An Interview with the Pianist Earl Wild
This fall the legendary pianist Earl Wild gave a concert, gWild in
Pasadena,h as part of the Shumei Arts Council of Americafs 2002 ? 2003
concert series. Among the pieces he played were Mozartfs Sonata in F minor
K. 332, Beethovenfs 32 variations in C minor, Mendelssohnfs Rondo Capriccioso,
as well as works of Chopin and Liszt.
SHUMEI Magazine: You are referred to as gThe Last Great Romanic Pianist.h 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 glast-ofsh that came before me. So, Ifm the last one in line because Ifm the oldest one of them now. Itfs very amusing for me to be put in that category. It doesnft 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 donft 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 donft progress as they grow older. They go to Florida to die or play golf.
S.M: Ifve been rather holding out for that option.
E.W: Oh, donft you do that! Keep busy at something. Youfll be happier. People would be much happier if they kept busy.
S.M: What does the word gRomanich 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 otherfs 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
S.M: Do the insights that you gain by being a composer who plays other peoplefs 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 donft 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 doesnft 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, Ifve 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 gclunky.h)
E.W: But itfs not really a matter of size, itfs 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 canft 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. Itfs 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: Itfs mysterious. It is a mystery because you canft 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 canft 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.
S.M: As you may know, the Shumei Arts Council creates and sponsors childrenfs concerts. Itfs one of their most successful programs. They also have created a venue in which young people can perform.
E.W: Thatfs 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.
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, itfs 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.
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 itfs springtime and the sun is out and you are running
through the leaves, the joy of it is so wonderful that you donft stop
to think about it. You donft 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, thatfs life.
S.M: You studied under Egon Petri, who in turn was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. Busonifs 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 didnft bring it in with me, and I said, gOh, itfs too heavy.h
S.M: So, I take it you lead from your heart.
E.W: Well, yes. Thatfs 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.
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.
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.
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 - -
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 Cidfs work.
S.M: During your concert at Shumei Hall, you will be playing one of your own transcriptions.
E.W: Oh, itfs a very short piece. Itfs nothing, really, but it has a
beautiful melody. Itfs based on the second movement, an adagio from Marcellofs
Concerto for oboe and strings. Itfs one of the most beautiful melodies
from that period. I have loved that piece for a long time. Itfs a wonderful
opener because it is calm and very beautiful.
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 Scharwenkafs 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. Itfs a good piece. Itfs straightforward, and there is no doubt about what it is saying. Very few people know that it was one of Richard Straussfs 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
S.M: Ifve 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 itfs all in the thinking process, really. You have to believe and know how to say to your self, gNow, turn off,h and ggo after it.h
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 donft know. Itfs 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 didnft
have time -- too busy with the piano.
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 letfs 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. Thatfs 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.
E.W: I wish people would stop talking about film music as if it were on some lower level than gserioush music. Film music can be so tremendous. And a lot of it is certainly better than some of the stuff we hear today thatfs 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.