Fanfare Profile

A Modernist with a Taste for the Premodern: Composer Richard Wilson by JAMES REEL

Fanfare March/April 2001 pp. 93-98

Peermusic’s little brochure promoting the works of composer Richard Wilson opens with an usually long appreciation by Fanfare’s Bernard Jacobson. Instead of reciting the usual terse curriculum vita, Jacobson delves into the character of Wilson and his music; the essay might well have served as the basis of this article, requiring only a few fresh quotations from the composer to be plugged in. Jacobson writes that “Motion and stillness, involuted chromaticism and frank euphony, exaltation and ecstasy on the one hand and tormented self-questioning on the other, illuminate each other in [Wilson’s] music.” He cites as a pivotal work the 1983 Third String Quartet, “quintessential Wilson in its combined subtlety and intensity of expression, its deft rhythmic shifts and mercurial, almost offhand, melodic style, and its attainment, through a language of freely inflected chromaticism, to a pitch of eloquence rare in the chamber music of the 20th century.” As you may gather, Wilson’s music is not easy to love at first audition, but its depth and integrity have attracted a good many partisans over the decades, including conductor Leon Botstein and violist Walter Trampler.

At least eight CDs issued since 1989 have been partly or wholly devoted to Wilson’s music. In 1991 CRI compiled six chamber-music recordings it had made over the years, following up an earlier CD that included Wilson’s Bassoon Concerto and Suite for Small Orchestra; the label added Wilson’s Piano Concerto in an all-new release the following year. Albany began its long-term commitment to Wilson in 1992 with a chamber-music album (074); a big collection of Wilson’s choral music followed in 1999 (333); and a varied instrumental program coming out just last year (389). Meanwhile, Ongaku Records issued Wilson’s charming A Child’s London on an album of music for narrator and piano, and Koch International Classics released a mix of Wilson’s chamber music and his Symphony No. 1 (3-7483-2), both last year. As Wilson approaches his 60th birthday in May, he must surely be satisfied that he hasn’t been toiling all these years only to be consigned to the same obscurity that envelops so many worthy American composers.

Wilson was born in Cleveland, and brought up on concerts by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. “I had actually done some composing when I was a child,” he admitted almost sheepishly. “My first piano teacher was a composer, and she encouraged me to do it too. So I tried my hand at it

and sent pieces to various publishers, and all of them were rejected. And then the more I got acquainted with contemporary music, going every Saturday to the Cleveland Orchestra for about eight years from the age of 10, I realized I didn’t always like the contemporary music and decided that this wasn’t for me. So I dropped the idea of being a composer until my last year at Harvard.”

He had entered Harvard in 1959. He concentrated on piano, but also followed a premed science curriculum. He also managed to study composition, principally with Robert Moevs, and had some brushes with the intimidating Pierre Boulez. Wilson graduated magna cum laude in 1963, and received the Frank Huntington Beebe Award for study abroad. Wilson spent the next year working with Moevs in Rome and with pianist Friedrich Wührer in Munich. Although he was admitted to Harvard Medical School, it was clear that music is what he really cared about. Wilson doesn’t doubt at all that he followed the right career path.. “However my music is received, and it doesn’t please everyone,” he once wrote in a Harvard alumni publication, “I take comfort in the thought that there are people alive today who would be dead had I become a doctor.”

“I’m sure I had some high-minded motives in trying to get into med school,” Wilson told me, “but it did not escape my notice that doctors tended to do well financially. But I’m very glad that I didn’t pursue that. My music hasn’t actually killed anybody. In the end I think I’ve done less damage as a composer.” So what steered him away from the lucrative medical profession and toward the more modest rewards of being a composer and music professor? “It was somewhat the influence of Robert Moevs, whom I’d studied with as a freshman. He was a very bold composer, not as recognized as he should be. And Boulez was there as a visiting professor; I was too scared of him to get to know him, but I went to some classes he taught, and I was very interested in the performances of his music I heard. I had written some pieces in my senior year that got a good response, so that naturally made music seem more attractive. The music world in 1963 was confusing. There was a tremendous amount of experimental music being played. Living in Rome and going to contemporary-music concerts was really exciting; there was so much wacky stuff going on. I was fascinated by that, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I had to write more music before I knew if this was something I wanted to continue to do.

“My musical interests have never been exclusively in new music. And I think that that probably stems from the childhood experiences of going to a standard-repertoire symphony series where George Szell didn’t do that much contemporary music, but I was enchanted with him anyway. So I’m still kind of wrapped up in that world of dead great composers and performers. I just got some unusual video material, including a 15-minute film of Emanuel Feuermann; I love his cello-playing, but I’d never seen him before. It’s absolutely wonderful. And you know that old movie Carnegie

Hall, with Heifetz, Rubinstein, and Stokowski? The story is terrible, but the opportunity to see them playing is terrific. And there’s a video of two great heroes of mine, Josef Szigeti and Jack Benny, playing a violin duet. So I’ve been staring at the TV when I should be writing music.”

Television apparently wasn’t such a distraction in the mid 1960s, when Wilson obtained a master’s from Rutgers. Straight out of his graduate studies in 1966 he joined the faculty of Vassar College, here he has remained ever since. Once he shifted to composing, though, he refused to abandon the piano. he still performs regularly, playing concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, chamber music of Brahms, and, of course, his own works. When we spoke, Wilson was about to participate in the premiere of his three songs on poems by John Ashbery. “The piano parts are quite difficult,” he admitted. This is not the opinion of a man who has allowed his technique to atrophy over the years. “My colleague at Vassar, Blanca Uribe, and I have done two-piano concerts almost every year for almost 25 years.” he noted. “And through my association with Leon Botstein I have done a concerto with him every other year since, I think, 1982. We’ve done nine Mozart concertos and the Beethoven Fourth. So that’s kept me from losing my piano...I don’t want to say ‘facility,’ but capacity.” Has his intimacy with this music affected his composing, and has his work as a composer colored his approach to Mozart and Beethoven? “I would think that the involvement with Mozart and Beethoven affects the composing, but I don’t think that somebody would listen to my performance of a Mozart concerto and say, ‘This person writes atonal music’—unless I was making a lot of wrong notes!”

It’s one thing to teach someone the procedures of laying the piano, which, in terms of technique rather than interpretation, don’t vary that much from one musician to the next. Composition, on the other hand, is open to an infinite variety of approaches, and seems something that must be brought out from within a person rather than imposed from the outside. I asked Wilson what composition students can really learn from teachers, beyond a few basic technical matters. “I’ve only had one professor of composition, and that’s Robert Moevs,” he said. “I have tried to gain something from conversations with other composers that I’ve been lucky enough to interact with, but with Robert Moevs, he’s a man of great sensitivity and a very, very quiet personality. So one got a lot from osmosis, just being in his presence and hearing him utter occasional comments about your music. He as not a dynamic teacher, much more subtle, and very influential on me. He’s a very detail-oriented person, with an X-ray capacity to look at what’s in a piece. I have also had the luck to know figures like Copland or, later, Elliott Carter or even Ernst Krenek, but less well in his case. I did have an exchange of many letters with Copland, and tried to get sort of a sense of what he thought not only of a piece of mine but also how we went about things himself. Luckily, my wife and I are great friends with the Carters, and that’s been very helpful to me in sorting things out. It’s not that you ask somebody like that ‘How do you do it?’ but you can get hints about how they approach certain musical problems. I think, mostly,

composition can’t be taught, but there can be influential encounters with people. It’s not uncommon for composers to get together and chat about the whole process. And one learns from music itself. I think the contact with music of the past is immensely important as an instructional matter. I’m taking about music all the way back to chant. I’m not as influenced as some people by non-Western music, although I used to collect that Nonesuch series, but that can be illuminating too. I got very interested in Dufay when I was in grad school, and I’ve played a lot of Bach and Mozart and Chopin. I think there’s no one influence on me, which is good; I suppose if you immersed yourself solely in Ravel you might be overly influenced by that, but if you go in different directions to see how other composers have approached certain problems, there’s not too much of a chance of becoming derivative.

“What I really had to learn is that to do this well one has to cultivate a very articulate and sharp critical voice. But then there has to be the ability to turn that voice off, because in some phases of writing music you can’t listen to that voice telling you ‘This is banal, this is too thin’; you can’t let that voice talk all the time. You have to develop or set down material with no concern of what use you’re going to make of it. Then you turn the voice on at a later stage to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. I did a panel on the creative process of Beethoven, and I took note that at least 8,000 pages of Beethoven’s sketches survive. In parts of it he was setting down material for future use and not being critical about it; then there are other parts where he’s extremely critical about it: There are nine different versions of the first phrase of An die ferne geliebte. Sometimes he’s being severe with himself, and sometimes not. Now, how you teach somebody that, is you try to explain it and give them some practice doing it. There’s a problem of being too critical so that you discourage any activity, but if you’re not critical at all the results aren’t good. The other difficulty in teaching this is there are so many different ways people are writing music that if students ask you where to start it’s hard to say, so you have to hope they’re already on a track and you can just guide them.” Luckily, Wilson teaches mostly harmony and counterpoint, so he spends comparatively little times grappling with the pedagogy of teaching composition.

Many composers based in the academy move from one school to another through their lives, clawing their way through the discouraging system of promotion and tenure. Wilson considers himself fortunate to have spent his entire career at Vassar. “It’s a very good institution,” he said. “It has an excellent music department and facilities, and it’s located near a major musical center, namely, New York City. It’s also well positioned with respect to Boston and Philadelphia. It has a good tradition of composers having been here, like Krenek, and Porter and Robert Middleton. And there’s a wonderful performing faculty, including Blanca Uribe, who’s recorded most of my piano music. And it has a beautiful campus. I don’t want to make it sound like the Garden of Eden, but it’s been a joy being here. I also have an elaborate involvement with Leon Botstein’s activities with the Bard Music

Festival and the American Symphony Orchestra, so I don’t think of myself as exclusively a campus figure. And I go back to London at least once a year; I lived there in 1983-84, and I’ve kept up a lot of friendships there.”

Wilson’s catalog includes, besides a great many works for solo instruments, voice and ensemble, about a dozen compositions involving orchestra. A few were commissions—from the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition, the San Francisco Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, and the Koussevitzky Foundation—but most were written on spec. Today’s orchestral system perhaps shies away from new music less than it did a few years ago, but it’s premiere-oriented; there’s little interest in giving the second or third performance of pieces by any but a few celebrity composers. So does writing for orchestra really pay? “’Pay’ is not a word we use in this particular profession,” Wilson said, chuckling. “But if you grew up listening to a symphony orchestra on a regular basis, it’s awfully tempting to write for that medium. I’m lucky in my association with the American Symphony orchestra [where he has been the composer-in-residence since 1992] and, before that, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, so those have provided me regular venues for my music. But I think one would write orchestral pieces anyway; it’s a fabulous medium. When I’ve talked to composers of the older generation I’ve come to the conclusion that they were surprised by which pieces took off and which didn’t, so it’s hard to predict what will ‘pay’ and what won’t. I don’t think Elliott Carter thought any group could play his First String Quartet, but now it’s been played all over the place, most recently by a student group at Tanglewood, playing it to his great satisfaction. Sometimes a very difficult piece makes people sit up and take notice. So you can’t be guided too much by practicality; if you were, you wouldn’t go into this line of work in the first place.”

It was very difficult music that ultimately made Wilson sit up and take notice, and inspired him to continue his efforts as a composer. Yet he hasn’t spent his entire career marching in step with the 1960s avant-garde. “The acquaintance with Boulez’s music was so startling and provocative and stimulating that I’m not sure that I would have gone on being a composer without that contact,” he said. “But over the years I’m sure that my music has included a considerable reinstitution of values and attitudes and melodic, rhythmic, and formal procedures that he wouldn’t approve of. So if you’re thinking of a progressive line of development, I’m going backwards since that point. I’ve felt as I was working that I needed to reincorporate certain contrasts. My music was so very chromatic that the old distinction between diatonic and chromatic, which is a musically potent contrast to make—I wasn’t able to do that because I was in an exclusively chromatic idiom. But then I wrote a piece for tenor and harp, and the harp lends itself to diatonic playing, so I used that opportunity to cultivate an aspect of my music that I had been missing. Also I started introducing a perceived pulse; I hadn’t liked neo-Classical music, but I started playing more middle-period Stravinsky pieces like the Concerto for

Two Pianos—I loved that piece—and that pushed me a little more in that neo-Classical direction. But I don’t think too much about whether I’m ‘with it.’ A lot of different composers fascinate me; I’m very fascinated by David Del Tredici’s music, which is very different from my own. If you’re a musician raised on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, that has to affect the affective, the expressive content of your own music. I would expect that somebody listening to one of my string quartets would sense my affinities to music of the past.”

Those affinities are quite subtle, but they apparently drew the interest of no less a master of premodernist music than pianist Rudolf Firkusny,. “The premiere of my Viola Sonata was supposed to be played by Firkusny and Walter Trampler,” Wilson recalled, “but a series of events made it impossible for Firkusny to follow through on that, and then of course he got sick and died. So the premiere was done by Walter and Blanca Uribe, and they made the first recording of it (on Albany 074). Then Misha Amory wound up playing it with Blanca down in Houston, and we encourage him to think about recording it too (also with Uribe, on the Koch CD). So this gave me one of the great senior figures in the viola world, and then one of the most promising young violists doing it. They both recorded it with Blanca, because she’s the only person who can play the piano part. Walter told me that he was very happy to recommend this to his students, but there were no pianists in Boston who could play it! And now I’m suffering with these songs of mine that I’m playing tomorrow night; I’m learning firsthand the problems of playing my own music. But I got out a volume of Schubert songs, and they’re difficult for the piano too, so I decided not to worry so much.”

Wilson seems to have little to worry about these days; things are going very well for him. “I’m hitting 60 in May, and we’re having a concert in New York in Merkin Hall to celebrate, but what’s on that program I’m not entirely sure. I’d like to write a piece for it. As far as CD releases are concerned, we’ve had four in the last year, and I think that’s almost excessive. Let’s give the market a rest—for a little while at least. The Chicago Quartet does plan to record my Fourth Quartet in February, but that won’t be released until we figure out what to couple it with.”

Meanwhile, this modernist composer is spending his free time in some decidedly unmodernist pursuits. “I have a lot of tapes of radio programs from the late 40s, programs I actually heard when I was eight or nine years old,” he said. “I have about 50 of them. So when I walk—I don’t jog—but when I walk around the track I listen to them, and when I’m in the car I listen to them, so sometimes I get into the state of mind that Truman is in the White House, and I’m living in the past.”