On Performing Wilder’s Music

On Performing Wilder’s Music  –  A Personal View

Much has been written about Wilder’s lack of confidence and failure to promote himself. Those of us who knew him were quite aware he was his own worst enemy whether for a lack of belief in himself as a composer or his being anti-establishment and being unwilling to go through the “normal” channels to further his career and reputation.. Alec would never have a brochure about him or his music put together (or printed) and available for others to view. He was not one to submit a tape or recording of his works to a potential publisher. Every publication or recording came about through the efforts of his loyal friends: Howard Richmond, Harvey Phillips, Clark Galehouse, John Barrows, Sam Baron, etc. This combination, I believe, of his lack of confidence and his very nature in viewing promotion of any kind were one very large reason for his not being better known.

Another reason pertains to performers and notation: This is a key area and one which I think has received very little attention by others assessing Alec’s oeuvre. His compositions include few musical indications to guide the performer. In his vast chamber music, only near the end of his life did he begin giving movements titles. His music has few indications, which “shape” the music as ( rit., accel.,poco a poco accel., etc.) Most performers have been trained to observe what is on the printed page; if there are few indications on the page performers may “read through” a movement or work by Wilder and feel the music is dull or boring, and they readily dismiss it. On the other hand, a very small number of performers approach the music and begin to react instinctively to phrases and then add more of themselves. Suddenly the music comes to life as they add what simply feels natural to them. Alec would hear this and suddenly exclaim “my goodness, I don’t know how you do it!” Then he’d almost immediately turn around and write a work for that musician or group. I was certainly a benefactor and in introducing him to others I saw this take place before my very eyes a number of times.

Formal training almost gets in the way with Alec’s music and those who approach it of their own volition somehow move that “closed door” ajar and then an amazing process takes place. John Barrows and Harvey Phillips saw beyond the printed page and repeatedly brought the music to life. And Alec indeed, felt fulfilled by them and kept writing extensively for horn and tuba.

Reviewers, critics, and even musicologists who hear a seemingly dull and almost impersonal performance where “very little or nothing happens” (as Alec would put it), would form a negative impression of his work. And, add this element to the mix when composers like Alec write fun pieces-i.e. Divertissements, Entertainments, etc., it is very easy to dismiss a composer’s work as seemingly non-serious, lighthearted and unworthy- forgetting all about the craftsmanship which went into it! And, in 20th century chamber music it was simply not “fashionable” to write beautiful or sinuous melodies or to utilize folk elements, jazz, or reflections from Tin Pan Alley.

Another thought: Classification: Our society is prone to put labels on things and Alec never fell into one slot, but his art is truly original and truly American much in the same way of Charles Ives, Gershwin, or Bernstein-the latter two having big money supporting their careers. Perhaps the Octets are one of the first examples of Third stream music. His songs move in unconventional, yet compelling ways with their melodic twists and turns, and harmonic shifts. There are hundreds of songs the general public has never heard (both Art songs and popular), and the chamber music includes stylistic genres usually unassociated with classical music.

In addition to the lack of a “category” in which to neatly place Wilder, there is another area which I believe has never been addressed and where no effort was ever made either by Alec or Gunther Schuller. No one has sorted through the hundreds of pieces he composed (often for young children or hurriedly written) and to categorize them.. Everything he composed was put out there for performers and listeners to form a value judgment. Hopefully, someday his publishers (or someone) might indicate the “cream of the crop” (suites and sonatas) with his compositions and those works would be the ones put in circulation or at least labeled as “performers series”. Perhaps others could be referred to as “For the Young Performer,” etc.. A solo flute piece written for a twelve year old rests in a catalog alongside a work of far greater depth. This has further hurt Wilder as when a musician, without realizing, blindly orders that piece written for the 12 year old and then forms an opinion of Alec Wilder based solely on that hurriedly written (and less significant) composition for a young student.

Those are pretty much my thoughts based on hundreds of hours of listening, coaching, playing, conducting, hearing his music, and knowing Alec.. I’ve coached college musicians with pieces by Alec, some unfamiliar (bassoon, horn music, etc.) and I encouraged them to approach the music instinctively, adding what felt natural or intuitive, and the music often then came to life. In all those instances I saw the student or ensemble smile and get excited about a work they previously found either puzzling or boring.

I remember those recording sessions with Alec and the brass quintets in the mid 1970s and those times we would ask him if it was ok to start a ritard earlier or to add one, or to move a phrase some, then pull it back again. He would respond, “just go with your instincts”, love our suggestions and have us mark it in the parts for future performers to utilize. He also readily expressed “at least half the credit has got to go to the performer,” something I’ve never heard expressed by any of the hundreds of composers that I know.

Robert Levy – November 2006