(b Mason City, IA, 18 May 1902; d Santa Monica, CA, 15 June 1984). American composer, conductor, flautist and lyricist. Between 1921 and 1923, while still a student at the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School), he was engaged as principal flautist by Sousa. He then became a member of the New York PO (1924–9), while continuing to study privately with Hadley and Barrère. He worked in radio and television (1929–56), first as the musical director of the Northwest Territory for ABC, and eventually as the musical director, conductor and composer for the western division of NBC. Two of his songs achieved wide radio popularity: You and I (1941), the signature tune for the Maxwell House Coffee programme, and May the Good Lord bless and keep you (1950), the theme song for Tallulah Bankhead’s ‘The Big Show’. Willson composed the scores for such films as The Great Dictator (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), as well as numerous works for orchestra, including two symphonies. His orchestral compositions tend to be programmatic and to espouse much of the musical rhetoric of late 19th-century Romanticism (despite such modernist felicities of orchestration as a saxophone quartet in the First Symphony).
Broadway musicals became the focus of Willson’s later work and he is best remembered for the music and lyrics to one of the longest running hits of the 1950s. The Music Man (1957), which ran for 1375 performances, abounds in appealing novelty and period-style songs, including ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’ and ‘Goodnight, My Someone’ (which purposely share the same melodic contour). They contribute to an affectionate portrayal of rural America in 1912, for which Willson drew directly on his own Iowa childhood. His subsequent shows were less successful in their combination of similar ingredients. Willson also wrote a novel and three books of memoirs, And There I Stood with my Piccolo (1948), Eggs I Have Laid (1955) and But He Doesn’t Know the Territory (1959), the last of which recounts the making of The Music Man. The Meredith Willson Archive of Popular American Sheet Music is at UCLA (see Libraries, §II, 2).
All musicals; dates are of first New York performance, unless otherwise indicated
The Music Man (Willson), orchd D. Walker, 19 Dec 1957 [incl. Trouble, Goodnight, My Someone, Seventy-Six Trombones, Till There Was You; film, 1962]
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (R. Morris), orchd Walker, 3 Nov 1960 [incl. I Ain’t Down Yet, Belly Up to the Bar, Boys, Dolce far niente, My Own Brass Bed; film, 1964]
Here’s Love (Willson), orchd Walker, 3 Oct 1963 [incl. The Big Clown Balloons, Arm in Arm, You Don’t Know, Pine Cones and Holly Berries, That Man Over There]
1491 (Willson, Morris, I. Barmak), orchd I. Kostal, Los Angeles, 2 Sept 1969 [incl. Birthday, Get a Map, Where There’s a River, Glory Land, I’ll Never Say I Love You]
Popular songs: Banners and Bonnets; Chicken Fat; I See the Moon; It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas; May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You; You and I
Other vocal: Song of Steel, 1934; Anthem for the Atomic Age, 1950; Ask Not, 1964; Mass of the Bells, 1970
Orch: Parade Fantastique, 1924; Sym. no.1, f (‘San Francisco’), 1936; O.O. McIntyre Suite, 1956; Sym. no.2, e (‘The Missions of California’), 1940; The Jervis Bay, 1942; Symphonic Variations on American Themes
Film scores, incl. The Great Dictator, 1940, The Little Foxes, 1941
‘Willson, Meredith’, CBY 1958
S. Green: The World of Musical Comedy (New York, 1960, enlarged 4/1980)
D. Ewen: Popular American Composers (New York, 1962; suppl. 1972)
E.R. Anderson: Contemporary American Composers (Boston, 1982)
S.Suskin: Show Tunes …: the Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers (New York, 1986, enlarged 3/2000)
Wilm, (Peter) Nicolay von
(b Riga, 4 March 1834; d Wiesbaden, 20 Feb 1911). German composer, pianist and conductor. After attending the Leipzig Conservatory (1851–6), where he studied harmony and counterpoint under Ernst Richter, theory under Moritz Hauptmann, the piano with Plaidy, the organ with Carl Becker and the violin with Felix Dreyschock, he returned to Riga and was appointed second conductor at the municipal theatre. On the advice of Wilhelm von Lenz, and recommended by Adolf Henselt, he went to St Petersburg the following year and became professor of theory and piano at the Imperial Nikolayevsky Institute. In 1875 he retired to Dresden, and in 1878 settled in Wiesbaden, where he devoted himself to composition and also to lyric poetry. Wilm was a prolific composer who was already well-known before he left the Leipzig Conservatory. He wrote over 250 works, many of them published in Germany, including the lyric poem Ein Gruss aus der Ferne (1881), chamber music often featuring the harp, and character-pieces for piano.
MGG1 (M. Goldstein) [incl. further bibliography]
Verzeichnis der bis jetzt im Druck erschienenen Compositionen von Nicolai von Wilm (Leipzig, 1899)