“There was no ambition to be famous, no desire to have pieces played by famous orchestras, no secret wish for commissions or prizes or for being “taken up” by prominent art lovers. I simply hoped I could learn to do something well.” [Alec Wilder]
Alec Wilder (1907-1980), was a prolific American composer who wrote in many genres, but never sought fame or notoriety, producing a wealth of music which is both accessible, beautifully written and worthy of performance in the 21st-century. His music has been described as "...a unique blend of American musical traditions - among them jazz and the American popular song - and basic "classical" European forms and techniques... 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." [Gunther Schuller, Robert Levy, Loonis McGlohon, Judy Bell]
Alexander Lafayette Chew Wilder was born on 16 February 1907 in Rochester, New York and studied composition and counterpoint privately at the Eastman School of Music, but was largely self-taught as a composer. He was friends with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee amongst others, and Sinatra even conducted an album for Columbia Records of Wilder's music for solo wind instruments and string orchestra. Wilder's very last song 'A Long Night' was written for and recorded by Sinatra, and he and many other musicians were great supporters and strong advocates of Wilder and his music. He composed mainly for friends, including many pieces for young people, and was interested to create chamber works for neglected instruments such as the double bass, euphonium, french horn, marimba and tuba. His music has a natural flow and creativity, is fresh and lyrical, and is popular with musicians of all genres.
Wilder's music has been described as possessing "...taste and quality with that personal melodic touch that was all his own, unaffected by musical fashion or fad." Much of his chamber music was unpublished until his later years and although much is in print and there are many recordings of his works he is still a composer worthy of discovery and exploration today. Wilder was often sparing in his performance markings, leaving it to the performers to create the shape and feel of a piece, and he seemed to care little about fame or the longevity of his music after his death. The Gary Karr recording has excellent liner notes and includes more information about Wilder's instructions to performers: "...Wilder is more than generous in allowing the performer "freedom and initiative," setting out only the sparest instructions. The movements are simply numbered and given a metronome indications. Wilder uses a minimum of expressive markings: he courteously leaves the player wide creative latitude." He obviously had great faith in his performers and was confident enough to allow his music to speak for itself and for each player to use their own musical skills experience. Not a bad approach...
For the last forty years of his life Alec Wilder lived in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, although he also travelled widely. He has been described as a 'bonafide eccentric' but I think he was simply a one-off who didn't want to play the fame game or follow the path of everyone else and was quite happy writing music for friends and enjoying life. Alec Wilder died of lung cancer on 24 December 1980 in Gainesville, Florida - "just in time to keep from becoming better known".
Wilder composed three works for double bass in the 1960s. His Sonata for String Bass & Piano was composed in 1961 for Gary Karr, a Suite for String Bass & Piano followed in 1965 and a Suite for String Bass & Guitar in 1968, but then sadly nothing else for the instrument. The great virtuoso Gary Karr recalls:
"Alec Wilder wrote two Suites for me…one with guitar and the other with piano. When I began my career in 1961, shortly thereafter I made a recording with Golden Crest Records. John Barrows, the great virtuoso French Horn player also recorded for this company and introduced them to the music of Alec Wilder whose pieces for French Horn Barrows recorded. When Wilder heard my Golden Crest recording, without ever asking me, he immediately wrote a Sonata for bass and piano which I played in my debut N.Y. recital in 1962. A long friendship with Wilder then ensued during which time he wrote the other two bass pieces. If you google Alec Wilder you’ll discover that he wrote a lot of music for the pop and jazz artists of the time which is reflected in his so-called classical pieces like the Small Suite. He was a very intelligent, well-read eccentric who lived his life in hotels. In N.Y. it was the Algonquin Hotel."
In 1968 Gary Karr recorded all three double bass works for Golden Crest Records Inc. (Recital Series RE 7031) with pianist Bernie Leighton and guitarist Frederic Hand, and although he had performed the Sonata in London, Berlin, Boston and elsewhere the two suites were unperformed at the time. Small Suite was published in 1981 by Margun Music, edited by Gunther Schuller, and it is likely that the editor changed the title to distinguish it from the Suite for double bass and guitar, and also created an edition for tuba and piano.
Lasting a little under 12 minutes, Alec Wilder's Small Suite is a work of enormous charm and quality and is only available in solo tuning. It's four contrasting movements are a microcosm of the composer's many musical styles and all the more successful because of it. Each movement is short and succinct, none outstaying their welcome and offering music which is accessible and interesting to performers and audiences alike.
The first movement is marked 'Smoothly' and is a Bach-inspired piece of contrapuntal writing and is is a three-part canon, primarily in continuous quavers. Marked 'sempre legato' throughout it requires both technical and musical control to produce the simplicity of line which the composer surely intended. The second movement (Romatically) is the longest of the four and is in the form of a slow ballad, a 'song without words' almost. The accompaniment is jazz infused with a slow crotchet movement which allows the double bass to sing a melody of great warmth and beauty. A sure-fire winner with audiences.
The third movement (Flowingly) is more contemporary in design with its use of parallel fourths in the accompaniment and creating a slightly acerbic and challenging moment, though still lyrical but in a 20th-century idiom, after such a beautiful slow movement. The final movement (Quasi Jazz) sets out Wilder's jazz credentials and the lyrical arco melody works with a mainly chordal accompaniment which wouldn't be out of place in a late night bar or cocktail lounge and has a free and easy-going quality, providing a fitting and successful conclusion to a suite which is full of colour and invention.
Alec Wilder's music is unable to be categorised in one particular style, because he composed in so many and definitely followed his own path. He had a love of all styles of music, evidenced by the great breadth of works he produced, and his Small Suite exemplifies this and that he wasn't prepared to be labelled in any way. Alec Wilder was a true American original and his three works for double bass are ripe for exploration and discovery.