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William Kapell (1922-1953) - 5 November 1953

One morning last week, an airplane that had flown 8,000 miles across the Pacific radioed into San Francisco Airport for landing instructions when it was only three minutes from the end of its trip.

It never landed. A wing tip brushed a mountain on the misty peninsular below San Francisco and the plane blew up. It killed, among nineteen passengers, a friend of mine, which is my business. But the business he was in, which was music, was very much America’s business. All the more so because this country is crazy about music of one kind and another, and in a country which tends to make a business (and a profitable one) out of any rare talent, William Kapell held fiercely and unyieldingly to a view of his profession as almost a priesthood which required unwavering devotion from dawn to midnight, unremitting practice, practice, practice – an almost trembling humility before good music, ancient and modern.

Willy Kapell was only 31, and though he’d been a child prodigy, being the first to win this prize and the youngest to get that scholarship, he shunned bumptiousness as one of the infectious diseases of childhood. He was a small man with black hair and black eyes, eyes at once fierce and melancholy. An amiable, impulsive, gentle man, except when he sat down at a keyboard.

You could put before him a new work by Khachaturian or Walter Piston or a minuetto by Mozart, and it was all the same to him. He took a swift, melancholy intake of breath and settled to it like a country gas station mechanic facing a repair job on a jet bomber. He knew he could do it. Not in the lumbering, conceited way of a rural mechanic, but in the way of a first-class craftsman who recognises in every new job another test of his insight and his skill.

He, or rather his wife, a beautiful Western girl who was the genuine pioneer wife through these daily ordeals, would throw a party and maybe a dozen or 20 people would be there. She’d have the food ready, the guests gentled into good feeling, and then somebody would mention a sonata, say, of Aaron Copland and Willy would sit at the piano and his hands would start to dart over the keys. The conversation of the guests would rise to match it and Willy would pound all the louder.

Now this sort of contest can only go on so long. But sometimes, in a room buzzing with people, the sheer weight and tension of his passion would dominate the room and everybody stopped talking and Willy would be thumping or rippling away and the room would dissolve, and the place, and we were all rocking in some primeval world out of which Willy was making the first articulate music.

It was a shock at such times to hear dinner quietly announced. The guests trooped off. His wife begged him, by a tiny gesture, to stay with his obsession. We would all dine with Willy upstairs, fuming, swaying, beating the keys alone.

He had a very straight back and, no matter how long he played, he was always erect, and his delight or anger at the intractability of the music was purely a personal affair between him and the piano and the composer. He didn’t mind if people listened or talked or laughed.

An hour or more later, we’d troop upstairs again and he’d be still at it. And then a little later, or much later, he’d get up, sweating like a coalminer, but with an amiable, small smile. About half the guests had come in and had had dinner without even meeting him and he would glide off in the direction of his adored and adoring wife. She was not around. She was downstairs cooking him a separate meal, a trial which she looked on as a privilege.

It’s hard to picture such a scene as this without suggesting a prima donna, defying all the laws of modesty and manners. And in a fundamental sense of course, as Bernard Shaw once reminded us, a genuine artist is such a volcanic, irreverent character that whether or not he’s what they used to call a “gentleman” is almost as frivolous as asking if he’s a Democrat or a mason.

But Willy Kapell was both modest and mannerly, with what energy he had left over from the exhausting daily grind of his music, which absorbed and spent all the juices in him. I’ve seen him after a day of practice, barely able to squint out of red eyes, pale and limp, but retaining that benevolent, cocky sort of stance. He was a sore trial to recording engineers and murder on the kind of record firm that hopes to make a fast sale out of one side of Chopin and a little simple Bach on the other side. He would not let a record be released unless the thing reflected in every phrase and beat the best that his talent could do to date. And this happens, he once said to me, a few times a year.

So he would go to the recording studio day after day, week after week, and the record people, who were used to tossing off a smooth record from a fine technician in a couple of hours, would begin by being queasy and end by contemplating a mountain of rejected discs and all their profit out the window.

I have spent this time talking about young Kapell first because it is a privilege to salute this kind of integrity in anyone – an artist who gave no quarter, who would play what he wanted to play; whether his mountain audience had ever heard of Piston or Copland was no matter.

Often an audience, itching for a familiar tune, would make a mental note that if this was the sort of stuff dished up by smart-alecky New York pianists, they wouldn’t bother booking him again. And they didn’t. Agents warned him that if he insisted on playing only what happened to be challenging him at the moment, he’d ruin himself. And as a popular or famous entertainer, he might very well have done that. He put no money aside because, as an example, he insisted on carrying with him one particular piano – a vast concert grand – wherever he went. He flew it to Australia and he shipped it to New Orleans and he lugged it up to the Rockies at an expense which put the freight companies in ecstasy and his managers in dementia.

Now this sort of single-mindedness, which in some people is pathological stupidity and in others integrity, is rare in any country. I don’t want to wish to imply that it’s rarer in America, but this country throws the most lavish and beguiling snares in the way of it.

In a country with a population of 160 millions and one where the arts of communication – advertising, publicity, sales promotion – are incomparably swift and efficient, it is not hard for a clever man or woman in any field who takes the fancy of an influential few to get a national reputation overnight. Fashion is a stimulating and hardy annual here and the rewards of chic can be fabulous. God help you next season, or next year, for chic is a morning glory and the urge to capture it and fondle it depends on the knowledge that it wasn’t here yesterday and won’t be here tomorrow.

Well it may very well be here tomorrow, but if the charm of its appeal is that it’s new, it obviously won’t be new for long.

Now this does have the advantage of bringing really first-rate talents, if they incidentally strike a passing fancy, to an enormous audience. I doubt if there is another country where such a vast number of the population are ever reading at any one time one lucky, prize-winning work by, let’s say, Robert Pen Warren or Norman Mailer or TS Eliot.

But the disadvantage of a civilisation in which real quality sometimes gets synchronised with publicity is that the growth of talent and the requirements of publicity don’t necessarily fit or mesh. The talent may persist and grow when the publicity boys for their purposes had better be moving on to publicise a new talent.

So it happens that a first rate artist may, as in no other country on earth, suddenly make a great deal of money. When this happens, the temptation is to spread his style of living. Well the Greeks were full of warnings about it and the Romans succumbed to it, and there’s no point in going on about it. But when it happens here, the charms of social life can be irresistible, for Americans have a brilliant knack for lavish entertaining. The danger is that the first-rate man gets caught between the sweat and privacy his talent demands and the wish to maintain the social style he’s getting accustomed to. It is a universal experience, as I say, but the need for an iron self-discipline is stronger in America, I think, especially in the arts – for America, as I said, is crazy about music and pays dear for its idols.

I can see some suspicious people shrugging with contempt and saying, "Yes, but what music?" and thinking of jazz, which is certainly indigenous to this country and has gone around the world. Well it may surprise you to know that one gramophone record in three that is sold in this country is a classical record, and that more Americans pay out money to go to symphony concerts than pay out money to go to all the baseball games. I didn’t say pay more money on concerts than on baseball. Since a concert costs about twice as much as a baseball game, that would be less impressive. More Americans prefer to go to a symphony concert, and do so through the year, than all the people that go to baseball games.

Now a symphony orchestra, I admit, has often been in this country nothing more than a symbol that a town had turned into a city and had graduated from shirtsleeves into the soup and fish, but today the standard of these city orchestras is very high indeed.

A young and distinguished English composer who was over here last year told me that nothing had amazed him more in America than the ubiquity of fine music all over the continent. He said that the city orchestras of places in the midwest and west could match the metropolitan orchestras of Europe and that two of the eastern ones stood alone. He told me about visiting a small state university in the midwest and the delight of discovering that it had two university orchestras that would do credit to any city.

But what particularly excites me is the great number of young people who, against all the current myths about America, have seemingly counted the cost and are yet determined to be first rate. I’ve seen it in lonely saloons, in young jazz trumpeters, in poor Greek Americans painting their arms off and be damned to the commissions. We all saw it in that moving scene in the movie of From Here to Eternity when Montgomery Clift snatched the cornet from a trumpeter’s mouth and, in withering contempt for the other man’s easy confidence, poured his soul into a 12-bar blues.

We saw it, this writhing to give the best that’s in you if it wears out your nerve ends, in the best pianist America has produced in this generation, in Willy Kapell. He died a lucky man for not many men come into middle age, have been fortunate enough to go through to the end without in some forgivable way compromising their best. He ended as he began: a cocky, humble apprentice to the master he hoped to be. He left no money, but when the wing of his plane touched that mountain, he went out like Bunyan’s pilgrim, undefeated. He left his courage and skill to him that can get it.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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