I was thinking recently about Earl Wild for several reasons: his achievement as a pianist; his substantial and extended contribution to the “Romantic Revival” through his performances and recordings; and my own memories of exchanges with him after three of his appearances in New York City.
When I beheld him backstage, standing far away from his Baldwin grand, Earl Wild was, or at least seemed to be, ready to be praised—he knew he deserved to be praised, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative way. When I remarked to him that I loved his recording of Anton Rubinstein’s “Staccato Etude,” Op. 23, No. 2, he responded, “Oh yes, the woodpecker’s revenge!” On another occasion, when I asked him the source of his coda for Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz, he said, “Oh, I tape things, and if I like them, I play them.” I felt obliged to let Mr. Wild know that I was obliged to him, because I was. And he knew that well enough, because it was to be expected—he was the only prestidigitator in the room, after all. I never talked with him about the singularity of the idiomatic root meaning of Liszt’s title for the Transcendental Etude, “Wild Jagd”—it means more than it ostensibly says. Neither did I get the chance to tell him that his performance of that piece was revelatory.
So I thought I knew something about Earl Wild, including even his mischievousness and his “free spirit” persona and the entrechat quatre that substituted for a bow; and maybe I did. But now there has dropped ponderously into my hands yet another indicator of something Wild: A Walk on the Wild Side: A Memoir by Virtuoso Pianist Earl Wild, registering a cool 886 pages plus a CD. The retail price was $45.95, but because the volume (copyrighted 2011 by the dedicatee and publisher) is already out of print and treated as a collector’s item, $300 was one asking price on the internet. The kind one who gave me a copy forked over less.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1915, Earl Wild died in early 2010 at the age of 94. He had been working in concert with others on what became his farewell volume for some 35 years, and I think a glance at the title is itself indicative of the nature of his book. He called it a memoir, which means that it is not exactly an autobiography, and indeed it is not. A memoir emphasizes the other people in a life, not the narrator. It seems that Wild knew this distinction, because he was quite right, if that is indeed what he meant. But that is not the only thing in the title that might be important to notice.
I have to say that the word virtuoso is a mistake as it is used in the title. I do not at all mean to say that Earl Wild was not a virtuoso pianist—certainly not! I simply mean that such an honorific word is not for him to declare in such a meager context as there is in those few words. He might as well have written, instead, “Great Pianist”—but even he didn’t go that far.
So we have a situation that is problematical because we are talking about a big book about a long, busy life—a self-approving or self-aggrandizing book, and a book that has a framework about an individual, but without the individual focus on the inside. Rather, we find the diffusion on the outside of that individual. These two vibrations of trouble in the subtitle are warnings of worse to come, but there is, even so, compensation. The book is less than 900 pages long, and it does have a CD with an interview with Earl and a piece each by Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin. And it’s true that the interview is a living presence, and that the piano pieces are legitimate and appealing examples of what Earl Wild cared about the most.
But that’s just the thing. The CD presence is not the 886-page experience: To have a book, even a memoir, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, have to cut the mustard. What was the problem with the project? Two things suggest themselves: One is a ruinous lack of editing; and the other is a probable lack of experience in writing—and even in reading.
There was no way that Earl Wild was lacking in intelligence or stories to tell or lessons and principles to impart—no, indeed. Rather, he assumed over the years that he could fake writing a book by talking into a tape recorder, and I cannot altogether blame him for sharing such assumptions, since these are endorsed by so many publishing houses and wealthy politicians and others. Earl affirms convincingly that there is in the musical sphere no substitute for discipline, close attention, work, and practice, but he apparently thought that the pesky old English teacher could be ignored. But what happens is that if you don’t have one of those pedants on the inside of your mind, then the need will show on the outside. Earl Wild knew all there was to know about music and sight-reading and rhythmic precision and performance, but he apparently thought that logic, rhetoric, organization, and sensitivity to faults could be scanted—this while insisting that music was a language, and that the player must always be saying something!
Anyone can make a mistake, but there is a limit. “Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann was written to [sic] a poem by Lord Byron” (p. 507) is a double gaffe that could easily have been corrected. This absurd declaration itself masks the obvious truth that the extravagantly Byronic epistolary novel, Obermann, was written by Senancour (1804) in Switzerland—the aspect of geographical romanticism was important to Liszt.
The trouble with Earl Wild’s book is that it seems to be written by a committee—too, too much has been delegated, and then it is all articulated by mere juxtaposition. Presenting two sentences in sequence is supposed to justify their relationship, none being visible. The point of view is that the two sentences were both in the Book of Earl, and that is sufficient. When Earl Wild remembers Rachmaninoff, his authority is valuable—but he discredits his own experience when he puts himself on an equal footing with the Russian. He cannot resist being the divo himself, instead of the informed witness.
There are numerous repeated faults in the writing that can be identified. The first problem is that there is no established point of view that could provide a basis for knowing what is or is not pertinent. If Earl thinks of it, or if it had anything to do with him at all, it stays. That’s how you attain 886 pages, perhaps, but it is no formula for writing a book.
Another way to stretch the project is by providing painfully banal historical overviews. The result is something like this: If you played in Carnegie Hall in 1949, then that might be a good place to remind everyone of what happened in China that year. I saw a lot of this in the autobiography of Tony Brooks (who raced for Aston Martin and Ferrari) a few years ago, but here it is worse, if only because everything is so overdone. I am talking about faults of composition here, and nothing else.
The standards for discourse in ordinary circumstances do not apply when framed in pages for presentation. Repetitions that are routine human flaws pass muster in daily conversation, but are unacceptably irritating in print. And there is a lot of repetition in this voluminous context. And then there is a lot more repetition in this voluminous context, as well.
Statements of self-approval, though humanly understandable and even justifiable as objective truth in the case of an accomplished and documented performer, are nevertheless unbecoming in the dignity of print. There are things that one just cannot say of oneself. You can assert descriptive truths, such as “I am tall,” if that is the case, but not “I am virtuous and honest to a fault. And I am also charming and attractive”—unless you want to inspire laughter of the wrong kind. “The Romantic style requires a very refined and fluid technique, and I had the ability, style, elegance and drama needed to perform them [sic] properly.” You don’t say, Earl—but you did.
There is also a problem of triviality that runs throughout this book. The magnification of triviality raises some question about all the more important matters that are neglected. Earl Wild seems to have put himself in the position of remembering things that don’t matter—the quality of the food at some dinner 50 years ago, for example. I think this problem of triviality is, in spite of its own triviality, a serious fault, because it draws the judgment of the author—the writer, even the composer—into question. Am I saying that a good dinner is not notable? I am saying that, in composition, there is a matter of perspective that must be established even subconsciously, and that such perspective is here often lacking.
There are many accounts in this volume of various social engagements in the homes of wealthy people or rich women or individuals who are importantly connected in some way. And yet the point of the relationship is not established. The narrator “enjoyed” or was “amused” by the society, but again and again, we have a scene without ascertainable meaning. And speaking of ascertainable meaning, I was surprised that there was hardly any serious mention in these pages of the “openly gay” attitude of the man who signed off on this book. I would have thought that his young days and perhaps even his musicianship might be necessary aspects of a particular consciousness. Instead, there are goofy jokes and bad “limericks” that mostly are not limericks.
Having said so much negatively because of the provocative nature of this volume, I have to say also that I was glad to read this book, and enjoyed much of it. After all, its subject is the more than formidable pianist, the great Earl the Pearl, a singular personality and performer in the 20th century. It’s just too bad that the standards that governed his music-making were not evident in the presentation of his own memoir.