and it is really terrible.
Devil’s Advocate] And yet you are part of the
publicity machine from your promoters and record companies.
EW: If you make records you have to have some kind
of promotion. They sell the records. But still, it’s funny.
My first record with RCA was in 1959 with Arthur Fiedler. I did the
Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris, and I never thought
that it would last. [Photo of original
record jackets is shown at right.] It’s still selling, and now
it’s on CD. It made more money for the Boston Pops Orchestra than any
other record that they ever put out, and it still sounds good, but I wasn’t
aware of it then. All during the 60s I made records that are still out.
BD: If you’d
known they were going to last this long, would you have done anything differently?
EW: Yes, in the
contracts! [Both roar laughing] But still, I’m not bitter about
that sort of thing.
BD: But would
you have changed anything interpretively or pianistically?
EW: I enjoy listening
to the old records because I don’t remember what it was like then. I
hear myself as an artist then and not as the way I feel now, and if the performance
has something, I’m very pleased. I don’t play that way today, but it
is me, and I enjoy hearing it because it’s nice to see how you come along.
It’s very hard. When I make a recording today and it comes out, I’m
not sure where it stands until ten years later when I sit down and listen
to it as though I’m listening to someone else.
BD: You need
to put that distance between recording and listening?
EW: Yes, oh yes.
There’s nothing worse right now in the record companies than these companies
who pick a young pianist who’s is very talented and could possibly be a very
great pianist, and they give him all the Mozart things to play and all of
the Beethoven things to play. They may have only played two or three
of them, and the rest of them are raw, and no matter how elegant or how shapely
they play them, they’re not going to be the same as when they really have
let them settle. So you get all of these performances which are standardized,
and they’re all sort of the same.
BD: Is there
any chance that we’re getting too many young pianists coming along wanting
EW: I don’t think
there is ever too many; the more the merrier! But one of the things
that should be revived is the recital because where are they going to play?
I know that in the eleven years I was at Juilliard, every year pianists came
out of that school who really had such great possibilities, not only technically
but in every way, and they’ve all disappeared.
BD: Are they
selling insurance, or something like that?
EW: I don’t know
what they’re doing. I guess they’re teaching in small universities.
It’s a very difficult thing, and you have to be terribly tough. There’s
a whole group now who are contest players, like when I was talking about the
Van Cliburn Rodeo. They get on their horse and they go to contests.
Some of them have been playing competitions for ten years, and I find that
rather terrible because instead of preparing for all that sort of thing, they
should be looking for unusual repertoire and developing their own artistic
thing, and doing it, and making a place for themselves instead of depending
on somebody else to tell them that they’re any good. Imagine waiting
around in life to have somebody tell you that you’re good after having prepared
yourself so much.
BD: Is not the
applause at the end of a concert the public telling you that you’re good?
EW: But that’s
totally different. You’re not in competition.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You’re really not in competition with your previous history and
EW: Oh, well
that. I don’t think that way because if you stop to think that way,
you’ll get very uptight and you’ll find yourself being nervous while standing
in the wings waiting to come out! That’s one of the things which are
part of the trouble with music today. It has become a competition,
and I don’t like that at all. It’s physical. In the old days,
a person like Cortot would be able to play a lot of clinkers but it was beautiful.
BD: He was playing music?
So when I listen to old records, I never mind if somebody plays a clinker
as long as it is in good context.
BD: Would you
want a clinker in one of your records?
EW: Well, you
see we live in a different period now because the CDs are a totally different
thing. In the old days it used to be very pleasant. It was the
sort of thing when somebody played a new record for their friends they might
say, “Now listen right here. He makes this mistake,
you see!” Nowadays they don’t want to go through
BD: Do you play
differently in a studio than you do in the concert hall?
EW: I try not
to because if you play or practice in a small room and on a small piano,
it’s very tedious when you get into a big hall because it then lacks projection.
And if you play with projection in a small room or a studio, it sounds noisy
and you start to diminish the tone to fit the studio, while if you play in
a larger hall, you can focus the attention on sending the tone out to the
last row of an auditorium. One has to feel the walls in the fingers
and in the ear before a good sound.
BD: Being a pianist,
you are subject to whatever instrument you are given in the various halls
that you play. How long does it take you to adjust to each different
EW: I play a
Baldwin, and the Baldwins are very good to me. They send a man from
New York, one of their head technicians, everywhere I play at least three
days before, and he looks over the instruments and corrects everything.
Other piano companies don’t do that so much, but I’m very lucky and I very
rarely have any problems like that. In the places I usually play, they
have four or five concert grands stationed, so the best one is picked out
and then it’s worked on, it’s gone over. People never think that they
have to have anything done to the piano other than having it tuned.
BD: He will adjust
— the pedals, the action, the hammers, the height where the hammers
strike the strings, how high they are. Everything has to be taken care
BD: So you have
sent around a set of measurements, like for suit?
Well... the technicians know that, and there’s only a few ways you can fix
a piano and make it sound. But at least if you have an instrument that
has problems, it can be taken care of. But there are so many piano companies
who really don’t care. They go on their name, and it’s desperate for
the artist. So many artists have shifted around the last couple of
years, all wishing they hadn’t started the shifting!
BD: Is there
EW: I don’t know.
I really don’t know. I’ve been with the Baldwin company for about fifty
years. I’m very pleased with my Baldwin, and when I make records on
them, I’m very pleased, and no one has ever said anything about the instrument.
The fact is that I had a wonderful review for one of my late records in the
Gramophone, the English magazine.
They’re speaking about how beautiful the Baldwin sounded, so I was very pleased
BD: I’ve always
liked the sound of the Baldwin. It is a little more mellow sound, not
EW: Well, when
you talk about the sound of the piano, it depends on the technician who has
taken care of it and how they have prepared it, because pianos have a million
sounds. When you talk about sounds of the piano, you usually mean the
one where you sit down and just play it that moment, because it’s a very difficult
situation. [For more on this topic,
see my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician of Steinway &
Sons during the period 1968-1992.]
* * *
BD: Do you purposely
search out unusual virtuosic repertoire?
EW: Not really!
In the case of the new Medtner album, when I was about fourteen or fifteen,
the famous Russian composer came to Pittsburgh. I was a student there
studying under Gretchaninov, and he was a guest of the YMHA. I had friends
who introduced him to me, and through an interpreter we had a slight conversation.
They told him I was a pianist, and he asked me if I had ever played any Medtner.
I said I hadn’t, and that I’d never heard his name. So he sent me four
pieces, and I was so pleased because after that I played a lot of Medtner.
I heard Rachmaninoff play some Medtner, and Gilels played Medtner as did
quite a few other big named pianists. Then I met Medtner’s nephew,
who lived on Long Island, and he could only play the piano after he had maybe
two or three drinks because he was a very highly nervous man. We went
to his home one evening, and he refused to play at first. After a few
drinks we asked him again and he played for at least two hours. It
was wonderful, and all Medtner. I just love his music, and so I’m very
pleased to have at last done an album. In 1910 Rachmaninoff said that
Medtner was the greatest composer for the piano since Chopin, and Glazunov
said he was the savior of music! So he wasn’t without admirers in important
BD: You’ve created
the first performance of a number of works. What are the special difficulties
of presenting a work for the very first time to the world?
EW: It’s your opinion the first time playing a
composition, and if anyone plays it afterwards they always look to that as
a guide. It’s always interesting. As you know I was with Toscanini
in the NBC Symphony for eight years in the keyboard department, and when
he played the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony
for the first time I played in this piece. After he finished, he put
the baton down on the stand and said, “After me come
the interpreters!” It was very interesting because
he had memorized that piece in two weeks. It’s an hour and some minutes
long, and he even corrected parts during the rehearsals. So it was a
great display of his genius. He was probably the most unusual of all
the conductors that I’ve ever worked with, and the greatest genius.
He lived a little too long because he outlived his period of music.
Stravinsky had come along and Toscanini couldn’t do very much with things
like Petrushka. It was foreign
to him. He did it, but it was foreign to him and he was not comfortable.
But the things in which he had worked with the composers, like Puccini and
all these people one after the other... He showed me a handkerchief
that Wagner had given him. It was a big handkerchief, a large one that
looked like a lady’s scarf, and was all covered with embroidery daisies.
It was very beautiful. It was loud but beautiful! He must have
been maybe fifteen or sixteen at the time, and it’s always a shock to hear
that from someone. When I was in my early teens, I knew people who had
played with Brahms. Egon Petri told me once that he talked to a man
who had heard Beethoven, and the review wasn’t good! [Both laugh]
BD: Does this
make the continuity of music — knowing someone who
heard this or that performer, and playing with other performers who became
EW: No, it’s
just interesting. I don’t think there’s any continuity because we have
the blue prints of what is to be done. Toscanini also said that tradition
was only bad taste handed down!
BD: Are there
no good traditions?
EW: Very few!
BD: When you
play some of the Liszt transcriptions of Wagner, do you hear the sound of
Toscanini’s orchestra in your ear?
EW: I wish I
could because they were so wonderful. His Wagner playing was so marvelous.
You knew that he had heard everything before. But I think orchestrally
when I play because the first money I ever made in music was by making orchestra
arrangements for small groups and then larger groups. When I went to
New York City I had a difficult time — like everyone
else — and by accident I met the head of an advertising
agency who gave me a weekly job making orchestral arrangements for two comedians
on the radio named Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd! They were very amusing
and they paid a very nice salary every week, and that helped me to get started.
I’ve always been grateful for that because when I look at music, I don’t look
at it as piano music. When you look at a Beethoven sonata, you see
something that immediately could become a symphony with a few adjustments.
BD: Are there
some composers who write pianistically rather than orchestrally?
EW: Yes, Chopin
wrote pianistically, but still in the background one can hear all of the implications.
In the Polonaises you have to hear
the horns and the fanfares and the tune that’s played by the strings.
So I always sort of orchestrate things in my head before I begin, and then
it also allows you to color the pieces better. We often go to recitals,
and very little attention is paid to the bass line in the music and the middle
voices. I don’t like it when the middle voices are so belligerent that
they drown out the original intent of the music, but it is marvelous to hear
as though you were listening to a Brahms symphony with the violas and the
cellos and the second violins weaving the ideas. If the orchestration
is correct you can always hear the melody, and I try to think like that because
it’s much easier to play like that. Otherwise you’re just trapped with
the instrument, the piano.
BD: So then it’s
the pianist’s job to bring all of this out and balance everything?
EW: Oh yes.
That’s why I love to play transcriptions. The problem is always the
balance, and it makes you think a little more. In so many recordings
today, attention is never paid to the bass. You listen and you hear
all the top, and the bass is something that’s dragging along. Most music
is written from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Really??? It’s not the melodic line filled in with harmony and colors?
EW: No, the structure
comes from the bass, especially in the 18th century music. It’s all
from the bottom up. Nowadays you hear all the tootling at the top!
It’s a very amusing conception that everyone has, and for years I used to
tell my pupils, “Oh, if we could only roll the first
chord of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto!
How beautiful it would be because it would be like someone starting to improvise,
and then it would evolve from there, and then the orchestra would take it
up!” All of a sudden, a few weeks ago I pick up
a magazine and there’s a big article on the Fourth Concerto, and it said that it was
so marvelous that the pianist rolled the first chord because it sounded so
natural! When something is natural, it’s good. It’s a problem
only when you don’t approach something with the natural feeling... unless
you approach it with too much fear or too much concern being dedicated to
the composer’s every wish. A lot of composers didn’t have every wish,
you know. I knew a lot of composers in my time, and they were the easiest
people in the world to talk to. It was only the interpreters who were
BD: You yourself
are also a composer?
EW: Oh, I’ve
written a lot of things but I stopped writing for a while, and I’m dying
to get back to writing something because it’s such a relief after playing.
It’s one of the greatest feelings. It takes care of everything with
you. It sets you straight again, but not with the idea that is going
to be played. I was trapped in between the end of the Romantic period
and the new Modern music, with our American music coming forward, and then
came the Serialists. I was trapped in all of this, and I experimented
with everything and didn’t know which way to go. It’s like so many
of the composers in the 40s. Poor Mr. Fromm gave all this money to
Tanglewood every year. [See my Interview with Paul Fromm.]
I used to go there every year to hear things, and they kept writing the same
piece for thirty years for each other in Serial style. There’s nothing
that has lasted in the repertoire.
BD: Whose fault
is it that it’s not in the repertoire — is it the composition’s
fault or is it the public’s fault?
EW: It’s the
composer’s fault because they all wrote for each other and they try to show
off their new technique. The serial writing in and of itself is not
viable. It’s just a little branch on the tree of music. It can
be used, but they all use it to the Nth degree. The public hated it;
they didn’t accept it and the musicians hated it.
BD: Is it now
a withered branch?
EW: No, it’s
all right now because it’s part of the music. It can be used, but at
that time there was the leaf on the tree, and so the composers who wrote
like that in the 40s and 50s are now writing in a more simple fashion that’s
acceptable. They should have been writing like that in the 40s and
50s. I go to many modern concerts hoping to find something that I really
love, and I very rarely find something. But once in a while I do, and
it’s wonderful. I dismiss minimalism. Minimalism is the wart
in the pickle of progress! [Both laugh]
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You don’t want
to hear an A major chord for twenty minutes?
EW: Oh, it’s
so depressing! It’s the humming of a million bees.
BD: Why then
does it have the huge following?
EW: People read
things about it and they go hear it. They got to hear something that
they read about.
BD: When you’re
composing, do you reject Minimalism, and reject Serialism?
EW: I don’t reject
Serialism because it can be very amusing, but that’s all. When you think
of Schoenberg who wrote such beautiful Romantic music at the beginning, and
then went off into the Serialism, it showed in his face and it showed in
his actions. He was so unkind to everybody after he got into Serialism.
He became a monster! He was unkind to everybody, and in his lectures
he spent one hour on five bars of a Beethoven sonata. I don’t know what
happened to him, but it was a peculiar thing, and I think he did a great injustice
to music. If you have any enemies, send him a copy of his Ode to Napoleon!
You mentioned transcriptions, and your latest recording is Rachmaninoff
EW: That’s my
favorite record! I spent a whole year on this. Michael and I
go to Santa Fe every summer for the opera season for two months, and I wrote
the first set of fourteen out there. Then I got back to New York, and
I wrote them out again with changes to take out all the extraneous things
that were gnawing, and then I wrote them out again. You can imagine
fourteen of them was quite a bit. Then during the recording session
I made a few changes, but I have all the music and we’ve had requests from
all over the world. Four of them have been recorded in Germany, and
three or four in Japan. They request them so we send them the music.
BD: That must
give you satisfaction.
EW: Oh yes!
It’s very nice because my Gershwin transcriptions also have been recorded
by other people, which I like very much, and it’s always amusing to hear them
because you get so close to them and then you hear something a little different.
I don’t mind!
BD: You play
a lot of Gershwin. Is he especially close to you heart?
You know what happened... In 1942 I was in the NBC Symphony and Toscanini
asked me to play the Rhapsody in Blue.
I didn’t know the piece so I learned it and played it, and the next day I
was an expert! That’s what fell on me like a rock. But I do like
the Gershwin songs, and I like Porgy and
Bess. I think it’s a marvelous piece.
BD: Let me ask
the big philosophical question. What is the purpose of music in society?
EW: We should
stop talking about it so much! Everybody is asking questions and no
one’s doing anything. If you’re a composer and you have a feeling about
something, sit down and write it. Don’t say what it’s about and don’t
write any program notes. The program notes are the funniest things
I’ve ever read. I think a great comedy book could be made of all the
program notes of the last period because they are hysterical. In the
40s they all used to go with Theseus into the labyrinth and lose the strength.
Now it’s all space talk and all sorts of things, and they talk about things
that not even Freud would have approached! Then you hear the music and
it says nothing! Oh, it’s depressing. So it’s better for composers
to shut up and write and let the music stand up because the audience needs
to be able to imagine. Give them a break!
BD: Are you good
EW: Oh, yes!
Oh, sure! I understand all of the difficulties and what not. If
somebody comes out and you feel sincerity in their playing, then I can enjoy
it. It’s only when somebody comes out and they want to show off, or
they come out like student and they look at the piano like a monster and they’re
not attached to it.
BD: Is the piano
your friend, or is the piano only an extension of your fingers?
EW: Oh, my dear,
it’s you! It’s an extension of you but you’re there. It’s part
What do you think of the idea of getting back to fortepianos, harpsichords
and ‘original’ instruments?
EW: I think that’s
terribly nice for tea parties and for little societies of people who want
to be different. But if you have a lovely country house, you’re not
going to put an outside John in it so you have to run out of the house if
you wish to go to the bathroom. It’s very nice to hear these instruments
as a historical event, to hear what they really sounded like, but none of
them — well, I was going to say none, but let’s say
very few — are kept in the kind of shape that makes
them plausible. I heard a recording of Peter Serkin playing Beethoven
sonatas played on a fortepiano, and it’s the most terrible thing. It
sounds like a bar piano on the Barbary Coast!
BD: And yet this
is what Beethoven heard...
EW: [Interrupting] Oh, I’m not sure.
The pianos had to be in better shape. Naturally his piano didn’t project
like the ones that came immediately afterwards, or that Liszt had made, but
at least they were plausible for their time. These things that they
pull out and play for us now make me laugh! It’s very funny. In
London I went to this famous collector’s home, and I played on every type
of instrument that was made since Bach’s day. The one that I liked the
most was the Clementi piano that had an echo effect on it. It was beautiful.
It was small but beautiful. The fortepianos didn’t seem to sound as
well, and their sound wasn’t elegant at all. I understand that at Harvard
they are going to restore Wagner’s piano. That’s all very nice and
it’s historical and it’s wonderful, but it’s a fragile business and it’s
only imagination. So I prefer to deal only modern instruments.
BD: Let’s go
the other direction. Should you be dealing at all with electronic
keyboards or synthesizers?
EW: I heard one.
The only problem is that the people who play them are not very educated in
music. If there were a genius at all we’d really hear something, but
electronic music has a very cheap sound. It’s the difference between
a MacDonald’s and Maxim’s. When the average man begins to hear this,
they’re going to be very disappointed. The only thing that electronic
music has done so far is given a lot of people jobs and an opportunity to
play background music, which is the humming effect all the time. It’s
great for soap operas because they hum along anyway. It’s really dreary
and it’s funny. It’s like when they have a Western and you hear a rock
orchestra playing rock music while there’s a Western going on. It’s
like painting the mustache on the Mona Lisa! It’s really dreadful.
There’s one nice thing about the whole business. It’s terribly funny
and as long as you don’t allow yourself to become angry you can put up with
it. But because many people are angry they make these terrible explosive
statements. It’s just a matter of progress, but there will be someone
to come along and the electronic thing will improve. Always there will
be somebody wonderful who comes along, but of course I won’t be here.
I don’t think you will be here either, even though you are very young!
We have to understand that, and I bought one of the instruments because I
wanted to know what was going on. I don’t believe in talking about the
enemy without knowing them.
BD: You feel
it’s the enemy?
EW: More or less.
At the moment it is, but it will get better. As soon as someone comes
along who really has the ability and the education. It’s the easiest
thing to make funny noises on those instruments. Just look at their
hands when they play. Their hands look like they belong to a corpse,
and they pound. It’s really dreadful.
* * *
BD: Coming back
to more positive ideas, are there still conductors that you learn things from?
EW: Oh, sure!
There’s certain motion that comes with the great conductor. They understand
motion and where it’s going. They understand where to hold it in.
It’s like being a jockey. You see that in all the great conductors,
or at least the good ones, like Leinsdorf. [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]
Whether you like him or not, he’s a good conductor.
BD: I like him
EW: Yes, I do
too. The good ones always have a nice long meeting with you before
the rehearsal with the piano. They talk about everything, and you play
and you make suggestions. A person I like very much is Aaron Copland.
When you’re new at conducting, you don’t have any fear. It’s something
that is not so easy, and he was such a talented man, a nice person.
A dream boy, really nice, and gentle and witty, but when he first started
to conduct he had no idea what it was like. He asked me to play his
concerto because I had recorded it with him, and recording is different.
You do it over and over, so after I had recorded it with him he asked me
to play it with him and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia.
This is way back [in 1962], and
the concerto was new to everybody, so I took the date. He had one rehearsal
in the morning and one in the afternoon, each of two and a half hours.
You won’t believe this, but it was wonderfully programmed. There was
an overture, I forget what it was, something by Lenny Bernstein, and then
he played Billy the Kid and the
piano concerto, and a Shostakovich, I think it was the Tenth Symphony, which the orchestra had
never played before.
BD: With only
To read my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Jorge Mester, click HERE.
A CD re-issue of this album (below) shows Copland conducting the sessions...
EW: All this
with two little rehearsals. He didn’t know what he was doing, and he
got there and he said, “The Chicago Orchestra can play
anything.” That’s the attitude, which is scary.
When Frank Miller [principal cellist for
Toscanini (1940-54) and then principal with the CSO (1959-85)] said
to me, “What are we going to do?”
I said, “Tell everybody to count eighths in the hard
spots, and no matter what he does, just go forward.”
So we got through it, but I almost died! It took ten years off my life!
He’s such a nice man. I really liked him and got to know after that,
but every time he’d call me to play the concerto, I told him I was going
to be in China or Germany or some place because no matter what they paid,
I couldn’t face it! You know whose symphony I really love is Paul Creston’s
Second Symphony. There needs
to be a new recording of that. There was an old one by the National
Symphony, and I love that piece. It’s not anything terribly intellectual
but it’s done so well rhythmically. It’s called the ‘Dance Symphony’. [Note: Wild was soloist in the world premiere
performance of Paul Creston's Piano Concerto in France in 1949, and he later gave the American
premiere of the work with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.]
A lot of pieces like that exist. There was a lot of good music written
between 1900 and 1950 that’s not played at the moment.
BD: Like Roy
EW: Yes. I have to tell you about him.
Toscanini liked the Third Symphony
of Roy Harris, which is his best piece, I think. And at one time, Frank
Black [shown in photo at left] was
conducting the Fifth Symphony of
Roy Harris with the NBC Symphony, and I went to the rehearsal. I was
the only one there in the audience. They allowed me to come in because
they knew my face! So all of a sudden, Toscanini appeared and he came
over to see who was sitting there. When he got close enough, he recognized
me and sat down beside me. All during the rehearsal he kept muttering,
and when it was over he looked at me and said, “It’s
full of shit!” [Both roar laughing] He hated
the Fifth, but the Third is good. There’s lots of interesting
things from that period that need to be sought out and put out front again,
because we might as well play that as all the other music we play.
BD: Howard Hanson
EW: Some things
of Howard Hanson. I like his Romantic
Symphony, but the only performance I know is the one with Charles Gerhardt
that was made for the Reader’s Digest. It’s really good, and
he added a couple of little things. He readjusted a few spots, which
nobody paid attention to. Well, everybody did it! Toscanini used
to do it all the time, you know. He would redo all the winds in anything,
even in Tchaikovsky. In Manfred
he added four horns instead of one at the beginning! It was wonderful!
BD: Is there
any chance that’s a fraud?
If Tchaikovsky would have heard it he would have loved it! Let’s face
it, we’re all interested in projecting what has to be projected, and if something
like this can help — rather than have one person play
real loud and try and get this thing out in a dramatic way — it’s
better to have four play with beautiful sound. It gives that feeling
of just being wonderful that way. It is wonderful when you have a composer
you don’t have to fool around with at all, like Brahms. There, everything
is perfect. Mendelssohn is perfect, Tchaikovsky is perfect.
BD: Is Liszt
Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky probably the most two perfect orchestrations.
You wouldn’t want to change anything. I think it’s wonderful.
Other pieces sometimes you want to change. Liszt you always want to
BD: Would Liszt
be glad you that you had changed his ideas?
EW: I think so,
I really think so! Not the piano concertos, though.
BD: The song
EW: No, not the
piano pieces, the orchestra pieces... and some of the symphonies and tone
BD: The Tempest?
EW: Yes, things
like that. Les Preludes is
very good. That’s really good, and the best performance I heard of that
was by Toscanini. It was always divine. You knew from beginning
to the end what the relationship was between everything, and it was as though
you heard for the first time. You always hear that at pops concerts
when they run it through! That’s all you get.
One last question. After all is said and done, is playing piano fun?
EW: Oh, I love
it. It’s everything.
BD: Thank you
for coming back to Chicago and for speaking with me today.
EW: Thank you
© 1989 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 9, 1989.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day, and again in 1990, 1995,
and 2000. This transcription was made in 2015, 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.
winning broadcaster 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.