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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Walter R. Boelke

Walter Boelke

When we suggested this interview, its subject's response was instantaneous and typical. "I am NOT important," said Walter Boelke. "I have neither a university degree nor money. I am merely living my dreams which are based on a Schnapsidee." (A Schnapsidee, for those unfamiliar with the German colloquialism, although literally a "whiskey idea," really means an impractical, somewhat harebrained notion.) In fact, however, the Idee that has guided Boelke throughout his life, while not always "practical" in the commercial sense, has been anything but harebrained. He is among the last of the world's great music engravers.

Born in 1905 in Berlin, young Walter was an inquisitive student. He read everything he could lay his hands on and also took violin lessons. His appetite for ideas soon led him to poetry and politics, but times were bad — World War I had ended a few weeks prior to his 14th birthday — and, instead of going on with school, he went in search of a trade. Words — he thought — how lovely to work with words. He would become a typesetter-printer. But there were no jobs to be had. Instead, he was offered an apprenticeship as a music engraver. It was to be the basis for his life's work.

In 1925, Boelke heard of a company in Cincinnati which wanted to bring over four German music engravers who, in turn, would teach young Americans the trade. Walter volunteered, and the 20-year-old set out for the New World to make whatever fame and fortune he could achieve. Soon he had gathered enough practical experience and sufficient command of the language to go where the action was, and in 1927, he moved from the midwest to New York in search of better-paying work. He had saved $150, withstood the temptation of buying a car, and instead bought himself the symbol of his lifelong independence: a marvelous set of engraver's tools. In a world which produced its printed music from hand-engraved plates, there would be plenty of demand for the craftsmanship of Walter Boelke.

His first position in New York was for a company which did all the engraving for Carl Fischer, Inc. In time, he became chief engraver for G. Schirmer, Inc., a music publisher so large that he boasted an "engravers' room, " housing a squadron of highly skilled artisans who engraved not only Schirmer music, but much of the music printed in America. Carl Engel was president of Schirmer then and, with his vast musical knowledge and human sensitivity, at once recognized the asset he had in his Woodside, Long Island plant. He managed to instill a unique sense of participation and pride in his colleagues, among whom he included Boelke. One day, he brought a composer around to let him see where the nuts and bolts of the publishing business were turned. The composer expressed a particularly lively interest in the engraving process and asked Boelke to let him try his hand at tool stamping. The composer's name was Arnold Schoenberg.

Although Boelke's technical expertise was increasingly in demand, he never succumbed exclusively to the beckoning of his profession, but retained his "inner life": the realm of ideas, the clarion call of political trumpets, his rugged idealism. As an old German socialist, he identified himself with the dawning of new days in which power and might would be at the service of people, rather than keeping them constrained. One of the harbingers of Boelke's imagined tomorrow was the artist in general, and the composer in particular. He had been blessed with the opportunity of working at a discipline he loved in a new and free country. Now he began to dream of funnelling some of his resources into dimensions which would assist contemporary composers. He would leave the life of the paid corporate employee to become a free-lance engraver. At the same time, he would form a publishing company of his own, devoted exclusively to modern music.

In 1945, he resigned from Schirmers to establish his own company, Boelke-Bomart, Inc. (and subsequently a sister company, Mobart Music Publications, Inc.). For a while, he was still based in New York City but there seemed to be less and less reason for being subjected to the energy-sapping rigors of city life. Since 1951, Boelke has lived in the quiet town of Hillsdale, New York near the Massachusetts border. There, in 1964, he and his late wife, Margot, bought a sprawling house in the foothills of the Berkshires. Almost from the beginning, a central part of the house was given over to public functions. The Boelkes' Gallery One became a showplace for modern visual artistspainting and sculpture were Mrs. Boelke's main interest — and, at the same time, the locale for a lively annual series of concerts and lectures. While Boelke still arranges for the concerts, his son, Walter Junior, who is chairman of the art department at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, supervises the art exhibits in the Gallery.

In the early days of his publishing venture, Boelke relied heavily on the musical and administrative advice of others. The Austrian musician, Kurt List, told him that there were three works by Arnold Schoenberg — Kol Nidre, A Survivor from Warsaw, and the String Trio which remained unpublished. Boelke's heart quickened as he asked Schoenberg for publication rights. The composer wrote from Los Angeles that he required a $1,000 advance for each work, but, when Boelke explained that he would have to borrow the money, agreed to accept payment in installments. (Both Schoenberg and the lender were soon paid. Schoenberg later gave Boelke the Three Songs, Op. 48 without advance payment.) Next, List suggested to Boelke some works by a Connecticut composer who hadn't written a note in years. His name was Charles Ives. The works were Central Park in the Dark, Hallowe'en and The Pond. The year was 1949. "There were plenty more," Boelke muses. "I probably could have had more, but I did all the engraving myself and I didn't want to ask for more than I knew I'd be able to produce."

Composers were quick to respond to Boelke's spirit of adventure, his craggy outspokenness, and total honesty. He has never tried to compete with them in matters of musical judgment or to bowl them over with his opinions. On the other hand, they have recognized a superior craftsman who takes their musical concerns very much to heart, and they have been only too happy to entrust their works to him. The catalogue which Boelke has put together for many years with the help of editor Jacques-Louis Monod — contains works by Milton Babbitt, Arthur Berger, Miriam Gideon, Leon Kirchner, George Perle and Seymour Shifrin. There are older works by such composers as Krenek, Leibowitz, and even a Piano Quintet by Webern. And of course there are younger composers, too: Andrew Frank, Paul Lansky and Fred Lerdahl, just to name a few.

There is nothing Horatio Parkerish about Walter Boelke, and there are many question marks in his consciousness. He feels his extended isolation from the musical and commercial market place. He wonders about the isolation from the world-at-large in which many of his composers find themselves. He is rereading some of the political and philosophical writings which he devoured in his youth in an effort to find contemporary relevance. Then, he was so sure that the artist, the composer, could point the path towards a better future. Now, he contemplates and hopes.

But most of all, he is aware of being one of the last of his kind. The art of music engraving has all but vanished, having been replaced by the technological means of a new day. A generous person, Boelke is full of praise for some of the products being turned out by autography, typewriters of various sorts, computers. But those with a good eye for music on a printed page will always express their admiration and appreciation for the beautiful scores produced by Walter R. Boelke as a gesture of reverance for composers and their music.

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