Lebewohl to a Titan of the Piano

Earl Wild

Earl Wild

Earl Wild passed away Saturday, at the age of 94. He was my most brilliant teacher and one of the funniest and most remarkable people I’ve been privileged to know.

I grew up listening to Earl Wild’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops; as a child, I mistakenly thought he was a jazz pianist. Then, as a teen, I heard him play the Chopin F minor Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center. Everything about that performance surprised me -– for one, that Earl Wild the “jazz pianist” played Chopin and also, that a concert artist could look like a debonair English lord, with his height, his white hair, his dove-gray business suit, the small, elegant steps with which he crossed the stage. Most striking of all was the grace of his playing: although I was not an astute listener back then, I recognized at the final note that I’d heard something of immense beauty.

Fast forward a decade or more to Columbus Ohio: at a campus record store, I bought an LP of Earl Wild playing the Tchaikowsky Concert Nr. 1 and the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, released by a small label called Quintessence. Not sure why, as I was steeped in Beethoven and Mozart at the time. But the minute I heard the slow movement of the Tschaikowsky, with its innocent lyricism, and his electrifying rendition of the Mephisto Waltz, I knew I’d never heard piano playing like this. It wasn’t the technique that floored me (though that was amazing) it was the gorgeous phrasing and the perfect motion of all the lyrical sections.

You can imagine my shock, when, a week later, leafing through an issue of Clavier magazine, I saw a full-page ad announcing that Earl Wild would be artist-in-residence at Ohio State University, less than a mile from my house! The solo recital I heard him give there a few weeks later (shortly before I gave birth to my daughter Alysa) is still one of the best I’ve ever heard: his Rachmaninoff Preludes still shimmer in my memory.

Even with an infant at home and working shifts in the E.R., I was determined to audition for and study with him. He heard me play just the beginning and the coda of the Chopin F minor Ballade and accepted me into his class. Thus began a six-year tutelage that shaped me as a musician.

As a teacher, he was both an innovator and a stickler for the minutest detail. He could play any piece in the piano repertoire, so he could demonstrate exactly what he wanted at the second piano. My innumerable scores of the pieces I studied with him (from Haydn to Chopin and yes, Rhapsody in Blue) are marked with countless instructions for fingerings, pedalings, phrasing, voicing, balance, where to slow down and speed up, which inner voice should imitate the French horn, where to “let go” so the piece can fly.

My husband Tom and I were granted the honor of hearing him perform many times at his home, and I sat in on several of his recording sessions as a page-turner. Once, while he was waiting to record a take, a train in the distance sounded, and without a second thought, Earl reproduced the dissonant chord on the piano before beginning to play.

The memories are many, and beyond the scope of this blog post, but here are just a few: hearing a private recording of him accompanying Lily Pons in the song “Estrellita;” his photos with Maria Callas; the Beethoven Sonata marathon he presented of all his students (we played until 1 a.m., to a packed house tempted by free pizzas donated by Pizza Hut, and wore powdered wigs in the publicity photo shoot;) visiting him in Santa Fe where he was good friends with its founder John Crosby; turning pages for the premier of his Stephen Foster “Doo-dah Variations” with the des Moines Symphony, flying back from Des Moines with his entourage on a private jet…

Earl had an irreverent sense of humor that was quick and apt. Once, when a favorite student complained that her “hands were so small,” he asked, “well, how big is your brain?” When someone else asked if it really was “correct” to re-distribute a chord so it was easier to play, he chided them: “Of course! Playing the piano is hard enough.”

About that, he was never less than honest. He practiced many hours a day (“if I don’t practice, my income goes down”) to achieve perfection at the keyboard. But his work was also his love. I know that he loved everything about the piano as well as the efforts of his fellow pianists — even when he was listening to a student performance, he was completely absorbed, focused, and energized.

So I will not say “rest in peace.” I will say, “Earl, may you thrill, trill, and ‘doo-dah’ forever.”

There are 2 responses to “Lebewohl to a Titan of the Piano”

  1. hi Debbie: i loved this post! How wonderful it must have been for you to admire someone from afar and one day become his student, close friend and page turner! It’s a bit of a fairy tale. I also learned so much about you I did not know, such a treat!

  2. Dear Debbie,

    What a lovely tribute to Earl you have written. He would be very pleased with your description of your relationship to him and how he influenced the rst of your life. What higher praise could there be than one great artist praises another with such tenderness and profound respect? Thank you very much for continyuing to share your fascinating life with your readers. More, please.

    In deep Appreciation, Ginny