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Eight Forty-Eight

Celebrating the UnSung

This year marks the centennial for composer Alec Wilder. He wrote music in the 20th century, and got the attention of musicians like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Peggy Lee. Wilder also authored several written works, including one on American popular song, which led to a weekly radio series discussing American songwriters for National Public Radio in the mid-1970s. Groups have been holding celebratory concerts for Wilder's centennial. Today, a group of musicians in Chicago will play some of Wilder's pieces in a centennial tribute concert at Herald Washington Library Auditorium. For Chicago Public Radio, Blair Chavis has the story.

For much of his life, Alec Wilder lived as an introvert, shrouded in self-doubt. Wilder shied away from publicizing himself, and few people knew the extent of his work. Wilder's body of work includes classical, jazz and popular song.


He's often known for songs like “I'll Be Around,” or “It's So Peaceful in the Country.” Since his death in 1980, friends and fans have made it their mission to make his legacy public with tribute concerts.


One friend and fan has taken it upon himself to bring Wilder's music to Chicago. As a child, Richard Wyszynski fell in love with his music.


“Well I just heard those pieces on record. And my sister brought them home when I was nine-years-old. And so they may have confounded the critics, but they didn't confound me. I fell in love with them. I still have those ‘78s at home.”


But, unlike Wyszynski, critics had difficulty navigating Wilder's music. It didn't inhabit one particular style or genre, even within the confines of a single piece.


Music: “House Detective Registers”


“They'll start out…and then all of a sudden he'll bring a slight lift with a little suggestive jazz beat and percussion, and then out of nowhere, left field, something nobody had ever heard of up to that point—a jazzy harpsichord…The mixture of a little bit of jazz and a lot of classical, and the jazz people thought he was too classical, and the classical people thought he was too jazzy.”


Despite criticisms, Wilder continued to write how he preferred. Alexander Wilder was born in 1907 in Rochester, NY. He had a rough childhood—with a father who died at a young age, and an emotionally distant mother who succumbed to alcoholism.


Music: “Such a Tender Night”, Frank Sinatra conducts


“He made up for an emotionally bruised childhood and some difficult periods by using his need for affection…into generating affection for the people that he felt were beautiful people and for whom he wrote beautiful gifts in the terms of music. The French-horn player, John Barrows, once said, ‘He's the only man I know who gives sonatas for Christmas.'”


For a man who found safety in solitude, he managed to collect quite a few famous friends, finding admirers among Igor Stravinsky, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Marian McPartland, Peggy Lee and others.


Frank Sinatra and oboist Mitch Miller helped to jumpstart recording Wilder's music for the public in the 1930s and ‘40s.


In fact, when Sinatra first discovered Wilder's music he made it his personal business to record it in 1945.


“Somewhere along the line, there were some home recordings made of these pieces for strings and winds, that Sinatra happened to hear on the radio, I guess. And he immediately was knocked out with them. And so he went to Columbia Records, and said, ‘You've got to record this guy. It's beautiful music. Alec Wilder.' Well they said, ‘Who's Alec Wilder?' … But Sinatra was so enthused about it, he said, ‘Well, okay, I'll tell you what, we'll put my name on the album. I'll conduct.' The one and only time that Frank Sinatra ever conducted…”


Wilder not only wrote for famous musicians, he also wrote for any musician who asked. As a result, he wrote music for instruments which often didn't get much attention, like tubas and French-horns.


“I can remember the words in my head. He said, ‘I was down in Bloomington, IN with Harvey Phillips and this little girl came in the room with a French-horn and I thought she was gonna…you know, just try and hold up her own, but she just blew me out of the room…I mean, glorious musicianship! And she sat down and said do you have anything written for solo French-horn? And I said, well, no, I don't. Well, I sat down and the next day I had six pieces for her.'”


To Wilder, his music represented a sort of sanity in, what he found to be a difficult world.


Music: “Air for English Horn”, transcribed for clarinet (“Air for Clarinet), played by Gail Schechter


“…You hear it in the music. You hear the loneliness; you hear his love of beauty—because he loved a good melody.”


Gail Schechter, will be playing this* clarinet solo in the upcoming concert.


“I don't think any of his pieces really have any kind of a build up or climax—what you get from other composers, because he was afraid of that. I think he was so blocked in some ways, emotionally, so he would go only so far, I think… in his music….I think it's a source of his own self-criticism, because he recognized that about his own music…it does mean that he set, I think, some limitations on himself.”


Later in his own musical career, Wyszynski decided to reach out to Wilder and wrote him a letter. The two exchanged correspondence and paid each other visits over the years. Wyszynski last saw Wilder as he was passing through Chicago in 1975.


A few years later, Wyszynski wrote to Wilder to express his overall appreciation. Wyszynski reads from Wilder's last reply, about a year before his death:


“You describe me, see me, as an especially good, remarkable person with a rare spirit. I, to myself, am of little consequence; one, who has fought his lifelong to achieve any degree of self-respect, and who only is the…in the past year has considered the possibility of his having a worthy talent. Having concluded this miraculous possibility, I now find myself unable to compose a note. For, if I am any good, every note must be better than any note I wrote when I considered myself a half-baked composer…If I were a twentieth as unusual as you believe, I would for once, relax.”


Wilder died with little money or recognition, and much of his work went unpublished and unaccounted for until recent years. Wyszynski will be conducting the 22-member Cardinal Chamber Orchestra for the concert. 


Music: “I'll Be Around”


The event will feature some of Wilder's earliest works. The free, commemorative concert will be held at 12:15 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium.


For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Blair Chavis.

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