First published in The Herald on 25 January, 2017
If you were to index a conversation with pianist and composer David Wilde, 82 next month, it would read like a compendium of 20th century western music. Solomon. Boulez. Boulanger. Hindemith. Barbirolli. Yo Yo Ma. After winning first prize at the 1961 Liszt-Bartók competition in Budapest, Wilde was one of the core names in British pianism, an astoundingly busy and versatile performer for at least two decades. Upstairs in his house in Cockenzie, East Lothian, an entire room is devoted to reel-to-reel tapes — hundred of recorded radio broadcasts, many of them of major modern repertoire in his trademark robust, heartfelt and intellectually steely interpretations. Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1977. Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds with the BBC Northern. Stockhausen’s Gruppen, in which Wilde played first celeste in the British premiere under Gibson in Glasgow and first piano under Boulez in London. And on and on.
The house also contains artefacts honouring Wilde the composer. On the mantelpiece is a little metal and wood model of a traditional Balkan doorway: it’s the symbolic Key to Sarajevo, offered by the Bosnian government in gesture of thanks for Wilde’s contributions during the siege. That story is well documented: the composer had read news reports of the cellist who played every day outside a bakery to commemorate civilians killed while queuing to buy flour, and, deciding he needed to go to the city, talked his way in as an official UN representative. His solo cello piece The Cellist of Sarajevo was later made famous in a recording by Yo Yo Ma — and along with other works from Wilde’s ‘Bosnian period’ it is included on a new disc of chamber music just released by Red Note Ensemble on the Delphian label.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is Wilde’s best known score, but it’s also typical of the way he uses music to respond to real politics. “My music doesn’t describe events,” he clarifies. “My works aren’t polemics, but they do reflect my own responses to events that move me.” He wrote an opera called London Burning whose villain is John Major. (It has not yet been performed in the UK.) His second string quartet is concerned with the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. “The second movement is called Cavatina Lamentosa for Jo,” he says. “It is incredibly sad. Then Jo’s widower Brendan said, ‘it’s time we stop mourning Jo and celebrate her life and her work, which will go on’. I thought, ‘good thinking,’ and started trying to write a follow-up. But I couldn’t do it. Just look at the state of the world. Her work isn’t going on. Maybe I should write a symphony of raspberries and call it Trump.”
Wilde tells me about a concert he gave in Hungary in the early 1960s. “I admired the Hungarians’ attempted rebellion in 1956, so I went there and I played a recital. As an encore I played the Hungarian national anthem, which was frowned upon by the communist government because of the words. And I played Liszt’s Funérailles, written in memory of those who fell in the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848. Everyone in that Budapest audience knew exactly what I meant. The response was so great it threatened to bring down the balcony of the concert hall.” When I admit I can’t think of the Hungarian national anthem, not off the top of my head, Wilde heads over to the upright piano in the corner of the sitting room and plays it for me: rousing and heartfelt, harmonised as sumptuously as a Chopin prelude.
“I played that for Nadia Boulanger once,” he says afterwards. “And she told me it could have been better harmonised!” Wilde studied with and became a friend of the great French pedagogue. For a period of 12 years he would travel to Paris and stay in a converted attic room above her apartment. “I learned so much about music and about life from her. She hated sleep. She would fight it like mad. She would only have five hours, maximum. I would take my lessons at 8pm in the evening and we would often end up sitting up late and eating together. I had the undivided attention of one of the towering minds of music history. Can you imagine?”
Wilde started playing piano when he was 3 years old. He learned to read music at the same time as he learned to read words, aged 5, and the following year he was playing Liszt and Rachmaninoff in public. At 8 he performed Grieg’s piano concerto and says he began his “serious training” at 10. Then came the urge to make up his own music. “I got too subjective about it — of course teenagers do — and I wrote a piano sonata when I was about 14. It was full of sound fury and passion and it was absolutely bloody awful.”
A turning point came with the “life-changing” Jungian analysis he undertook in the 1980s after the collapse of his first marriage. He would later write a paper applying Jungian theory to Liszt’s B Minor Sonata and called it Listening To The Shadows. Whom or what is being analysed, I ask? Performer, composer, music? “I welcome that ambiguity,” he smiles. Because, for Wilde, the distinctions are fluid. “Jungian analysis means contacting the part of ourselves that is unconscious and bringing it into consciousness. I applied those principles to music.”
He asks whether I know the recordings of Rachmaninoff playing Chopin’s Funeral March or Schumann’s Carnival. “You can hear it’s a composer playing because it’s very carefully structured. It’s as though he were recomposing the piece. There’s an insight a composer performer can have that someone who is not a composer can’t have. He’s following the composer’s mind. Playing is a way I become more aware of my own unconscious. Playing and composing — both are ways I move towards more awareness.”
The Cellist of Sarajevo: chamber music by David Wilde, performed by Red Note Ensemble, is out now on Delphian records