Alec Wilder in Spite of Himself: A Life of the Composer

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Oxford University Press, Apr 25, 1996 - Music - 280 pages
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Alec Wilder wrote songs and lyrics of unsurpassed beauty and originality, and his work won the respect and admiration of such important musical figures as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Mitch Miller, Gunther Schuller, and many others. Yet Wilder seemed almost to court obscurity. Both in the music he composed and in the way he lived his life, Wilder valued the unique and eccentric over the established and easily acceptable. And though he authored the definitive American Popular Song--which critics praised as "singular" (Studs Terkel), "pioneering" (Whitney Balliett), "rewarding" (Milton Babbitt), and "a joy to anyone who really cares about American popular music" (Max Morath)--his own contribution to that music has remained, until now, too little known and far too little appreciated. Desmond Stone's engaging and lively biography brings Alec Wilder's life and music into the spotlight where it belongs. Ranging from Wilder's childhood in Rochester, New York, to his rise as a major writer of popular songs in the 1940s, to his relationships with Frank Sinatra and the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, Stone gives us rich insight into the creative process and profound influence of this highly unorthodox composer. We see the impulses and musical concerns that led to such standards as "I'll Be Around" and "It's So Peaceful in the Country." We also get an inside view of how he wrote his monumental American Popular Song, which remains the most significant study of America's great songwriters. More important, we get a vivid sense of a haunting, incorruptible melodist whose unique personality was mirrored in his music. Man and composer dared to be different. When Wilder in the late 1930s wrote his famous Octets, the music world did not know what to make of these irreverent, highly original pieces. Yet they had a seminal influence on jazz chamber music in America. Wilder would go on to compose hundreds of instrumental numbers. Whether he was writing concert pieces for an unprecedented and highly unusual group of instruments, or mixing jazz, classical, and popular idioms in a single song, or dashing off a sonata for a friend, Wilder followed the dictates of his own creativity rather than the expectations of the musical establishment. Such independence and unpredictability earned him the hostility of many critics but the enduring respect of the musicians he wrote for. Here then is a fascinating private portrait of a man who lived a nomad's life, who loved riding trains so much he kept a timetable in his pocket at all times, a man whose only home was a small room he maintained at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan (where he often held court in the lobby), a man with a serious drinking problem as well as the kindest and most generous of friends. Essential reading for anyone interested in American popular music, Alec Wilder in Spite of Himself provides a much needed account of this complex, colorful, and highly original life.
 

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Contents

Prologue
3
1 Breaking the Mold
6
2 Three Saving Friendships
19
3 The Eastman Years
27
4 His Mentor
42
5 Bridging the Tributaries
50
6 Song Takes Center Stage
63
7 Homage in a Supper Club
81
11 Casting a Spell
138
12 American Popular Song
153
13 The Letter Writer
169
14 The Young Believers
178
15 Defender of the Faith
188
16 The Final Years
202
Epilogue
223
Bibliography
229

8 Adventures in Opera and Film
89
9 From Pop to Long Hair
107
10 Music for Friends for Playing on Sunday
120

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About the author (1996)

Desmond Stone lives in Rochester, New York. Now retired, he had a long and distinguished career in journalism, and is a life member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. He was a New Zealand Associate Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 1955-1956.

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