Alec Wilder

Alec Wilder

By Tim Reynish, June 2007 - revised April 2011

Read an article, published April 2011, about the music of Alec Wilder and the Alec Wilder Centennial Site

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.

I was shocked to notice that the centennial of the birth of the great Alec Wilder had passed me by. "Who he?" many browsers might ask. Well, he was one of the great geniuses of popular music of the mid-twentieth century. His art defies description or placing in pigeon holes, and can best be summed up in the brilliant biography on his Centennial website.

Alec Wilder's music is a unique blend of American musical traditions - among them jazz and the American popular song - and basic "classical" European forms and techniques. As such, it fiercely resists all labeling. Although it often pained Alec that his music was not more widely accepted by either jazz or classical performers, undeterred, he wrote a great deal of music of remarkable originality in many forms: sonatas, suites, concertos, operas, ballets, art songs, woodwind quintets, brass quintets, jazz suites - and hundreds of popular songs.

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. It's non-stereotypical specialness virtually precluded any widespread acceptance.


In his book, "Alec Wilder and His Friends," Whitney Balliett dubbed Wilder "The President of the Derriere Garde," and to many classical critics he was a "conservative craftsman lacking in innovation" and not to be taken seriously. Irving Kolodin, a champion of Wilder's music, commended his native urban style, lamenting that it never became "politically fashionable," as did the music of many of his contemporaries.

Wilder, at his best, represents a fascinating amalgam of three quite different composer-archetypes, here all rolled into one: Gershwin, Poulenc, Villa-Lobos. In its baldest outlines, Wilder's oeuvre is unusually diverse and characteristically American, a synthesis of the brilliant song writer (Gershwin); the not-too-intellectual, traditional and determinedly conservative composer of easily accessible American-style Gebrauchsmusik, making use of popular and jazz elements as a matter of course (Poulenc); and a sometimes uncritical, too-casual writer who writes too much too easily - like Shakespeare's old bromide about loving too well but not wisely (Villa-Lobos).

My interest in the music of Wilder stems from an old vinyl recording of Horn Belt Boogie for horn quartet, hasprichord and rhythm, which was led by Gunther Schuller.On the flip side was My Little Black-eyed Suzie played by Mitch Miller, and I have never really forgiven my wife for sitting on the disc and smashing it; I have never been able to replace it. In the early eighties I brought back from USA the recording by fsu Jim Croft and have always wanted the chance to play some of his music. I hope that this will be the year. I reprint the article written by Tom Everett for BASBWE and WASBE in the hope that others will take an interest in this sadly neglected genius.


1907 - 1980

Thomas G. Everett

American composer Alec Wilder(1907-1980) has written a unique and fascinating collection of works for wind instruments. Unfortunately, these works are not as well-known or performed as often as they should be. Wilder's compositions, highly personal and sophisticated, incorporate elements of jazz style and American popular music with marvellous lyricism and intricate use of counterpoint. Sonatas and solo works with piano, some with string orchestra or wind ensemble accompaniment, exist for every wind instrument from Cor Anglais to Tuba and his quintets for brass quintet and woodwind quintet are some of the most charming and melodic in the genre for those instruments.

Wilder's early success and main reputation were made in the 30's and 40's as a writer of popular songs. Singers the calibre of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mildred Bailey, Judy Garland, Eileen Farrell and others have drawn attention to his subtle and sensitive songs helping to make his I'll be Around, It's So Peaceful in the CountryandWhile We're Young,standards of American song.

Born in Rochester , New York , Wilder was always more interested in reading and literature (a lifelong obsession and love) than in studying music, although he did study privately for a brief period of time at the Eastman School of Music. His life was that of a nomad always travelling by train, (another great love), visiting and staying with friends and never acquiring the roots or material possessions most of us expect in the life of such a gifted but underrated musician. Although he arranged and wrote in the 'twenties, his first noted success was the Alec WilderOctets (1939) written for the combination of flute, oboe (and Cor Anglais), two clarinets, bassoon, string bass, harpsichord, and drums. The works were completely composed and impressionistic in texture, but delivered with a happy, improvisational jazz feel. The sleeve notes to the original out-of-print recording of the Octets stated the main centre is Wilder, fresh and uninhibited and highly imaginative. As these pieces bubble along, striking the ear with unorthodox instrumentation and surprising harmonies, striking the mind with their sunny lack of banality, it is well to remember that they were composed in the late 'thirties.

Why didn't Wilder receive more general acclaim from the public than he did and why are his gems (to borrow a description from Percy Grainger) not known to every wind player? To investigate Wilder's life is to discover a very moral, sensitive, shy man who almost seemed born a century too late. He was a private man (private about his personal life, but vocal about his beliefs!) and only entrusted his music to friends. In fact most of the solo instrumental pieces he wrote were created for a small group of loyal, virtuoso performers who were his friends and inspiration (although Wilder disliked that term). He wrote music for his friends (John Barrows, horn; Robert Levy, trumpet; Harvey Phillips, tuba) and wrote the music as gifts - something simply to be enjoyed. Wilder never promoted his works and was not concerned if his music was performed. The act of composing was often a labour of love and if the work was accepted and played by his friends, well, that was wonderful. Wilder always creditedthe performer with the success of the work.

This brings us to another difference in Wilder's music. Not only does it often include jazz phrasing, rhythms, articulation (and even in one work, improvisation of chord changes: Concerto for Trumpet and Flugelhorn No.2) but Wilder encourages the performer to personalise the music; not to change it but to shape the lines and emphasise the notes (even occasionally the addition of a subtle jazz smear or rip where appropriate) to create the spirit of a jazz performer. Unfortunately, few performers can accomplish this without something corny or trite. Classicallytrainedmusicians viewed Wilder's music as too light, pop-ish and jazz musicians felt it too restricting or not swinging; however with the correct interpretation, something unique and very special can happen in Wilder's best works.

Solo works for wind instruments with wind accompaniment include an Air for Horn and Concertos for Alto Saxophone, Euphonium, two for Trumpet and one for Tuba. All these works are sparsely scored but bring out unique wind colours and timbres (at times reminiscent of' Grainger's treatment of winds) supporting and interacting with the soloist's unpredictable and soaring flights of melody.

New Yorker Magazine critic Whitney Balliett described these qualities poetically as the melodiclines moving through surprising intervals and using rhythms in a purposeful, agile, jazz-based manner.

Four Entertainments, numbers 1, 3, 5,7 (numbers 2,4, 6, are for orchestra) have been written for large wind ensemble. In multi-movements, the works incorporate solo playing for every member of the ensemble including percussion. The Entertainments areaptly titled, as they are serenades in a grand style; variety, diversity, humour and wonderful catchy melodies are intertwined with a highly rhythmic vibrant music (sometimes movements are in 5/4 or consist of changing symmetric metre). They hold, especially Entertainments II, a special and high place in the wind ensemble repertoire.

Another reason why much of Wilder's instrumental music was not generally known or played was that most of it was not published. With respect for Alec Wilder and as a labour of love, Harvey Phillips, one of the world's virtuoso tuba players and a long-time crusader of his music, collected and stored Wilder's music hoping one day to have all his works available from the same publisher. Gunther Schuller, noted composer, conductor, lecturer and champion of American Music, has brought us closer to Phillips' dream by making most (not all, some works are published elsewhere, others still not available) of Alec Wilder's solo, chamber and larger works works available for purchase or rental from his own publishing company, Margun Music now on hire from Schirmer/Music sales.. Another close friend, Clark Galehouse, was aware of the unique quality and value of Wilder and his music. Through his Golden Crest Records many of Alec Wilder's solo and chamber works are documented, often by the artists for whom they were written. One LP record of special interest to readers is Golden Crest ATH-5070 (digital): the Compositions of Alec Wilderplayed by the University of Southern Florida Wind Ensemble (directed by James Croft) guest conducted by Frederick Fennell. Entertainment 1, Concerto for Euphonium and Wind Ensemble, (Brian Bowman, soloist) Concerto no 2 for Trumpet, Flugelhorn and Wind Orchestra -(Robert Levy soloist) . Most of these recordings were made with the composer present.

Alec Wilder's place in 20th century American music will be acknowledged more and more as we explore his music and special musical vocabulary. James Maher, a writer who assisted Wilder in his acclaimed text The American Popular Song (OxfordUniversity Press) described Wilder's place in formal music:

One must in Alec's case, let uniqueness be unique. He occupies his own space and that's it. He writes mainly for wind instruments, and the academic community tends accordingly to look at his pieces as divertissements, as entertainments. They also regard him as frivolous because he is primarily a melodist, a composer who thinks in terms of timbres and colouristic things. You see, he had little formal training and his gods have always been Bach, Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. But as he is wholly outside the academic community, he is revered by the great performers.



Entertainment No. 1 (1961) - 19.00 3.3.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.3/44422/timp.perc

Entertainment No. 5 15.00 3.2.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.5sx.2/

Entertainment No. 7 (1975) - 12.00 3.2.4.(bcl).2/


Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble (1966) - 16 minute(s)

Alto Saxophone 3.3.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.2/4.4+5cnt.1.1/

Concerto for Euphonium and Wind Orchestra (1971) - 13 minute(s)

Euphonium 2.3.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.2/4.4+5cnt.1.1/timp.perc

Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble (1968) - 11 minute(s)

Tuba 3.3.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.2/4.4.4+2euph.1/timp.perc

Concerto No. 1 for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble (1967) - 13 minute(s)

Trumpet 3.3.3+Ebcl+acl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.2/4.0+4cnt.3+euph.2/timp.perc/db

Arranger / Editor orchestrated for wind ensemble by John Barrows

Concerto No. 2 for Trumpet/Flugelhorn and Wind Ensemble (1969) - 16 minute(s)

Soloist(s) Trumpet (Flugelhorn) 3.3.3+Ebcl+bcl+cbcl.4sx.2/4442/timp.perc


Around the Horn 10.00 ob, 4 hn, hpd, gtr, db, dm

Horns and Oboe 10.00 ob, 4 hn, hpd, gtr, db, dm

Suite for 19 Trombones (1967) - 14.00 19 tbn


Children's Plea for Peace (1968) - 14.00 Narrator + Chorus SSAA 214(bcl).1[=2]/333(btbn).1/perc

Five Vocalises for Soprano and Winds (1971) - 11.00 Soprano with 123(bcl).1/3331/perc