Thornton Wilder and Music — A Note

by Tappan Wilder

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Thornton Wilder’s collaboration with Paul Hindemith on the opera The Long Christmas Dinner reveals an intriguing aspect of the author’s creative life: his close, complex relationship with music.

During his lifetime, with some exception, Thornton Wilder rejected requests from composers eager to turn his two major dramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, into operas or musicals. He did permit Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman to fashion The Matchmaker into Hello, Dolly! and he collaborated as librettist with composer Louise Talma on the full-length opera The Alcestiad. Wilder did grant rights to Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green in 1965 for a musical, stage adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth. That venture collapsed. When Bernstein returned later, now seeking opera rights for The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder shut the door with a definitive no! Bernstein was not alone on the outside. Wilder also said “no” to musical and/or opera rights for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays to many others over the years, including Aaron Copland, Howard Deitz, Ned Rorem, and Italy’s Luciano Chailly. Television adaptations were a different matter; as a general rule he viewed these rights as one-time, financially favorable opportunities. He thus permitted an NBC Producers Showcase musical of Our Town in 1955 that opened the heavenly door for Frank Sinatra to sing Sammy Cahn’s and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Emmy-award winning song, “Love and Marriage.” Fortunately, he was also open to seeing his shorter plays put to music.

Wilder did not make these decisions based on inexperience or lack of knowledge. On the contrary, from the time he was a boy, music played a vital role in Wilder’s creative life and provided a source of inspiration for his pen. Though very few details of this chapter in Wilder’s life are known, the early building blocks are clear: a supportive mother, violin and piano lessons, participation in an Episcopal boy’s choir—that well-known training ground for the life-long love of all things choral—and ready access to major music concerts. On April 29, 1909, twelve-year-old Thornton wrote to his grandmother from his home in Berkeley, California, “We had a Bach Festival Thursday in which the Mass in B miner [sic] was given with great success. The Chicago Symphony orchestra is coming…”

Through his teens and early college years, music and writing represented all but equal passions. As a high school sophomore at Thacher School in California, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own first play. He also played violin in the school orchestra and performed solo concerts on piano and violin. At Oberlin College, where Wilder attended his first two years of university, he published drama, prose, and poetry, sang in choirs, and, as a sophomore, studied organ at the Oberlin Conservatory. When Wilder later transferred to Yale, John Farrar, one of his new undergraduate friends, would recall in 1928 that Wilder was, “from the start, interested in the literary and dramatic undergraduate activities, and perhaps even more in music.”

At Yale, Wilder’s interests shifted decisively away from music to literature and drama. Yet, throughout much of his life, Thornton Wilder, celebrated playwright and novelist, remained an excellent sight-reader, devoted four hand pianist, and concertgoer. He had a special interest in attending rehearsals, where he enjoyed watching a work being constructed. He referenced music often in letters, wrote about music in his private journals, and annotated sheet music as a serious hobby, claiming to be able to hear the individual parts of a score in his head. The appraisal of Wilder’s personal library at his death included the category “Music Annotated by T.W.” with this summary of its content: “33 volumes of scores, including works by Palestrina, English madrigal composers, Mozart, and Beethoven.” His taste ran from classical to opera to choral music. He also enjoyed jazz, and near the end of his life developed a passion for twelve-tone music. His many friends included such stars as Otto Klemperer and Robert Shaw, and the musicians he met at The MacDowell Colony, where he first met Louise Talma, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Yale, where he met Paul Hindemith.

In the late 1930s the composer Mabel Dodge (1877–1971) drove Wilder from Walpole, New Hampshire to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. She recalled, in a memoir, playing a game in which one of them would hum classical or operatic melodies and the other identify the exact movement or act from which they derived. While Dodge did well on the orchestral end, she recalled that Wilder, “succeeded in immensely broadening [her] operatic repertoire.” What amazed her most was “Thornton’s ability to sing snatches from an opera in the language in which it was written…it doesn’t make any difference to him in what language an opera is sung, he is at home in all of them.”* For a 1935 University of Chicago production honoring the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth, Wilder not only rewrote the translation of Handel’s Xerxes, but also served as its stage director, “seeking the authentic baroque method of staging with enough of the modern tendency introduced to interest completely a 1935 audience,” and cast himself as a soldier in the chorus. Newspapers across the country printed a wire story out of Chicago with this lead: “FAMOUS AUTHOR NEAR OPERA BOW.”

All this is to say that Paul Hindemith had in Wilder a collaborator who knew his way around music. Wilder-the-librettist’s knowledge of languages, particularly German, his fascination with music, and his prior successful experience with translations and adaptations predicted a happy outcome for Paul Hindemith and The Long Christmas Dinner.

*Mabel Dodge’s Thornton Wilder—A Musical Memoir, appeared in the Radcliffe Quarterly in May 1964.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.