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Alec Wilder

Philip Lambert

Publication Year: 2013

The music of Alec Wilder (1907-1980) blends several American musical traditions, such as jazz and the American popular song, with classical European forms and techniques. Stylish and accessible, Wilder's musical oeuvre ranged from sonatas, suites, concertos, operas, ballets, and art songs to woodwind quintets, brass quintets, jazz suites, and hundreds of popular songs. In this biography and critical investigation of Wilder's music, Philip Lambert chronicles Wilder's early work as a part-time student at the Eastman School of Music, his ascent through the ranks of the commercial recording industry in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, his turn toward concert music from the 1950s onward, and his devotion late in his life to the study of American popular songs of the first half of the twentieth century. The book discusses some of his best-known music, such as the revolutionary octets and songs such as "I'll Be Around," "While We're Young," and "Blackberry Winter," and explains the unique blend of cultivated and vernacular traditions in his singular musical language.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: American Composers


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xi

Alec Wilder (1907–80) was a man of diverse renown. Sophisticated audiophiles in the early 1940s knew him as the composer of a highly original series of octets that deftly melded jazz, pop, and classical traditions. Musicians and producers in the New York recording industry in the 1940s and ’50s knew him as a talented arranger and orchestrator. To legions of children and their...

A Note on Sources

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xix

More than thirty years after Alec Wilder’s death, the community of Wilder friends, fans, and advocates is still going strong. This first became apparent to me at the beginning of my research for this book, when I contacted Bob Levy, and he put me in touch with a network of Wilder enthusiasts who were eager to help in any way they could. I thank Bob for his passion...

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1. Awakenings: Musical Experiences through the Early 1930s

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pp. 1-16

From the moment of his birth, on February 16, 1907, in Rochester, New York, Alexander Wilder was a child of privilege. His father’s family were prominent local bankers. His mother’s family, descended from the Chews of New Orleans, had similarly prospered at the First National Bank of nearby Geneva. His full name, Alexander Lafayette Chew Wilder, sustained a legacy from...

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2. Breakthroughs: First Professional Successes in the 1930s and 1940s

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pp. 17-45

In the late 1930s, with the United States moving from economic depression to global military conflict, the Swing Era was reaching its zenith in the recordings and radio broadcasts of big bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. Smaller groups like the John Kirby Sextet and the Raymond Scott Quintette flourished as...

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3. Evolutions: Compositional Maturity in the 1950s

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pp. 46-72

From the l ate 1940s through the 1950s, Alec Wilder pursued a long-held goal with growing confidence and perseverance. Having made his name as a songwriter-arranger, he now aspired to become more of a “composer.” He never abandoned the popular song; in a way, the popular song abandoned him, in the voices and antics of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. “As the...

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4. Loyalties: The Prolific 1960s

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pp. 73-91

In November 1972, Alec Wilder wrote a reflective essay for the New York Times about the state of music at the end of a tumultuous decade.1 “My particular complaint about rock,” he explained, “is its continuing amateur point of view. For while amateurs can produce miracles, they can do it only once.” Wilder wrote that he had witnessed remarkable professionalism...

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5. Celebrations: Reflection and Reaffirmation in the 1970s

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pp. 92-110

Alec Wilder’s final decade unfolded with recurring themes and new ones. His catalog of original compositions for instrumental groups, large and small, continued to grow, as did his collection of distinguished contributions to the popular-song genre. His interest in writing for the stage persisted as well. But a deepening friendship with Marian McPartland inspired a new fascination with...

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6. The Music of Alec Wilder: An Assessment

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pp. 111-114

In histories of American music in the twentieth century, Alec Wilder has stood just where he wanted to be: in the gaps. While his claims of embracing obscurity never seem completely genuine, he certainly took pleasure in testing the limits of traditional categories and prejudices, writing music that makes us question how and why conventional margins had been defined...


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pp. 115-129

Selected Works

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pp. 131-141

For Further Reading

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pp. 143-165

Suggested Listening

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pp. 145-146


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pp. 147-153

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094842
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037603

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: American Composers