Raymond Wilding-White, Composer, 1922–2001


You might have expected, back in 1967, to find one of Cleveland’s foremost exponents of avant-garde music occupying a distinguished chair at some hallowed refuge of the arts and humanities such as Western Reserve University. In fact, you would have found your man in front of a class on the other side of Euclid Avenue, on the campus of Case Institute of Technology. Raymond Wilding-White always seemed more at home with one foot in the world of technology. Among his works are pieces titled Time Motion Study and Algorythms for Piano.

Born in 1922 in Caterham, Surrey, England, by the age of five he was living in France where he began formal musical instruction at the Conservatoire Camille Saint-Saens near Paris. In 1932, his mother, evidently homesick for her native Argentina, moved the family to Buenos Aires. In 1940 they relocated to Boston, where Ray joined his brother Charles at MIT, majoring in chemical engineering. When his studies were interrupted in December of the following year by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ray, classified 4-F, took a job in a radar lab and soon found himself testing bomb sights.

At the war’s end, however, he applied to and was accepted by New York’s Juilliard School of Music; then it was on to the New England Conservatory of Music for his master’s degree in composition, then a summer at Tanglewood. This was the autumn of 1951 and, looking around Boston for work, he found an opportunity tailor-made for his unusually varied personality at a local radio station that would, with his help, blossom into WGBH, a major generator of creative programming for what was to become the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio.

From 1951 to 1956, Wilding-White, who was not only quite comfortable around technology but drew inspiration from it, would be the station’s “creative utility outfielder.” He helped create a five-day-a-week Peabody Award-winning children’s series (Children’s Circle); composed and conducted appropriate theme music for Of Science and Scientists and two other series produced in collaboration with area institutions of higher learning; and in 1955 was the creative genius behind Images, a nightly half-hour show for the newly launched WGBH-TV.

Broadcast live from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, this ambitious series pioneered techniques that would later be used by Ken Burns in his acclaimed PBS documentaries. As a prominent guest read from a script synchronized with recorded background music, an arrangement of easels and rear-screen projectors designed by Wilding-White and his crew enabled two cameras to pan across or (as zoom capability was still in the future) dolly in or out to highlight details in up to 120 pictures or slides. (Alas, none of these trailblazing programs now exist, as videotape was also still a thing of the future.)

This was the man who, in 1962, having added a doctorate in composition from Boston University to his credentials, was offered and accepted Case’s Kulas Chair, established with a generous gift from that music-loving family. During the next five years Wilding-White (who had also studied composition at the Berkshire Music Center, with a Crofts award, under Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola) would become a force for musical education far beyond his classroom, launching the Case Presentations of Experimental Music and the Portfolio Series at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He stunned and stretched local ears (and minds) with adventurous compositions of his own such as Paraphernalia—a Regalia of Madrigalia from Ezra Pound (recorded by CRI in the fall of 1963 with a chorus drawn mostly from the choir of the First United Church of Shaker Heights, directed by Robert Shaw) and the 13-movement Monte Carlo Suite No. 1 for String Quartet (premiered the same year by the Koch Quartet). Among other avant-garde works composed by Wilding-White that were performed and recorded during those years: settings of four songs by William Blake and three poems by A. E. Housman as well as  playful piano pieces for young players intriguingly titled Cartoon and Character Sketches.

By the time of his death in 2001 at the age of 78, Wilding-White’s catalogue of more than 200 compositions comprised chamber music (including seven string quartets), dozens of songs and choral works, concertos, three symphonies (and another for swing band), an opera for television (The Selfish Giant), stage works, arrangements for jazz vocal groups, and oratorios—all of them full of a sense of exploration. One of the most ambitious is De Profundis, a meditation for orchestra and multiple vocal groups on “the Eight Virtues and Seven Vices as Seen by Peter Breughel.” Taking its title from the ancient Latin hymn sung at funerals that begins, “Out of the depths, I cry to thee, O Lord,” it juxtaposes texts from such disparate sources as the medieval play Everyman and a 1960 book written for the Rand Corporation by military strategist Herman Kahn with the chilling title, On Thermonuclear War.

Wilding-White received numerous grants and awards (from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Ditson Fund, among others), commissions from the Berkshire Music Center, the Oriana Singers and Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, and, in 1967, an invitation to design and install an electronic music studio at nearby DePaul University, where he was to spend the next 18 years, retiring as a full professor in the mid-‘80s. Besides mentoring young composers, Wilding-White would make many signal contributions to the musical life of Chicago, founding the contemporary performing ensemble The Loop Group, producing hundreds of musically enlightening programs for WFMT (the city’s fine arts station) and recording a history of music in Chicago for the Chicago Historical Society.

—Dennis Dooley

For more information on Raymond Wilding-White click here.


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