Harold Scull Wright

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Harold Scull Wright

Birthdate:
Birthplace: Wayne, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: August 11, 1993 (66)
Marlboro, Windham County, Vermont, United States (Heart attack)
Immediate Family:

Son of William John Wright and Ella May Wright
Husband of Ruth Marie Wright
Father of Karl David Wright and Private
Brother of William John Wright, Jr.

Occupation: Clarinetist
Managed by: Karl David Wright
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Harold Scull Wright

Career

Harold Scull Wright was, for many years, the principal clarinetist with the National Symphony Orchestra, and after that, the principal clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also had a long involvement from the very early days with the Marlboro Music Festival, in Marlboro Vermont. His chamber music and symphonic recordings are still considered reference recordings, and he was widely regarded in the US and Europe as the best orchestral clarinetist of his time.

Obituary

Harold Wright, principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, died on Aug. 11 at his home in Marlboro, Vt. He was 65 and also had a home in Newtonville, Mass.

A spokeswoman for the orchestra said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Wright was born in Wayne, Pa. He began studying the clarinet at the age of 12 and was a graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Before joining the Boston Symphony in 1970 he was a member of the Houston and Dallas symphonies, and was principal clarinetist of the National Symphony in Washington.

He was a participant in the Casals Festival in San Juan, P.R., for seven years and played at the Marlboro Festival from 1952 to 1970, and again in 1974 and 1990. He also toured with both the National Symphony and Music From Marlboro.

Mr. Wright taught at the New England Conservatory of Music and at the Tanglewood Music Center.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and two sons, Karl and Alexander, both of Marlboro.

FindAGrave

Interviews

Interview about Marcel Tabuteau, with Alfred Genovese, here.

Recollections

My father practiced every day, without fail -- starting around nine in the morning and going until about 11. Later in life, when he began to have arthritis symptoms, he became even more rigorous about this, because he believed (rightly or wrongly) that if he took any kind of break whatsoever, he'd be unable to play again when he resumed. I honestly believe that this is one of the reasons that he did not accept medical intervention for his heart disease but instead attempted to address it through diet alone, despite my admonishment to "listen and do what they tell you to do". The other factor that played into his decision is that he had seen what happened to Patsy Cardillo, former second clarinet at the BSO, when he'd had bypass surgery -- it had resulted in a stroke, and Patsy had been incapacitated and required a wheelchair for the rest of his life. That clearly weighed heavily on my father. In the end, this decision resulted in his early death at the age of 66.

His practicing was often a joy to listen to, but could be extremely annoying at other times, because he had a tendency to repeat the same phrase dozens of times, until he was happy with it. Even my mother, a musician herself, couldn't stand it any more after a while. It got worse, when after some 150 repeats, Dad would call me in to ask which phrasing sounded better. He seemed to regard me as the best representative of an uneducated musical audience available. I did sometimes give useful opinion, which he did generally listen to.

Often these requests would involve my father subtlely changing the notes in a run to make it easier to play and "lie better" on the instrument. The difference was usually hardly noticeable, but I still hear from other clarinetists to this day claiming that my father apparently did Something Wrong on some recording somewhere. When it comes up these days, I simply tell them that they're right: he cheated.

One of my father's best friends was the late, great, oboeist Alfred Genovese. Alfred also grew up in Philadelphia, and both he and my father loved Italian food. When we lived in Newton, Alfred would come over sometimes as often as once a week for a good meal, and it was clear that he and my father shared a similar wry sense of humor. The topics of conversation ranged from family updates, to sports (my father had been, in his youth, a semi-pro baseball player), to Symphony gossip (which I shall not repeat here), to news from the musical community at large. After a couple of hours of excellent conversation, Alfred would climb back into his Mercedes (selected in part because it worked well for those who were circumferentially challenged), and head home.

Sometimes there would be tales of restaurants visited on tour, and the size of the meal that was eaten. It was generally the case that my father would not eat dinner before a concert, and would instead eat afterwards, and I believe that this was true for a number of Symphony musicians. Sometimes they'd go out to eat (and then the tales were legendary), and other times my father would come home and cook into the wee hours of the morning.

My father had a distinct musical style, understated and yet evocative. He also had a style when it came to home repair or improvement -- a style I came to call "The Rubber Cement and Tape" method. It wasn't exactly as if he didn't put a lot of care into these kinds of endeavors -- in fact, one could argue that he put too much of the wrong kind of care into them. What he did usually worked, at least for a while. It devolved to me, the engineer, to make things work for the long term. More than once I gently attempted to teach him the more nuanced methods of engineering and construction. But in the end he had me pretty much calling the shots for whatever construction project was going on when I was as young as twelve -- projects as simple as building a coldframe or a raised garden bed, up through a shed, and then a house addition and a garage. It was a great education, and while he would always be involved, he always worked in an assisting role. I've come to realize that this was rather remarkable -- not many parents would trust their twelve-year-olds with structural design. Nevertheless, it wasn't until I was much much older that I was able to defeat him at all in chess -- he would simply wear me down by setting a glacial pace to the game until I lost focus. It worked every time.

Cross-country skiing was one of my father's favorite outdoor sports in winter. He was always disappointed when the snow was less than perfect, but he'd gamely try it anyway even when conditions were downright dangerous due to ice. On some such excursions he'd come back shaking with tension and exhaustion. This led to the creation of a Christmas gift one year that consisted of a large hook and a chain attached that had hand-written instructions touting how the "Ski Hook" (TM) could help extract one from any kind of dire trail mishap. I don't think he was amused.


One thing that everyone who knew my father well was aware of, but the general public was not, was how much
being somewhat famous bothered him. He was well-known for exiting Green Rooms with as much speed as he
could muster. Nor was he generally willing to sign autographs unless cornered. He once joked, after a Tanglewood performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto wherein he'd rushed the last movement somewhat, that he'd been out the door and back home before the audience stopped clapping. This was not disrespect for the audience, or towards students, or towards technical admirers, it was simple fear and discomfort with adulation of any kind, and it was deeply part of his whole psyche. He'd tolerated being on the popular side as a class clown when growing up, and didn't object to going to parties and chatting with colleagues, but as his reputation grew, another element began to appear, and that included excited members of the public who'd played clarinet in band in school, and students who were enthralled and wanted to study with him, and chefs at his favorite continental restaurants asking him to give their high-school daughters saxophone lessons, as well as young women who were completely smitten. These, he avoided -- as much as humanly possible. If it was his duty to meet his admirers, it was one he dreaded.

And this was partly because it was a duty he found increasingly burdensome. In the 1970's, when it became routine for someone from the Marlboro Festival to drop in mere moments after he returned from Tanglewood on Sundays, he lamented the fact that we lived on the main road to Marlboro College, and he started planting trees to screen the parking area from the road. When this didn't work, he enlisted my help to build a garage at such an angle so he could hide his vehicle from public view. That did work somewhat better, although even then he once or twice had to disappear into the woods out the back door when people came dropping in early Monday morning during his normal practicing hours.

This even impacted me in college. At one point, a floor-mate of mine found out who my father was. Joe just smiled and said, "You need to meet Beth." I said, "Who??" But, surely enough, in a couple days' time I was introduced to my friend's ex-girlfriend named Beth. She was quite lovely, doe-eyed and slim, very unusual for a student at mostly-male M.I.T. She stuck out her hand and said, "Hello. I'm Beth. I hear that your father is Harold Wright." I said that yes, this was true. She said she played the clarinet, and I began to understand Joe's sly joke. We spent the next three hours discussing my father, who she said she'd tried to meet multiple times. But somehow he'd always evaded her. There was no chance of escape for me until dinner time rolled around and it was my turn to cook. We invited her to stick around for dinner but she begged off. I guess she found me less interesting than her imagination made me out to be, since I didn't offer to introduce her myself.

A student recollection

I was primarily a student of Robert Marcellus back in the 70s and 80s, whom I absolutely loved. But Harold Wright’s playing also captured my heart just as profoundly during that time. A good friend of mine at Northwestern, Ron Schneider, had a dad that played in the violin section of the BSO, and he was able to arrange for me to take a lesson with HW during my senior year. So, during Spring Break, I took the bus to Boston.
I arrived in time to hear Harold perform the Debussy Rhapsody on the Friday matinee concert. The core of his sound was stunning, the pianos penetrated all the way to the back of Symphony Hall where I was seated, and his effortless expressive qualities really blew me away.

I met him the next morning at his studio for the lesson. I told him how much I had enjoyed the Debussy the day before. I had prepared the Schubert Shepherd on the Rock, and had worn out the Marlboro recording that he had made with Rudolph Serkin and Benita Valente, trying to absorb by osmosis as much of his playing as I could and graft it into mine.

I especially loved his expressive use of vibrato. However, I wasn’t going to attempt to use it, since this was a no-no with Marcellus, and I had no idea where to begin in producing it. But his use of vibrato fascinated me, and it was definitely the primary thing I wanted to ask him about if the chance presented itself. He told me to go ahead, and proceeded to let me play all the way through the piece! When I finished, he said, “How do you want me to help you?’

I wanted to talk about his wonderful sound, and his use of vibrato. But I had heard he didn’t like to use the word ‘vibrato’ so I framed the question every way I could think of without saying the word. ‘I’d love for you to help me with my sound.’

‘Why would you want me to do that? You already have a beautiful sound. Your teacher has a beautiful sound, and most students that work with him do.’ When he said this, I felt he was totally sincere, and I was genuinely surprised and taken aback, having been given a compliment like this by a master. I continued to beat around the bush, trying to pull him into what I hoped would be a revelatory discussion of vibrato without actually using the word.

He played dumb to all my efforts.

Finally, I just blurted it out, ‘Can we talk about your vibrato?’

And he said with a straight face, ‘What vibrato?’

‘Look, there is something you do with your sound that my teacher doesn’t...’. At this, he gave me a wry grin.

Then he looked at me and said, ‘I prefer to call it…intensity’. He continued, ‘We can talk about it if that’s what you really want to talk about, but I think I could help you a lot more with your heavy and sluggish articulation on the last page. I think that’s your main problem.’ Of course, he was right!

And it was an incredible two hours that followed.

- Daryl Coad

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Harold Scull Wright's Timeline

1926
December 4, 1926
Wayne, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, United States
1947
1947
- 1950
Age 20
Curtis Institute of Music
1993
August 11, 1993
Age 66
Marlboro, Windham County, Vermont, United States