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Richard Wilson and His Music 

Essay by Bernard Jacobson

by Bernard Jacobson

A revealing remark in the program note Richard Wilson wrote for his Bassoon Concerto offers a hint of where this highly individual composer's musical preoccupations lie. Explaining his decision to compose a concerto for that rarely spotlighted woodwind, he observed: "It is an instrument I have always loved.... Its plaintive, primordial voice speaks and sings of the precariousness of the human condition. I could not resist the chance to help it reach out to a larger audience."

That "precariousness of the human condition" is the tell-tale phrase. For here is a composer who has made it his vocation to search, among the multifarious and often inimical shadows of the imagination, for the elusive moment of certainty that can constitute at once a rewarding artistic statement and a reassurance about the solidity of the world.

Disarmingly modest, Wilson the artist never for a moment dreams of suggesting that he is in possession of all the answers, while Wilson the man was one of the few composers I encountered during my years in music publishing who didn't manifest a conviction that the world owed them a living. He has been at work, these three decades and a half, fashioning a language meticulous in its care for detail, and informed by a fastidiousness of thought rare in these loud-spoken times, but utterly characteristic of the man. The sheer polish of his craftsmanship could serve as a paradigm for Vladimir Nabokov's assertion that "In art, as in science, there is no delight without the detail." Richard Wilson was born in Cleveland on 15 May 1941. He studied piano with Roslyn Pettibone, Egbert Fischer, and Leonard Shure, and cello with Robert Ripley and Ernst Silberstein. After beginning composition studies with Roslyn Pettibone and Howard Whittaker, he went on in 1959 to Harvard, studying with Randall Thompson, G.W. Woodworth, and principally Robert Moevs, and graduating in 1963 magna cum laude. Awarded the Frank Huntington Beebe Award for study abroad, he continued studying piano with Friedrich Wührer in Munich, and composition, again with Moevs, in Rome, where he also gave piano recitals. (Despite concentrating essentially on composition and teaching, Wilson is still an active pianist, whose performances of Mozart concertos and Brahms chamber music evince the same telling blend of delicacy and understated intellectual strength as his own music.) Having followed Moevs to Rutgers, where he earned his master's degree, Wilson joined the faculty of Vassar College in 1966. He was appointed to the Mary Conover Mellon Professorship of Music there in 1988, and he has served three times as chairman of the Department of Music.

In the last few years Wilson's music, already known to a group of enthusiastic admirers, has begun to make a wider mark, with the help of commissions from the San Francisco Symphony and other organizations. His works have been heard not only in such American musical centers as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles and at the Aspen Music Festival, but also in London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Milan, Amsterdam, Graz, Leningrad, Stockholm, Tokyo, Bogota, and a number of Australian cities.

Conductors who have programmed Wilson's music include Herbert Blomstedt, Leon Botstein, Imre Pallo, and Luis Biava, and his works have been performed by Dawn Upshaw, Paul Sperry, Mary Ann Hart, Richard Lalli, Harvey Sollberger, Ursula Oppens, Fred Sherry, Misha Amory, Arthur Weisberg, Nancy Allen, Blanca Uribe, Todd Crow, David Burge, Larry Guy, Walter Trampler, the Muir Quartet, the Delmé Quartet, the Composers Quartet, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Speculum Musicae, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and the Goldman Band, as well as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony, and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. His Figuration, for clarinet, cello, and piano, won the Walter Hinrichsen Award in 1986 and a prize sponsored by the League of Composers/ISCM in 1990. The recipient in 1992 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he was awarded the Elise L. Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1994, and has served as composer in residence with the American Symphony Orchestra since 1992; his most recent commission is a joint one from the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Inc., and the American Symphony Orchestra for a large-scale orchestral work to be completed by 1998.

The very shape of Wilson's output, which by the beginning of 1997 comprised more than 70 works, reflects the broadening of his public horizons. Fifteen years ago, relatively small-scale compositions made up most of his non-vocal catalog: there were, by the end of 1982, 23 chamber and instrumental pieces, but only two orchestral works. His output since then of as many as ten works for orchestra (including two with voice) has come close to keeping pace with his continuing production for solo and ensemble.

In keeping with this move to a more conspicuous platform has been a maturing of style that reveals steady growth in both depth and confidence of expression. The two symphonies (1984 and 1986) and the two substantial concertos (for bassoon and for piano, 1983 and 1991 respectively) produced in this phase naturally serve as conduits for some of Wilson's grandest and most ambitious inspirations. Yet his artistic range was already largely evident in a superb work that narrowly predated the temporal dividing line: the Third String Quartet (1982) is 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. In a 1991 New York Times review Allan Kozinn, observing that Wilson's musical language "gives the impression of tonality even though it resolutely avoids settling on a tonal center," offered a shrewd clue to the peculiarly personal quality that permeates every aspect of the composer's music. Listening to some of the choral pieces included in a recent CD by the William Appling Singers, and then to the November 1996 premiere in Poughkeepsie of Transfigured Goat, a 19-minute piece for mezzo-soprano, baritone, clarinet, and piano, inspired by Joe Orton's writings and full of provocative indirectness, I came to several fundamental realizations. Firstly, that the glinting chromaticism of Wilson's instrumental writing the shy yet luxuriant beauty of the slow movement of his First Symphony (also recently recorded on CD) affords as good an example as any serves a closely related purpose to that of the fragmented textures of his choral style and of Transfigured Goat's exhilarating dislocations of line; and the purpose in all these cases is exactly that teasing balance between tension and release born of a language poised between tonality and atonality. Secondly, that this equilibrium is equally well suited to tragic and comic veins of expression and the latter is very much a part of Wilson's artistic personality, for though he does not trade in belly-laughs, he has a decided penchant for literary witticism, as you can see both from the music and from the libretto he himself constructed for his opera Æthelred the Unready.

A third conclusion is that certain features of Wilson's orchestral style stem from the same basic balance of tensions. I think in particular of his timpani writing, which is as fresh and original as any I have heard. For many composers, the timpani are instruments for emphasis and relatively straightforward punctuation and iteration. Wilson prefers to use them delicately and melodically, profiting from the resources furnished by contemporary pedal drums to create gliding lines that play a full part in his kaleidoscopically shifting symphonic textures.

These impressions are further reinforced by the two largest-scaled among Wilson's recent works. Pamietam (1995), a cycle of Polish poetry set in English translation for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, again achieves a textural integrity (with the voice, though always clearly audible, figuring as one melodic strand among all the instrumental ones) of an order that recalls Brahms. This richly expressive music typifies Wilson's capacity for sustaining broad spans of invention even in a prevailingly chromatic language, a challenge in whose successful solution the genuinely propulsive function of his bass lines is a crucial element, both harmonically and rhythmically. A year earlier, Agitations, which the composer describes as "a Mendelssohnian scherzo that goes haywire," outdid the virtuosity of his previous orchestral works, throwing together a dazzling mosaic of pithy motifs in a vertiginous yet lucid polyphonic web. But the ecstatic vision of the central slow section exerts a power out of all proportion to its brevity, staying firmly in the listener's mind even when tumultuous activity has been resumed; and the more moderate tempo that is imposed shortly before the end is another proof of Wilson's authoritative control of pace and his ability to generate a real pulse.

What all these imposing technical and expressive skills bring to mind is the balance of elements that Sir Donald Tovey outlined in his brilliant essay Normality and Freedom in Music. Citing George Bernard Shaw's experience with the eye-doctor who "congratulated him on having normal sight and told him that that condition was exceedingly rare," Tovey pointed out that freedom in art "is not opposed to normality. It is in every sense of the term a function of it." He added that "All art includes conflict," observing that in the most perfect imaginable world "architecture will still use the force of gravity paradoxically in the keystone of the arch, and the most desirable materials will have properties that must be reconciled with their equally desirable opposites," and remarking: "The normal solution of all conflicts will be mutual service, and here alone shall we find perfect freedom."

It is because his musical language is so firmly and profoundly rooted in normality in harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and textural usages that are mutually supportive and widely understood that Wilson can, at the drop of a hat, go off into flights of freedom that make sense rather than mere sensation. In another but not unrelated context, it is his respect for the normal functioning of instruments that has enabled Wilson to produce an unusual sequence of effective works for a wide variety of solo wind instruments for flute (Music for Solo Flute, Flutations, and Touchstones), for bassoon (Profound Utterances), for horn (Intonations), even for tuba (Civilization and its Discontents) and for such ensembles as two clarinets (Line Drawings), oboe and clarinet (Dithyramb), and flute, oboe, and clarinet (Gnomics). In all of these, Wilson allows his chosen instrument or instruments to sound in a manner that is completely personal without ever requiring them to be blown, hit, or otherwise manhandled in recherch or violent ways.

Wilson's creative aim is in part a quest for beauty. Happily, that quest has in recent years been restored to the range of respectable pursuits for a composer, after a tedious period in which factitious "integrity" too often in practice led to a pervasive ugliness. But Wilson is no one-sided artist. Beauty, with him, does not preclude an open-eyed awareness of the darker, more threatening and turbulent facets of human experience. I referred earlier to a "personal quality that permeates every aspect" of Wilson's music. His work is indeed all of a piece: it is the thoroughness with which it knits together rhythm and texture, melody and harmony, instrumental color and vocal rhetoric, that makes a Wilson composition the authentic and compelling experience it is for the listener.

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 his music. The ravishing passage in the First Symphony cited above would be far less effective if it ever settled down to smug satisfaction with its own loveliness. But answers are foreign to this composer's nature. The question, always, remains. Affirmation is shot through with the nagging ache of hesitancy and diffidence. The fallible humanity that is at the core of each one of us is portrayed here. It is rendered with the graceful dexterity for which we value art, and with the sympathy that enables us to come to terms with aspects of ourselves we might otherwise be unaware of. Richard Wilson's music hits no one over the head, but in the course of the years it has developed a conviction that tells of inner strength. His integrity is real. And his music is still growing and changing. The next ten years in his output will be a delight to observe.