Earl Wild, 94

'Last of the great Romantic pianists' Earl Wild, 94, dies

In 1978, pianist Earl Wild created the Concert Soloists of Wolf Trap, a chamber music ensemble based in Vienna, Va.
In 1978, pianist Earl Wild created the Concert Soloists of Wolf Trap, a chamber music ensemble based in Vienna, Va. (Courtesy Of Wolf Trap)
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By Valerie J. Nelson
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Earl Wild, 94, an American-born piano virtuoso who was often called "the last of the great Romantic pianists," died Jan. 23 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Wild had to be "the world's only pianist to have composed for Sid Caesar, toured with Eleanor Roosevelt and been ranked in dexterity with Vladimir Horowitz," The Washington Post pointed out in 1986.

Stewart Gordon, a longtime professor of keyboard studies at the University of Southern California, called Mr. Wild "a magnificent pianist" who "combined his art with great personal charm and wit." These traits helped sustain him "as an international ambassador, playing and teaching with equal ease at multiple levels, from being a favorite of European royalty to offering words of wisdom to aspiring young musicians," Gordon said in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Wild was born Nov. 26, 1915, in Pittsburgh, and by age 6 his fluid piano technique was already "a source of wonder," Time magazine said in 1995.

As a teen, he was a concert-hall veteran and studied with the distinguished Dutch pianist Egon Petri. After attending what is now Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Wild joined Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937.

Two years later, Mr. Wild gave the first piano recital on television. He first experienced fame after Toscanini asked him to play piano for a 1942 radio broadcast of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." He also became pigeonholed as a specialist in the pops repertory, particularly Gershwin, and in the works of Franz Liszt, even though his musical arsenal was vast.

An immaculate technician, Mr. Wild made more than 100 recordings "of the widest possible piano repertory," which reflected "not only lofty technical standards but a striking musical sophistication," Daniel Cariaga, then a music critic for the Times, wrote in 2005.

Many pianists consider Mr. Wild's recordings for Reader's Digest of the four Rachmaninoff concertos to be "the quintessential, definitive performance of those works," Gordon told the Times in 2005.

When Mr. Wild wasn't playing flute in the Navy band during World War II, he often traveled with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform the national anthem before her speeches.

After the war, he joined ABC as a staff pianist, conductor and composer until 1968. His own compositions included the Easter oratorio "Revelations," first broadcast on ABC in 1962, and many piano transcriptions.

In the 1950s, he wrote musical parodies for Caesar's NBC show after the comedian sought help spoofing operas.

Certain "elitist quarters" never forgave Mr. Wild his early work in radio and TV, "his nonintellectual approach to music and his refreshingly nonchalant virtuosity," the New York Times reported in 2005.

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