2015. szeptember 12., szombat

Aristid von Wurtzler

By Carl Swanson

(This piece was written for the 90th anniversary of the birth of Aristid von Wurtler.)

In the summer of my 16th year I decided to study harp. I had been playing piano for about 6 years, but I had recently heard a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and I was fascinated by the sound of the harp. I found a teacher who agreed to teach me for almost no fee at all and also to rent me a harp. A few days before my first lesson, the choir director of my church, who was a good friend, called to say that there was going to be a harp concert in Hartford (Connecticut, about one and a half hours from my home) and if I wanted to go he would go with me.

The concert was at Hartt College of Music, and the soloist that evening was Pierre Jamet. Aristid was having a one week harp masterclass, and Pierre Jamet was the invited guest teacher and artist. Aristid spoke for a few minutes and introduced Pierre Jamet. When the concert ended, the choir director said to me, “Go introduce yourself to Mr. Von Wurtzler. Tell him you are studying the harp.” “I haven’t had my first lesson yet!!” I said. The choir director led me over to Aristid and introduced me to him. “He’s studying harp,” the choir director said. Aristid, like all harp teachers, was always scouting for students to build his harp department at Hartt. He immediately focused in on me, taking down my contact information. Without realizing it at the time, on that evening I met the two harpists (Aristid and Pierre Jamet) who would have a profound influence on my life with the harp.

For the next year, my last year of high school, Aristid kept in touch, and would often drive way over to my home on his way back to New York to give me a lesson. He never charged me anything for these lessons. I applied to Hartt College and got in, with one year of harp studies under my belt. The fact that I graduated on time, four years later, having given a senior recital, is a testament to how much time and effort Aristid put into my development.

He introduced me to the harp classics, and also the classic way of learning the harp: etudes, scales, and the standard repertoire of the harp literature. That same year Barbara Pniewska came to Hartt from Poland as a special student. She was older than me and already a professional harpist in Poland. She and I were the harp department at Hartt. The two of us had to play symphony and opera parts, do outside jobs that came in to Hartt. We were both very busy. Aristid was at Hartt every Tuesday and Wednesday and was a whirlwind of activity the whole time. He simply could not sit still. He always had many things going on at the same time: teaching of course, but also meetings with Paranov, the president of the school, recitals or presentations anywhere he could in order to help build the harp department. His real gift was getting new students to start the harp. While the college level harp department at Hartt usually had no more than 4 or 5 students, the preparatory division, for pre-college students, was usually around 25 or 30 students. Aristid would play on local TV and radio stations, for women’s clubs, anywhere people would come to hear him, and this would get new students. He had his own cue cards that he carried around so that the interviewer could read the question and he could read the answer! He would also have monthly student recitals at Hartt, and even new students who had not had more than 4 or 5 lessons played some little piece. All of this activity on Aristid’s part really worked. What’s really interesting is that many of those prep division students went on to become professional harpists.

The harp department at Hartt, both the college level and the prep-division, was like a family. We all knew each other and Aristid was like a father to everyone. His name for me, which began almost as soon as I started at Hartt and which he called me for the rest of his life, was Carl Bácsi (Uncle Carl).

In those days many of the teachers at American music schools were Europeans who had learned their English haphazardly, without ever studying it. Aristid had done the same and his English was colorful. “Carl bácsi, vy you no study Tournier?” he would ask me. “Carl bácsi, dis is a big misunderstood!” I once went with him when he had to play the Ravel Introduction and Allegro with a local orchestra. As we stood behind stage, him waiting to go on, I asked him if he was nervous. “Carl bácsi, if I no play dis correct after 30 years, I vill suicide myself!”

Aristid loved to make jokes and laugh. He had written some little pieces for beginner students, with charming melodies. For his birthday, Barbara and a couple of the students in the prep division put words to one of these melodies, using his mangled English and expressions. I can still remember Barbara and the students singing “Hello dalink, tell me vats new, tell me vat da situation is today? Are you happy or unhappy, since from you I’ve been so long avay.” Aristid dissolved into gails of laughter, his face turning red and tears streaming down his cheeks he was laughing so hard.

As a harpist Aristid was enormously gifted and, even though he no longer practiced at all, could sit down and play almost anything. I saw him do this over and over. He had a special gift for improvision that was unbelievable. One time a call came into Hartt from a radio station that wanted a harpist to record some background and bridge music (to be used between programs or between segments, etc.). Neither Barbara nor I felt qualified to do it. When Aristid came up the next Tuesday, he and Barbara went to the radio station with a harp. The next day, Barbara told me what had happened the evening before. When they got to the station, Aristid and the harp were put into a recording studio. There was a big clock on the wall directly in front of him. For the next two hours, someone in the recording booth would say to Aristid, “OK, Mr. Von Wurtzler, we need 21 seconds of slow music in a minor key.” Then, “OK Mr. Von Wurtzler, we need 42 seconds of bright jumpy music in E flat.” Aristid would start playing, keeping his eye on that clock, and whatever he had been told to play cadenced exactly on the second they wanted it to end. This went on for over two hours!!

Aristid’s improvisions on the harp involved endless pedaling. I have never seen any harpist move so many pedal so fast. When he improvised, I expected to see smoke coming out of the action. He was also an incredible sight reader, and what he read was the harmonic structure of a piece he was looking at. He detested having pedals written in, and he would play any piece the way a jazz harpist plays: Keeping the pedals in the key of the piece and then moving pedals when needed for accidentals, moving them back to the home key when he was done. I was baffled by this approach, and it required him to move boatloads of pedals during a piece. I would see him move 3, 4, or 5 pedals on one beat, and then move them all back a few beats later.

There was one technical point the he could do that was better than any other harpist I have ever heard before or since, and that was a 4 finger bizbigliando. He was without peer. When he did a 4 finger bizbigliando, it was like a swarm of bees producing a harmony. You couldn’t hear any beat, any beginning or end to the pattern, nor any individual notes. It was soft as a breeze and absolutely even. He would do that, moving around the instrument and changing the chords, and it just took your breath away.

Aristid was a generous, colorful, gifted man, who loved the harp and contributed to it in so many ways, and writing this short piece reminds me of just how much I miss him.

(2015)

(See Hungarian translation: here)