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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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?
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?
depends on the audience. Most audiences come with nothing!
BD: Is that
good or bad?
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.
where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the
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?
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 them.
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.
teaching young students how to play the piano and how to interpret the
you’re giving a concert, do you feel that you are teaching an audience?
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.
start looking for things that are not in the score?
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 play?
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 play well.
BD: Do you
feel that the music you play is for everyone?
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 of years.
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
[Smiles] 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.
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
advice do you have for conductors beyond just study?
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.
Technically or interpretively?
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
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
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
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 your records?
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?
Yes. 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 that.
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 instrument?
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 action?
— the pedals, the action, the hammers, the height where the
hammers strike the strings, how high they are. Everything has to
be taken care of.
BD: So you
have sent around a set of measurements, like for suit?
[Laughs] 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 with that.
always liked the sound of the Baldwin. It is a little more mellow
sound, not as bright.
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?
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 places.
created the first performance of a number of works. What are the
special difficulties of presenting a work for the very first time to
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
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?
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?
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.
[Surprised] 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 difficult.
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
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?
read things about it and they go hear it. They got to hear
something that they read about.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 of you.
What do you think of the idea of getting back to fortepianos,
harpsichords and ‘original’
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
back to more positive ideas, are there still conductors that you learn
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
BD: I like
him very much.
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
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
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 sought out and put
out front again, because we might as well play that as all the other
music we play.
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
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 change!
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 poems.
BD: The Tempest?
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
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
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.