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.

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...

wild 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.

BD:    Really???

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.

wild 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 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.

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 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.

BD:    You’re teaching young students how to play the piano and how to interpret the music.

EW:    Yes.

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.

wild 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 arrive!

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?

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 your religion?

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?

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 of years.

BD:    So you’re optimistic about the future?

wild 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 brilliantly!

EW:    [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.

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 it!

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 oneswho 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 eveningwho shall be namelessand 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.

BD:    Technically or interpretively?

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.

BD:    [Playing Devil
’s Advocate]  And yet you are part of the publicity machine from your promoters and record companies.

wild 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 when they who pick a young pianist who’s 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 careers? 

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 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.  

wild BD:    He was playing music?

EW:    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?

EW:    Everything
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?

EW:    [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 any hope?

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.

BD:    I’ve always liked the sound of the Baldwin.  It is a little more mellow sound, not as bright.

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 places.

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?

wild 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 legendary?

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 elseand 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.

BD:    [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. 


See my Interview with Christoph von Dohnányi

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.  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]

wild 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!

BD:    You mentioned transcriptions, and your latest recording is Rachmaninoff song transcriptions.

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?

EW:    No!  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 audience?

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 of you.

BD:    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 feware 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...

wild 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 McDonald’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.  Whether you like him or not, he’s a good conductor. 

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 two rehearsals???


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 Harris?

wild 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 also?

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?

EW:    No.  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 wayit’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 perfect?

EW:    No!  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!

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 transcriptions?

EW:    No, not the piano pieces, the orchestra pieces... and some of the symphonies and tone poems. 

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.

BD:    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 very much.


© 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - 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.