ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Walter R. 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
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
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
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.