ALEC WILDER BIOGRAPHY
Alec Wilder’s music is a unique blend of American musical traditions – among them jazz and the American popular song – and basic “classical” European forms and techniques. As such, it fiercely resists all labeling. Although it often pained Alec that his music was not more widely accepted by either jazz or classical performers, undeterred, he wrote a great deal of music of remarkable originality in many forms: sonatas, suites, concertos, operas, ballets, art songs, woodwind quintets, brass quintets, jazz suites – and hundreds of popular songs.
Many times, his music wasn’t jazz enough for the “jazzers,” or “highbrow,” “classical,” or “avante-garde” enough for the classical establishment. In essence, Wilder’s music was so unique in it’s originality that it didn’t fit into any of the preordained musical slots and stylistic pigeonholes. His music was never out of vogue because, in effect, it was never in vogue. It’s non-stereotypical specialness virtually precluded any widespread acceptance.
In his book, “Alec Wilder and His Friends,” Whitney Balliett dubbed Wilder “The President of the Derriere Garde,” and to many classical critics he was a “conservative craftsman lacking in innovation” and not to be taken seriously. Irving Kolodin, a champion of Wilder’s music, commended his native urban style, lamenting that it never became “politically fashionable,” as did the music of many of his contemporaries.
Wilder, at his best, represents a fascinating amalgam of three quite different composer-archetypes, here all rolled into one: Gershwin, Poulenc, Villa-Lobos. In its baldest outlines, Wilder’s oeuvre is unusually diverse and characteristically American, a synthesis of the brilliant song writer (Gershwin); the not-too-intellectual, traditional and determinedly conservative composer of easily accessible American-style Gebrauchsmusik, making use of popular and jazz elements as a matter of course (Poulenc); and a sometimes uncritical, too-casual writer who writes too much too easily – like Shakespeare’s old bromide about loving too well but not wisely (Villa-Lobos).
Alec Wilder (February 16, 1907-December 24, 1980) was born Alexander Lafayette Chew Wilder in Rochester, New York. He studied composition and counterpoint privately at the Eastman School of Music, but as a composer was largely self-taught. As a young man, he moved to New York City and made the Algonquin Hotel — that remarkable enclave of American literati and artistic intelligentsia — his permanent home, though he traveled widely and often.
Mitch Miller, whom Wilder met at Eastman, and Frank Sinatra were initially responsible for introducing his music to the public. It was Miller who organized the historic recordings of Wilder octets beginning in 1939. Combining elements of classical chamber music, popular melodies and a jazz rhythm section, the octets became popular — and eventually legendary — through these recordings, which preceded by years the much-studied Third Stream movement of the 1950s. Wilder wrote more than 20 octets, giving them whimsical titles such as Neurotic Goldfish, It’s Silk, Feel It and Jack, This Is My Husband. In 1945, Frank Sinatra, an early fan and avid supporter of Wilder’s music, persuaded Columbia Records to record an album of Wilder solo wind works with string orchestra, Sinatra conducting. The two men became lifelong friends and Sinatra recorded many of Wilder’s popular songs. His last song, A Long Night, was written in response to Sinatra’s request for a “saloon” song.
It is a relative rarity for a composer to enjoy a close musical kinship with classical musicians, jazz musicians and popular singers. Wilder was such a composer, endearing himself to a relatively small but very loyal coterie of performers and successfully appealing to their diverse styles and conceptions.
He wrote art songs for distinguished sopranos Jan DeGaetani and Eileen Farrell, chamber music for the New York Woodwind and New York Brass quintets, large instrumental works for conductors Erich Leinsdorf, Frederick Fennell, Gunther Schuller, Sarah Caldwell, David Zinman, Donald Hunsberger and Frank Battisti, many of whom premiered his works for orchestra or wind ensemble, and for concert soloists who recorded or premiered his music, including John Barrows, horn; Bernard Garfield, bassoon; Harvey Phillips, tuba; David Soyer, cello; Gary Karr, string bass; Barry Snyder, piano; Samuel Baron, James Pellerite and Virginia Nanzetta, flute; Donald Sinta, saxophone; Glenn Bowen, clarinet; Robert Levy, trumpet; Gordon Stout, marimba. It was John Barrows, who served as Wilder’s friend and mentor, not only urging him to compose in the larger forms but also introducing him to many of his musician colleagues.
Jazz musicians fascinated Wilder with their gift for creating extemporaneous compositions. Among those for whom he composed major works were Marian McPartland, piano; Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan, saxophone; Doc Severinsen and Clark Terry, trumpet. Entire albums of his songs and shorter pieces were recorded by Bob Brookmeyer, trombone; Roland Hanna and Marian McPartland, piano; Dave Liebman and Bob Rockwell, saxophone; Robert Levy, trumpet and Vic Juris, guitar. Individual Wilder songs have been recorded, notably by such jazz artists as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, George Shearing, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Burrell, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Dobbins, Fred Hersch and Bill Charlap.
Wilder’s relationship with popular and jazz singers was especially close. Despite his songs’ sinuous angular melodies and unorthodox forms, he was admired and respected not only by Frank Sinatra, Mabel Mercer, Mildred Bailey, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett, for whom he wrote songs, but by Marlene VerPlanck and Jackie and Roy, who recorded Wilder albums. Among his best-known songs are It’s So Peaceful in the Country, I’ll Be Around, While We’re Young and Blackberry Winter. Sometimes Wilder wrote the lyrics for his songs, but more often he collaborated with the brilliant lyricist William Engvick, and in later years the outstanding Loonis McGlohon, as well as with Johnny Mercer, Marshall Barer and librettist Arnold Sundgaard.
His collaborations resulted in larger-scale works, expanding his song concept into operas and musicals. Miss Chicken Little (1953), written with William Engvick and based on the familiar childrenÂ’s story, is considered an opera though it was televised as an Omnibus program. Wilder also had an ongoing collaboration with Arnold Sundgaard, known for his work with Kurt Weill on Down in the Valley and his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Giants in the Earth with Douglas Moore. The operas Sunday Excursion (1953) and The Opening (1969) and the musical comedies Kittiwake Island (1953) and Nobody’s Earnest (1973) are examples of their work together.
Closely related to his large-scale opera writing was Wilder’s work on film scores. Friend and filmmaker Jerome Hill asked him to do three film scores: the Academy Award-winning documentary Albert Schweitzer (1957), The Sand Castle (1959) and Open the Door and See All the People (1963).
Wilder’s interest in children resulted in hundreds of piano pieces, easy study pieces for many different instruments, A Child’s Introduction to the Orchestra (with Barer) and the songbook Lullabies and Night Songs (with Engvick and illustrated by Maurice Sendak). His cantata, Children’s Plea for Peace, is a testament to his hopes for a better world for young people. He also wrote many children’s songs for television productions and records, such as The Churkendoose (with Ben Ross Berenberg), performed by Ray Bolger, and versions (both with Engvick) of Pinocchio, starring Mickey Rooney, and Hansel and Gretel, featuring Barbara Cook. The children of many musician friends were remembered with numerous solo chamber works.
In the early 1950s, Wilder became increasingly drawn to writing concert music for soloists, chamber ensembles and orchestra. Throughout the rest of his life, he produced dozens of compositions for the concert hall, writing in his typically melodious and ingratiating style. His output includes solo suites with piano or sonatas for every orchestral instrument (often more than one, as with horn, bassoon and tuba), ten brass quintets, nearly 20 woodwind quintets and numerous combinations of winds and brass- especially for clarinet, bassoon, horn and tuba. His works are fresh, strong and lyrical, and very much “in the American grain.” Many pieces include movements that express a kind of melancholy desolation, an unself-pitying loneliness in contrast to the more buoyant and witty surrounding fast movements.
Alec Wilder said he wrote music because it was the only thing that could content his spirit. He declared, “I didn’t do well in terms of financial reward or recognition. But that was never the point.” Wilder shunned publicity and was uncomfortable with celebrity. If he never was one to get grants, receive commissions or win prizes, it was because he never sought them. A deep distrust of institutions, combined with an extraordinary shyness verging on an inferiority complex, prevented him from circulating and operating in the composer’s world in the ways generally expected.
Nonetheless, his awards eventually included an honorary doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, a Peabody Award for the National Public Radio series “American Popular Song,” cohosted by Loonis McGlohon, an Avon Foundation grant, the Deems Taylor ASCAP Award and a National Book Award nomination — all having to do with American Popular Song: “The Great Innovators, 1900-1950,” edited and with an introduction by James T. Maher. He included almost everyone who had written a song of quality, but not one word about himself or any of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of songs he wrote. Wilder was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (unused) just before his death and in 1983 was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. The Alec Wilder Archive and Reading Room in the Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music, was dedicated in 1991.
No one will ever be sure just how much music Wilder wrote. Sketches of music — sometimes entire pieces — were often written on small scraps of manuscript paper while he rode a train, sat on a park bench or waited in an airport terminal. Scattered about in private collections of Wilder’s friends were many compositions that never reached performance or publication. Some may still lie in piano benches and desk drawers wherever Wilder visited, for he wrote almost entirely for friends, and most of his pieces were gifts to them or their children.
What those who knew him well respected in Alec Wilder was his absolute independence and incorruptible aesthetic integrity as an artist. For years he wrote music of taste and quality with that personal melodic touch that was all his own, unaffected by musical fashion or fad and never accepting any form of financial remuneration. And no one was more devoted to the musician in providing a playable, functional literature for all those instruments and instrumental ensembles that most composers generally ignore. It was almost a mission in Wilder’s life to assuage the thirst for good music for the so-called underdog instruments: bass, tuba, euphonium, horn, marimba, et al. He was truly the musician’s friend — an American original.
Despite his slightly rumpled-professor look, Alec Wilder always had a touch of unpretentious elegance and style, always with coat and tie, reflecting a comparable blend of spontaneous looseness and formal discipline in his music. There was also humor — sly humor, the humor of an intelligent, sensitive mind — in his music. Wilder was generous to a fault, famous for giving books to his friends. He was also unpredictable, as in his music. Just when one seems to have guessed where he will take us in the next phrase, he surprises us by taking a completely unlikely turn — which in retrospect almost always seems inevitable and right. Not all of Wilder’s compositions are light and happy and easily accessible; some of his music — especially that written in his last years — is dark and anguished, reflecting a deep loneliness. And there were sometimes prolonged periods of discouragement and cultural isolation during which he found it impossible to write music at all.
Although he protested the label (perhaps sometimes too vigorously), Alec Wilder was a bonafide eccentric. If some of his music sometimes has a lopsided, irregular shape, it is because he intended to throw us off guard in making a musical or emotional point. In his popular songs, he often created seven- and nine-bar phrases, which, nonetheless, always feel as natural as the more orthodox eight-bar structures of Tin Pan Alley. That he could also work well within these more traditional forms is born out by hundreds of songs and instrumental pieces. Alongside his more complex sinuously winding melodies, Wilder could also create tunes of haunting simplicity. I’ll Be Around is surely an extraordinary example of the latter, while the ravishing theme of Serenade from the Jazz Suite for Four Horns is a superior representative of the former, a melody worthy of an Ellington, a Gershwin or a Schubert, and arguably one of the most beautiful melodies composed in the 20th century.
Most of Wilder’s chamber music was unpublished until the last years of his life. Now, a quarter of a century since his death, it is heartening to see new recordings released by a younger generation discovering his music for the first time.
Alec Wilder died of lung cancer on Christmas Eve 1980 in Gainesville, Florida — “just in time to keep from becoming better known,” as he might have quipped.
Compiled by Gunther Schuller, Robert Levy, Loonis McGlohon, and Judy Bell