Harold Wansborough, Musician and Friend
Whenever I had free time, a latent yearning often nagged me to seek knowledge of the creative arts that my meager education had denied me. Working night shifts at Despatch Shops gave me some daytime leisure. I kept a large vegetable garden and went fishing when I could. But in 1943, and for several years following, music came first.
For fifteen dollars I purchased an old Gibbons & Stone upright grand piano that I found sitting in an old lady's parlor on Grand Avenue in Rochester. Its cabinet was finished with beautiful rosewood trim. For thirty-five dollars I had the cracks in the sounding board spruced, the strings tuned, and minor repairs made on the hammer and damper felts. It was a glorious sounding instrument with a forte that could fill a theater, which is probably where it belonged. I would drive Esther mad playing it with my reckless enthusiasm. She was further disturbed by the instrument's half-ton weight that necessitated jack-posts under the floor it sat on.
I soon realized that playing by ear was not the way to high culture (my fiddle-playing father could read music) and cast about for help. While walking down Commercial Street in East Rochester on my way to work one afternoon, a sign on the door of the Eyre Building caught my eye: "Harold Wansborough—Teacher of Piano & Composer." The next morning I walked into the second-floor studio apartment to meet a smallish man in his mid forty's with thin brown hair combed straight back, wearing a tiny mustache and a rather forlorn expression. I noticed his nervous mannerisms that included twitching cheeks, and rapid eye blinking. On a small table there was a book titled, Be Glad You're A Neurotic, by Louis E. Bisch, who I would later learn was Wansborough's sponsor at Eastman School of Music. After a brief conversation about lessons, he asked if I was interested in serious or popular piano. I took a long breath, and said, "Serious, I guess."
For the next six months of mornings I practiced nothing but scales, arpeggios, books of exercises by Czerny, Hannon, and other technical studies. I advanced quite well and Wansborough began to give me some pieces to play, mostly his own compositions. I still have a few with me. "To A Violet" and "Shadows on The Wall" are two of them.
Then sadly, I was abruptly transferred to day shift at work, and after a week or two found that I could not or would not practice at night after a day in the steel fabricating plant. I just could not face the piano for an hour and a half while so tired from the shop noise. My progress slowed and I quit. But by this time Harold and I had become friends: I enjoyed his musical knowledge and piano ability, while he enjoyed coming to our house for home-cooked Sunday dinners. A bachelor living alone in his studio, Harold was appreciative of Esther's ham, scalloped potatoes, corn, peas, and baked apple pie. After the meals he repaid my family handsomely by playing Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu" and other great works on my old Gibbons & Stone, usually closing with his player-piano-roll version of "Back Home In Indiana." Then followed talk about composers and their music.
A precipitous off-key act by me came on a Sunday afternoon while Harold, son Roger, and I waited in our living room for the dinner Esther was preparing. It began when Harold politely asked if I spent any time at all at the piano. When I dropped the lessons, now several months past in 1945, he had suggested that I play for my own pleasure, even if only by ear when I felt in the mood. My answer was quick.
"Sure. As a matter of fact I am working on my improvisation of your study in phrasing and pedaling, "To A Violet." Of course he said he would like to hear it, and of course I jumped on the piano stool.
Today I shudder with embarrassment every time I think of what I did to the dreamy little number that was to be played in slow waltz rhythm. As was my habit at the time, I played the treble keys with five-fingered chords accompanied by booming bass octaves with the left hand. My version of the poor violet sounded more like an amateur brass band playing at the Dundee Fair. Worse, I enjoyed doing it.
Wansborough, gentle and polite as always, timidly said, "Well I guess it needed revising." Slowly I recognized my crude action with the piece in the presence of its creator, a professional, and I remained subdued for the rest of the day.
Forty-five years have passed. I still can't believe my unmitigated gall.
Harold did not have an auto, so on winter nights I drove him to concerts at the Eastman Theater, often when one of his compositions was being played by Dr. Howard Hanson, the new composer's advocate. At the Eastman School Harold studied composition and orchestration under Dr. Wayne Barlow and Burrill Phillips for five years, his real reason for being in our area.
In 1948 Harold moved to Harlingen, Texas, to write and arrange for Fred Waring. There he bought a home and taught harmony and arrangement privately. We regularly corresponded until 1954, when my last letter was returned marked, "Deceased."
I wrote to the Chamber of Commerce at Harlingen seeking information. A chamber member responded with a sympathetic letter that described Harold's death in an auto accident, and enclosed a news clipping that revealed more than I had known. Evidently, the Rio Grande Valley people took great pride in having Harold Wansborough as one of their residents. From the Harlingen Caller - Times, staff writer Eleanor Mortensen wrote:
"Harold Wansborough was born in South Bend, Indiana, studied piano from the age of 10, but it was not until he was 18 that he began the serious study of music. He went to Chicago and began studying at the Chicago Musical College then under the management of D. Florenz Ziegfeld. He studied harmony and counterpoint, canon and fugue under Laura Drake Harris; piano under Eudora Harbor, and composition and orchestration under Felix Borowski. During the six years he studied with Borowski, he wrote in nearly all the musical forms.
"When the player piano was in its hey-day Wansborough was engaged by the United States Music Co. for arranging and recording player piano rolls. He made hundreds of rolls for the company many of which featured himself at the piano. In 1926 the music firm sold out to the Q. R. S. Music Co., but Wansborough, who had acquired a wide reputation for player-roll work, was retained by the new firm. He worked in the recording laboratories in New York until the company was liquidated in 1929.
"In 1943 Wansborough went to the Eastman School of Music under the sponsorship of the then famous psychologist and author, Dr. Louis E. Bisch. He studied there for five years under Burrill Phillips and Dr. Wayne Barlow, specializing in composition and orchestration.
"In August, 1948, he decided to move to the Rio Grande Valley and bought a house on his first visit. Wansborough, who had a piano studio here, was actively engaged in composition with nearly fifty published selections. Many of Wansborough's symphonic works have been played by the Rochester Civic Orchestra, on Dr. Howard Hanson's Symposiums for Modern American Music and one composition was played recently at the Southwestern Composers Festival held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1945 Indiana University presented a 30-minute radio broadcast of his life over a CBS station as an outstanding Indiana composer."
While writing this story I opened the almost forgotten music memorabilia files of the 1940's, and took out some sheet music by Wansborough. The yellowing pages bore the scent of the past, and reminded me that what I lost out giving up my practice, I gained in friendship—from music to people. Pinned on "To A Violet" was a brochure with Harold's photo on the front page.
Of course my acquaintance with Harold Wansborough could not make me a candidate for a Bachelor of Art degree in musicology, but it did help me become at least a respectable dilettante. I am happy to have known this talented man. When I prowl in antique shops or flea markets and find old Q.R.S. player piano rolls, I look for one of Wansborough's. I find a few, but strangely, I have never bought one. I do wonder who out there is interested in his work.
© 1992, Edwin N. Harris