“Mr Aitken is the most masterful of our American pianists, and his musical culture is the equal of anybody’s from anywhere” – Virgil Thomson, New York Herald Tribune, 13.3.1948
Webster Aitken · A Biography
Born June 17, 1908 in Los Angeles, California, Webster Aitken was drawn to his future instrument from a young age:“ I ‘played’ the piano from my earliest years, for hours on end, I am told; a severe trial for all within range of hearing. I took the greatest delight in moulding handfuls of sound (especially on days when I was kept home from school on account of croup) out of the available 88 notes of the keyboard, setting up dazzling towering effects that put everybody’s teeth on edge, for of course I couldn’t read music and had no idea of any rules and regulations.” Blessed with perfect pitch, Aitken’s gifts were soon recognized, and both his father, a newspaperman, and his mother, a fine amateur pianist, greatly encouraged their son. He auditioned for the Leschetizky pupil Jode Anderson, who had set up in LA’s Majestic Theater at 9th and Broadway, and after several lessons was turned over to his assistant, Eunice Landrum.
He practiced long and hard, much to his father’s delight, at a piano reduction of Scheherezade, having heard it in concert. His mother sometimes played for him, “our favorite piece being Chaminade’s Flatterer. She had studied and played some of the simpler Beethoven Sonatas out of a thin paper Novello edition edited by one Agnes Zimmerman. It was out of this book that I picked my way through Opus 106 for the first time, fascinated at the notational and rhythmic puzzle of the transition to the fugue. The convolutions of the slow movement, an insoluble unapproachable mystery: to be confronted with such complications, having just started out in the pursuit of music, made me think I was about to get lost on an undiscovered planet.” He would also work with pianist Alexis Kall and attend the masterclasses of Alfred Mirovitch. In fact, the latter would introduce his aspiring young student to one Sergei Prokofiev, during the Russian Enfant Terrible’s 1928 American tour.
Transatlantic Musical Training and European Debuts
Aitken would study for a year with Herbert Simpson at Curtis, before departing for Europe in 1925 at the tender age of 17. In Berlin he worked under Emil von Sauer, and with Leschetizky’s one-time assistant Marie-Prentner. After 3 years intensive study, he was accepted as a pupil of Artur Schnabel, making his recital debut in Vienna in 1929. Also the scene of his first orchestral engagement, Aitken played the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer Fantasy with the Vienna SO and conductor Paul Kerby. A happy period in the pianist’s life, Aitken wrote: “As a student, Berlin was the scene of much hard work and gayety: the rest of Germany and Austria, in the late twenties and thirties seemed expressly to exist for skylarking about in.”
An American Homecoming: Debuts and Engagements
Aitken’s American debut came 17 November 1935 at New York’s Town Hall in a program that included Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the New York Times writing: “There was individuality in all of the pianist’s work and a seriousness of purpose and loftiness of ideals which were reflected in the chaste and severely classical program he had chosen.” Then in 1937 he played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 Op. 19 with Klemperer and the LAPO, a homecoming for a local boy made good.
The 1938 Schubert Piano Sonata cycle at Æolian Hall
Although he first appeared in England as early as 1933, his most important European foray came in 1938 at London’s Æolian Hall, where – in a 4 recitals given November 10, 17, 22, and 29 – he presented that city’s first Schubert Piano Sonata cycle, embracing D. 537, 568, 575, 664, 784, 840 (in a completion by Krenek), 845, 850, 894, 958, 959, and 960. Well-received, this path-finding survey prompted an article by Richard Capell for the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post entitled "Revaluation of a Neglected Heritage," which for many years was held as a landmark in Schubertian literature.
Other engagements followed: at Carnegie Hall in 1939, in Bach’s Concerti for 2 (BWV 1061 with Kurt Applebaum) and 3 Pianos (BWV 1064 with Rosalyn Tureck and Frank Sheridan) accompanied by Fritz Stiedry and the Friends of New Music Orchestra. That same year, Aitken was soloist in a broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 K. 450 with Léon Barzin and the National Orchestral Association. During the war years, Mozart remained his principal calling card, Aitken appearing with Koussevitzky and the BSO (1940, Piano Concerto No. 15 K. 450), with Walter and the NYPO (1941, No. 27 K. 595), and with Goossens and the Cincinnati SO (1942, No. 25 K. 503).
New Music and New Directions – Premieres of Ives and Carter
In the post-war years, Aitken broadened his musical activities by way of teaching as well as by bringing the music of contemporary composers to the concert stage. In 1947 he joined the Dept of Music, Carnegie Institute of Technology as Visiting Professor of Piano, spurned perhaps by his appearance in Pittsburgh the year before at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival. There, Aitken played the Piano Sonatas of Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Virgil Thomson (No.1).
In a New York broadcast February 16, 1947, Aitken gave the world premiere of Elliot Carter’s Piano Sonata, one of the last works of its kind to enter the central repertoire. Alas, the broadcast does not survive, nor did Aitken ever take it into the studio.
At New York’s Town Hall on March 12, 1948, Aitken gave the first known complete performance of Charles Ives’s Four Transcriptions from Emerson. Also on the program: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, Scarlatti Sonatas in E and D Major, and Menotti’s Ricercare and Toccata, the last a New York premiere.
A Return to Europe: “Journey Into Darkness”
In 1949 Aitken traveled to Berlin under the auspices of the U.S. Army’s Visiting Artists Program, finding the battle-scarred city’s destruction stupefying, and recording his impressions in a 47-page essay entitled Berlin Diary, Journey Into Darkness: “The city of Berlin today looks as though the blueprints for its construction might have been prepared by Edgar Allen Poe in a fit of necrophilia. The ruins have a terrifying timelessness that puts them beyond every canon of architectural taste, utility, and soundness…The Reichstag, the Kroll Oper, tangles of twisted girders, resembling empty bird cages. Beyond the Brandenburger Tor, the blocks seem to be made of brown sugar that has gone hard in lumps and streaks: what is left of block after block of buildings, sits there, with the rubble drawn up to its knees…There are no concert halls left in Berlin: the familiar haunts no longer exist: Beethovensaal, Bechsteinsaal, Singakademie.”
Aitken visited the famous Bote & Bock to buy what music he could find that was either interesting or available, only to find Berlin’s permier music seller had not been spared: “As a matter of fact, Bote & Bock, occupying a couple of rooms in a gutted house, showed me their entire stock of piano music in less than ten minutes, none of it of more than routine interest. When we came to the T’s, I was surprised to see a great stack of Tchaikovsky. On expressing this surprise I was reminded that Leipzig is in the Russian zone and that the Russians see to it that Russian composers are the first to be reprinted.”
In Berlin he would meet the pianists Helmuth Roloff and Gerty Herzog, hearing the latter in the Piano Concerto of Boris Blacher, a composer he would also come to know, describing him as “a genuine, if perhaps, malicious wit, together with an absence of illusion and a most un-teuton-like lack of sentimentality, lifted his conversation to a level of virtuosity that made you fairly quiver with delight.” He appeared with Celibidache at Titania Palast and with Willem van Hoogstraten in Stuttgart, played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in Munich, and recorded a recital for radio broadcast (now lost). He would miss by days separate Schubert recitals given by pianists Wilhelm Kempff and Eduard Erdmann.
Aitken seems never have allied himself permanently with any institution, preferring the route of ‘visiting artist,’ a position he assumed at the School of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during the years 1961/62. In 1950 he had given programs devoted to late Beethoven at Harvard University and at the Frick Collection in New York, a series he would reprise at Urbana-Champaign. His pupils include Prof. Eric Dalheim (Accompanying, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign – retired), pianist and composer Thomas Turner (Prof. of Piano, University of North Carolina – retired), and pianist Carol Rosenberger.
Subsequently, Aitken – then only 54 – largely withdrew from public life, turning inward towards a sort of serene existentialism lived out in New York City, Hollywood, and Santa Fe, time reputedly given over to studies of Bach, with occasional forays into Stockhausen and Boulez. He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico May 11, 1981.
Tall and lean, his frame often draped in a black leather jacket, Aitken cut a striking figure, both in appearance and personality, with wry iconoclastic implications. His musical tastes ran wide, from Bach to Szymanowski, as did his interest in other arts, Aitken cultivating an expert’s knowledge of baroque architecture and modern painting. He was an accomplished linguist, highly proficient in French, German, Italian, and Greek, and his passion for literature remained life-long. Aitken took great delight in the culinary arts, whipping up feasts worthy of any gourmet. The present author has had access to select excerpts from his writings, and they all display a marvelously cultured and extraordinarily vivid command of the language. It is hoped his Berlin Diary will be published online at Bandoneon’s website.
A pianist of eclectic tastes, his programs often juxtaposed the old with the new (e.g. Handel with Webern), featured a recurrent mix of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert, and yet often made room for the music of living composers. Late Beethoven remained a life-long study, and musically, his spiritual center. He was playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Schubert’s Piano Sonatas long before WW II. And he was a potent advocate of contemporary music, playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit during the composer’s lifetime, as well as premiering works by such modern American masters as Ives, Copland, Thomson, Menotti, Fuleihan, and Carter. At Town Hall, he programmed Debussy’s Études as early as 1942, and Messiaen’s Fantasie Burlesque in 1946. His concerto repertoire does not seem to have gone much beyond Mozart and Beethoven, the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer Fantasy and Weber’s Concertstuck Op. 79 his furthest excursions from the classical style. A full listing can be found on Bandoneon’s website.
Aitken’s recording career was even briefer than his performing career, beginning with 78 rpm sets for Gamut (Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor K. 475 – available for audition on Bandoneon’s website – and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major D. 894) and extending only to the earliest years of the new LP era. For EMS he taped Schubert’s D. 845, 850, 894, 958, 959, and 960, and for Lyrichord a superb Copland album, which includes quite the finest Piano Sonata on record. Near the end of his life, Delos restored his name to the catalog with two LP releases drawing upon his U. of I. recitals. Preserved therein are riveting ‘live’ performances of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Handel’s Six Grand Fugues, Webern’s Variations, et al. An intriguing document is the 1939 broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 K. 450 with Barzin and the NOA, preserved in the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound in New York (only Mvts II and III survive). In private archives exist the 1941 Mozart K. 595 with Walter and the New York Philharmonic, as well as Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata and Fauré’s Theme and Variations Op. 73, both from a 1940 Frick Collection recital. An exhaustive search of Europe’s radio archives proved fruitless.
At left: Portrait of Webster Aitken by George Platt Lynes
(reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of George Platt Lynes)