This interview was conducted by George Bedell, Associate Editor-in-Chief of SHUMEI Magazine.
This fall the legendary pianist Earl Wild gave a concert, “Wild in Pasadena,” as part of the Shumei Arts Council of America’s 2002 ? 2003 concert series. Among the pieces he played were Mozart’s Sonata in F minor K. 332, Beethoven’s 32 variations in C minor, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, as well as works of Chopin and Liszt.
Born in 1915, Mr. Wild has been a major figure in the performing arts for well into seven decades. He has played to acclaim throughout the world and, among the many publications in which he has appeared, was twice featured in Time Magazine articles. Mr. Wild also has the singular distinction of being invited to play before six US Presidents. In 1997, he received a GRAMMY for the CD, “Earl Wild -The Romantic Master,” which was devoted entirely to his own piano transcriptions.
The concert took place in Shumei Hall, Pasadena, on November 17, 2002. Mr. Wild played with a profound passion, and yet a subtle touch. The performance was brilliant, remarkable for its fluidity and grace. Judging from the audience’s unreserved ovations and it’s size, the largest for the series so far, it was the most successful concert held in Shumei Hall, Pasadena, to date.
SHUMEI Magazine: You are referred to as “The Last Great Romanic Pianist.” Are you?
Earl Wild: When they call me the last of the Romantics, I always have to laugh because I have lived through so many of the “last-ofs” that came before me. So, I’m the last one in line because I’m the oldest one of them now. It’s very amusing for me to be put in that category. It doesn’t mean anything really — except to some people who try to put a moniker on everything, no matter what it is.
S.M: So, you suspect that you are not the last of the Last Great Romanic Pianists?
E.W: Oh, yes. And, some day soon, I might even predict the next one.
S.M: Rather like a Dalai Lama.
E.W: Yes. While the last one is dying, the next one is being crowned. It is sometimes very amusing. And sometimes the winners of that title don’t really deserve it. Yet, if you last long enough, you might be able to progress enough so that something good happens when you play. Most people don’t progress as they grow older. They go to Florida to die or play golf.
S.M: I’ve been rather holding out for that option.
E.W: Oh, don’t you do that! Keep busy at something. You’ll be happier. People would be much happier if they kept busy.
S.M: What does the word “Romanic” mean to you?
E.W: We usually think of Romantic as something fiery and passionate, like lovemaking or battles. It can be anything that has a lot of action. It could even be an early western. It has such a wide range of meaning. It is really a feeling more than anything else.
S.M: Another Romantic with whom you have an affinity, Franz Liszt, like you was not only a fine musician but also a fine transcriber of other’s music and composer of his own music. Did your background as a composer and transcriber affect the way you play piano?
E.W: I think that any musician who can write music has an advantage over those who do not. This is because by writing music you understand it better. You understand the structure of it, where it is going, you see the whole picture.
Liszt was wonderful. He opened up the gateway to modern music. For instance, his creation, “The Fountains of the Villa d’Este” was really some of the first wonderful water music. Ravel followed it with “Jeux d’eau,” and, of course, Respeghi followed with his “Fountains of Rome.”
S.M: Do the insights that you gain by being a composer who plays other people’s music lend freshness to your approach because you understand the process a composer was going through while writing that music?
E.W: I keep the music fresh by allowing it to happen while it is happening. I don’t set it. When you set it, it becomes like stale jelly. Sometimes my interpretation is affected by the lighting, sometimes by the atmosphere, whether cold or warm, and sometimes by the instrument, itself. If you have that flexibility, the audience feels the ease at which the music is coming out. It doesn’t matter whether it is a little bit this way or a little bit that way, so long as one phrase connects well with the next. In that way, it is like good speech. It follows through and comes out better.
S.M: You are primarily known for your interpretations of 19th century music, but recently you have recorded works by 20th century composers, such as Barber, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. Is this a departure for you, or new venture, or have you always been interested in 20th century music?
E.W: Oh, I’ve always been interested in it. In the late-fifties, ten years after the Hindemith Third Sonata was written, I recorded it. I recorded his Second Sonata before that. I knew Stravinsky, and I liked his music very much. And Samuel Barber was a good friend of mine. So, I knew the three composers that I chose to record. I like each one of them, and I like them in this order: Barber, Hindemith, Stravinsky.
S.M: You have known and worked with many impressive people in the music world. Is there anything that you could share with us about the fellow pianists that you knew?
E.W: Well, I knew Rachmaninov and liked him very much. He was the pianist. But I also had met Joseph Hoffman. Joseph Hoffmann was a strange person. As great as he was as a pianist, he was an even greater auto mechanic. He invented parts that were used on the Rolls Royce automobile. He worked in the garage a lot. I think he preferred working in the garage to what he did on the piano. His playing had a wonderful clarity to it. It was precise, and its tone was beautiful. And he had small hands, which sometimes is helpful. When you have big hands, you have more problems.
S.M: (Anyone who has shaken hands with Mr. Wild knows that he has a large, firm grip.) But I thought that a wide span of fingers benefited a pianist.
E.W: No. Small hands can be much more flexible, which makes the tone better. Big hands sit right on top of the keys and can sound clunky if you are not careful.
(Those who heard Mr. Wild at Shumei Hall will testify that his deft touch sounded anything but “clunky.”)
E.W: But it’s not really a matter of size, it’s a matter of the brain. When you teach people, you deal with all different kinds of brainwork. Some students use their right hand as their guide, others their left. You never know where direction is going to come from. They have to find out for themselves, because I can’t tell them. As they find out, I only can help them to be flexible. And that is really what good piano playing is all about. The moment anybody plays stiffly, whether their hands are stiff or their arms are stiff, it comes out like that. You can hear it in the sound. It’s a big problem. That is why it is better to start when you are very young.
S.M: You have taught at Juilliard and Eastman, among other fine schools. You do not have to teach, yet you do. What draws you to helping young musicians?
E.W: It’s mysterious. It is a mystery because you can’t tell someone how to play something. But you can find out what works for them. That is always very interesting. Teaching is certainly better than opening a magazine or watching television. I enjoy digging into a personality and finding out what makes the coordination work and what makes the beautiful sound. You know, young people can’t catch it all at once. It has to be worked at for years. You hope that their minds are fertile enough to continue the development that occurs as you work with them.
The minute a piano teacher says to you, “Do it this way, this is the right way,” you should immediately find another teacher because there is no one way of doing it right. Sometimes what works for one person doesn’t work at all for another. You have to work with them, watch them, and see how they react. You have to see what goes on with their neck while they play because a lot of people get stiff in the neck while playing, and you can hear it in their tone. Often times in moments of great stress, you forget to breathe because of the tension. But a good teacher can catch all that. And if one learns to breathe during the very difficult spots, it’s much easier to play. You need oxygen to continue and if it is not there, trouble begins. The muscles tighten.
There are people who say that the tone comes from here or it comes from there. But it all works together. It’s a natural thing. It is only when you are relaxed that it all comes together and music begins to happen. It is like life; once you become too definite, too set about something, you are finished. That’s what causes a lot of divorces!
Balance is another thing; how your ear tells you what to do with your fingers. Then there is the physiological thing, how your mind works. The fingers do absolutely nothing; it all comes from the mind. If you don’t have the feeling, if you are only taught to play with your fingers, you will never get anywhere and it’s ugly. It is important to train the fingers to do what the mind tells them, not to let the fingers be on their own. It’s very easy to do that and when you do, it becomes mechanical. There are lots of people who are wonderful mechanics on the instrument, but they’re also very boring. Often times they’re very accurate, and so everyone says, “Oh, they are so accurate.” Accuracy is not such a great accomplishment in my book. If you are relaxed and have a good sensibility about the emotional state that you are trying to display in the music, the playing can be very accurate as well. It is only when the emotions become befuddled and you are not sure where you are going with the music that all of a sudden you have to fall back on finger practices. It becomes just detail work.
S.M: As you may know, the Shumei Arts Council creates and sponsors children’s concerts. It’s one of their most successful programs. They also have created a venue in which young people can perform.
E.W: That’s wonderful. Children play music that excites them, that does something for them. It makes them broader people and it feeds their imagination. Also, it feeds their desire to go forward and do more.
Some children are apt to take in too much of this television junk and that Rap stuff. “Crap stuff” is what I call it. It’s annoying to anyone who has any sensibilities.
But every generation has its popular music. We’ve had Rock, but that’s starting to fade. No one knows what the new thing will be. I remember Arthur Fiedler coming back to Boston from England and telling me that he had just heard this new group play in a small town in England. He said he really didn’t know what it was they were doing, but that it was really something, and that you had to give them credit for what they were doing. They were called the Beatles, and he thought they were going to be big.
Arthur was very smart, he was a very fine musician, and I miss him very much.
People used to say that Fiedler disliked children. He did not dislike children. He disliked their parents, who let them misbehave. In the Boston Pops, he would often invite teenagers, even twelve-year-olds, to perform in the orchestra. And if they were a little bit nervous about it, he would have an extra rehearsal after the main one, with just a few musicians, a few strings, woodwinds, and one bass to go over the spots that they were nervous about.
He was a very fine man. He made more money for the Boston Symphony than anyone else, and they never appreciated him in Boston.
S.M: So many of the young musicians that we hear at Shumei Hall are so impressive. Do you find that there are more very good young people playing today than in the past?
E.W: Oh, yes. Well, first of all, it’s all the exposure that they have. And they enjoy it so much. The thing that you have to be careful of is that they understand why they are playing and what it is about, that the music they play is a projection of their thoughts and emotions, not just wriggling their fingers.
You have to gain the confidence of young people so that they are willing to try everything. You do not say, “This is how you do it.” Because the minute you say that, you are finished. You simply have to allow music to happen. It’s poetic. Of course, “poetic” has a very wide range of meaning. It can be anything that you want it to be, but then there is a certain wonderful thing about that.
That is why composers who purposely try to write “Romantic” music often times fail. They fail because they get trapped in the writing of it. One of the things that is very important about being a composer is the ability to improvise. Without the ability to improvise, you should never try to write music. Improvisation is the secret of all great composition.
I was fortunate because I was able to improvise very well. I still can. And, I can improvise in any style that you want me to because I am so old that I have played almost every piece that was popular on the concert stage, and I have developed an understanding of the composers’ thoughts. That sounds like bragging. But, I am not. Because there are so many people who become Beethoven experts, and just because they play all the 32 sonatas doesn’t mean they are any good. There is not one person alive today that can play all 32 and play all of them really well. They can play eight or ten of them very well, and the rest are always ordinary.
S.M: Then this improvisational gift and the ability to relax and let the music happen directly affects the sense of play and brightness that is heard in a performance.
E.W: Yes, exactly. Because, as you know, in a poetic sense, if you are out in the woods and it’s springtime and the sun is out and you are running through the leaves, the joy of it is so wonderful that you don’t stop to think about it. You don’t stop and analyze what you are doing; it is just there. If you play music that way, it just comes out, and people can hear it. In my lifetime, I have heard so many big-name pianists play in such a square fashion that it was revolting. And, I often wondered how they achieved the place that they were given. But, that’s life.
(Mr. Wild reflects a moment, then chuckles.)
And, of course, the worst thing a person can do is think that he is positively right about everything all the time ? that’s what starts wars!
S.M: You studied under Egon Petri, who in turn was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni’s Piano Concerto has been said to be late Romanticism at its most overblown and over-the-top, the piano concerto to end all piano concertos. Have you ever considered playing it?
E.W: Egon Petri once gave me a copy of the concerto when I studied with him. It was a big volume. I never thought it was very good. He asked me one day why I didn’t bring it in with me, and I said, “Oh, it’s too heavy.” He laughed.
It’s a piece that really never made it because the piano parts are not all that good, and it is boring in spots. No matter what you do with it, it can’t get any better. Every once in a while someone comes along and revives it. The critics at this moment are prone to praising anything Busoni ever did. He wrote a terrible opera, “Doctor Faustus.” That’s another example. It was never accepted as a masterpiece. I have heard it many times in my life ? more than most people. It just doesn’t come off. It is pseudo-intellectual, which I hate. There are so many pseudo-intellectuals around. They couldn’t give you a performance of Beethoven’s Minuet in G without making it sound stiff.
And I love intellectuals. They are the joy of my life ? but not when they play the piano.
S.M: So, I take it you lead from your heart.
E.W: Well, yes. That’s the only thing to lead from. What else is there?
S.M: Shumei holds art, whether secular or sacred, to be spiritual in essence. Looking back over your life, have you ever felt that something more than yourself was guiding you in your pursuits as a composer and musician?
E.W: There is always something there that leads you on. But it should never be forced.
When I was a child, I started playing at three, and there was nothing else. At four, I took lessons from a teacher in Pittsburg who was very prominent. He smoked big cigars, and I couldn’t see the music for the smoke. So, one day, I got up, said, “I have had enough of you”, went home, and never came back. Then I studied at the Pittsburg Musical Institute where I had a marvelous teacher named Mrs. Walker. She was the one who discovered that I had perfect pitch and could improvise. By the time I was eight, I started to do transcriptions. I fell in love with the works of Ravel and my first transcription was the Paderewski Minuet, played in the style of Ravel. I never had it published. But even today, it amuses me when I see it. So many things happen like that. They are never forced. They just roll out.
That is why I dislike so much of the work of contemporary composers, because they force things. You should never force things out. It never works that way. Things have to just appear.
S.M: Are there any composers working today whom you like or would consider playing?
E.W: That is hard for me to say, because I know there must be some — definitely. And if I ever see anything that would work on the piano, I would certainly make an effort to play it.
But most contemporary composers haven’t the slightest idea of how to write for the piano. It’s often too noisy, and they haven’t the facility. They may be starting to write too early. Mozart could write music at an early age because he could play the piano and the violin well by the time he started to write. It is necessary for a composer to have an instrument that can be used as the basis for the music ? and the piano is that instrument. People will disagree. It is very easy for critics and intellectuals to take you up on making a statement like that, because people are so wonderful with words these days that they can kill anything.
S.M: You said that there is always something that leads you on. What does it take to be able to pursue that something?
E.W: You have to believe in what you are doing. I always believed in what I did.
S.M: It seems that you always had the confidence and talent to become a very fine musician. But what part did the people in your early life and your family play in nurturing your musical gifts?
E.W: Half my family was Protestant and the other half was Catholic. They quarreled a lot when I was young, and so I drowned them out by practicing. It was wonderful. I avoided it by drowning them out. I practiced a lot.
That’s one of the best things music can do for you. (Laughter.)
S.M: I probably should delete that from the interview.
E.W: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all.
S.M: Yet, despite drowning out your parents, you have to face it, you were an extremely precocious child, and you also were extremely lucky to have a home that supported your - -
E.W: My mother liked music. My father was tone-deaf. He really couldn’t recognize anything I played. If I played the same piece 15 times over, he wouldn’t have known it. It just wasn’t in his makeup. But my mother was terribly musical. She took piano lessons until she was twenty-one.
I have a sister who is very smart. Her name is Beatrice. She is ninety now. When she was 14, the depression was on and there was no money. She went to school at 15 and learnt dictation and typing. By the time she was 16, she was making more money than most men were at that time. She was always called on to work. She took me to concerts all the time. And I was thrilled, because I loved orchestra music.
By the time I was 14, I was playing celesta and piano parts in the Pittsburg Symphony. I loved playing in the orchestra, because to me the tone colors of the orchestra were the most marvelous, imaginative thing in the world. It was there that I learnt to respect rhythm.
Later, when I went to the NBC Orchestra, my improvisational skills helped me immensely. I often wondered why Toscanini picked me to perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Although I was on the NBC staff, there were thousands of outsiders who wanted to play it with Toscanini. It turned out that he used to listen in on chamber music concerts that we would do on Sunday mornings, and there he heard me play.
One of the musicians that I played with was the cellist, Harvey Shapiro, who still teaches at the age of ninety. I had good training playing chamber music. It was all new to me. I used to go home on Tuesday and practice till midnight so that I could play on Wednesday. Harvey would come over to me and say, “take it a little easier” and “try this” and “try that.” I remember it to this day. Most musicians don’t try to help each other that much. They are just there. I was very lucky.
S.M: Your improvisational skills must have helped you considerably when you worked in early television with Cid Caesar.
E.W: I was first asked to take on an Italian opera skit that he was doing.
S.M: Did you work on the famous I Pagliacci skit?
S.M: That was classic. I recall Cid Caesar playing tic-tac-toe on his cheek, while putting on clown makeup and singing.
E.W: That part was all Cid’s work.
The first opera spoof that I did was a take-off on Mozart. The cast was dressed in Louis the 14th period costumes and the opening chorus was based on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which sounds very much like Mozart when played in his style. It was a big hit, and we did quite a few spoofs after that.
I enjoyed working with Cid Caesar very much. He is a most wonderful, sensitive man. When anything turned up in his work that he thought might be offensive to any group or any person, he would take it out ? unlike Mel Brooks, who would trample on anybody.
S.M: During your concert at Shumei Hall, you will be playing one of your own transcriptions.
E.W: Oh, it’s a very short piece. It’s nothing, really, but it has a beautiful melody. It’s based on the second movement, an adagio from Marcello’s Concerto for oboe and strings. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies from that period. I have loved that piece for a long time. It’s a wonderful opener because it is calm and very beautiful.
I try to plan my programs better now. Years ago, I wasn’t so smart about the order in which I played things. I’d start out with a big Bach arrangement, which immediately set up a tonal range that I would be trying hard to make up for during the rest of the program. Now, I try to set things on levels when planning a concert.
As you may know, the human ear cannot hear a long crescendo. It can only hear steps of levels. That’s why when you plan crescendos, they should be planned on levels. This works marvelously on a piano because the instrument takes care of a lot of it. It’s the same way with playing different pieces in a concert.
S.M: You have shown an interest in playing works that have been neglected. How did your interest in reviving these works start?
E.W: One of the reasons that I play a lot of those things is that when I was studying at Carnegie Tech, I had a teacher who had been a pupil of Xaver Scharwenka and he gave me a copy of Scharwenka’s First Piano Concerto, which I had never seen before. I learned it and became interested in other works of that period. I liked particularly the Paderewski Concerto. One day, years latter, I was sitting by my phone when I got a call from Eric Leinsdorf. He asked me if I knew the Scharwenka B Flat Minor Concerto. I told him that I had been sitting by my phone for the last forty years hoping that someone would call me and ask me to play it! We recorded it with the Boston Orchestra. It caused quite a scene when it came out. It’s a good piece. It’s straightforward, and there is no doubt about what it is saying. Very few people know that it was one of Richard Strauss’s favorite pieces.
S.M: Is there any particular piano piece, which you think is great, but unduly neglected, that you feel a strong need to bring before the public?
E.W: I know most of the pieces that are available. But there must be one or two great ones out there somewhere that should be performed. There always is.
I was always disappointed in the Scriabin Piano Concerto. I think it’s a good piece but it’s not a great work. The Medtner Concertos I like very much, too, but I don’t think they are great, either, but they are very good. I adore his writing. The music is so melancholy and sad. I didn’t know Medtner, but I did know his nephew, who lived on Long Island. He could only play if he had several drinks. He would refuse to play until after several glasses of booze. Then he would sit down and play one piece after the other, and it was wonderful playing. I can’t have so much as one drop of liquor and play the piano. It’s not in my makeup. I wish I could. It would be so nice.
S.M: I’ve been told by more than a few poets and prose writers that a stiff drink is an essential to creativity. It relaxes the mind and allows it to make connections between seemingly incompatible ideas. It allows them to come up with new approaches that would be impossible stone-sober.
E.W: But it’s all in the thinking process, really. You have to believe and know how to say to your self, “Now, turn off,” and “go after it.”
S.M: This facility to calm your mind so that you can go with the music, was it an ability that you acquired or is it native to you, something you were born with?
E.W: I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because there are so many psychological points involved. Psychology and psychiatry have gone through such changes since I was young. And all the theories were disproved over that period. I had a friend who was a psychiatrist and he introduced me to a lot of great psychiatrists. It was all very interesting. I always thought they were amusing. I would have loved to have been a psychiatrist, but I didn’t have time — too busy with the piano.
And when they start analyzing Beethoven! Beethoven was just a nice, ordinary man who happened to be stubborn. He did what he wanted to — and that was it. So, why make such a scene about the great psychological disorder that they say he suffered?
S.M: What do you think about some of the critics who analyze and judge the works of great composers?
E.W: Oh, they talk about them as if they had lunch with them that day.
S.M: I think I already know your thoughts about music theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, who could be so scathing about fine composers, like Igor Stravinsky, and even disparage composers that he admired, like Arnold Schoenberg.
E.W: Well let’s face it: Schoenberg was a sour pickle. His early works were wonderful. I loved them. But when he decided to put his foot down on all that had been done before, when he got into that 12-tone serialism it was the great mistake of his life. The composer Korngold said that Schoenberg played the dirtiest trick on music that had ever been done. That’s never been in print, but I can tell you that that is what he said.
S.M: Erich Korngold said that?
E.W: I knew his son, George, very well ? a marvelous fellow. He was a recording engineer, and very smart. So, I used to hear what his father said. So, I can guarantee that one.
S.M: Erich Korngold did some very fine things when he was in Austria. Yet, today most of us only know him as the father of the Hollywood soundtrack.
E.W: I wish people would stop talking about film music as if it were on some lower level than “serious” music. Film music can be so tremendous. And a lot of it is certainly better than some of the stuff we hear today that’s suppose to be so new and cerebral. And that repetitive stuff, Minimalism — when you start to write like that, you are writing yourself into a knot.
S.M: Yet, some composers who were considered founders of Minimalism have distanced themselves from that label. Today they are writing things that seem much more lyrical. And younger contemporary composers seem to be creating music that is much more accessible than that of the old Avant-garde.
E.W: Things are turning around. They always do. You see, if you live long enough and wait long enough, something good will occur.
I am really an optimist.
Of course, sometimes, we have to wait a very long time for this to happen. I always thought that in my last years everything would be very pleasant. That it would be like floating in the air and everything would be so wonderful. It’s worse now than ever! Travel is impossible. The airlines don’t know what they are doing. The government is having problems with safety, and we are in the midst of all this trouble. It is awful. But as I said before: it will straighten out.
At least, I hope the traffic in Los Angeles gets better ? for the first time in my life I am beginning to understand road-rage.
But, things will straighten out.