Watts, André 1946–
André Watts 1946–
André Watts was the first African-American concert pianist to achieve international super-stardom. Watts burst onto the Philadelphia music scene at age nine and the world music scene at age 16. He has subsequently performed all over the globe, receiving rave reviews. The American Record Guide described a typical Watts performance: “Immediately evident was the crystal clarity of each note, playing that was powerful yet not percussive, detailed without becoming clinically dry, emotionally rich, but with no loss of control.”
Watts was born on June 20, 1946, in Nuremberg, Germany, the son of an African-American career soldier, sergeant Herman Watts, and a Hungarian mother, Maria Alexandra Gusmits. Watts lived in Europe, mostly near army posts, until the age of eight. A change in his father’s military assignment caused the family to move to the United States and settle in Philadelphia.
After his parents divorced in 1962, Watts remained with his mother, whom he has credited with considerable influence in his development. In an interview for the New York Times Magazine, Watts described his mother as “a very sharp woman. She never tells me that my performances are unqualified successes, always picks out some obscure passage that needs polishing.” Maria Watts worked to support herself and young Watts, first as a secretary and later as a receptionist in an art gallery.
Watts began studying the violin at age four. By the time he was six he made it known that his preference was for the piano, so his mother, a pianist herself, gave him his first lessons. As is frequently the case, he loved to play but hated to practice. When his habit persisted, his mother began relaying stories of her countryman, pianist and composer Franz Liszt, emphasizing the fact that he practiced faithfully. Liszt soon became Watts’s hero, and he even adopted Liszt’s bravura playing style.
In Philadelphia, Watts went first to a Quaker school, then to a parochial one, and then to Lincoln Preparatory School. He was also enrolled at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, where he studied with Genia Robinor, Doris Bawden, and Clement Petrillo. He graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Music in June
At a Glance…
Born on June 20, 1946, in Nuremberg, Germany; son of Herman Watts and Maria Alexandra Gusmits Watts. Education: Philadelphia Academy of Music, degree, 1963; Peabody Institute, BM, 1972.
Career: Concert pianist, 1954-; University of Maryland, artist-in-residence, 2000-
Memberships: Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.
Awards: Grammy Award, 1963; Order of the Zaire Congo, 1970; Lincoln Center Medallion, 1974; Gold Medal of Merit Award, National Society of Arts and Letters, 1982; Distinguished Alumni Award, Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, 1984; Avery Fisher Prize, 1988; honorary doctorates: Yale University, Albright College, University of Pennsylvania, Miami University of Ohio, Trinity College, The Julliard School of Music.
Addresses: Office —c/o IMB Artists, 22 East 71st Street, New York, NY 10021.
of 1963 at the age of seventeen, already a seasoned performer.
Watts entered his first competition at age nine, competing with 40 other gifted youngsters for an opportunity to appear in one of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Children’s Concerts. Watts won the competition, and with this accomplishment, successfully launched his career. He performed a Franz Joseph Haydn piano concerto. At age ten, he performed the Felix Mendelssohn G minor concerto with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra and at 14, Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations, again with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
When Watts was 16, he auditioned at Carnegie Recital Hall before three New York Philharmonic assistant conductors and Leonard Bernstein’s secretary. The group applauded his audition performance, and moved him up to the finals, where Bernstein would judge his performance. Watts had little awareness of what this event could make possible. Watts recalled the experience several years later for journalist Norman Schreiber, “Hey my teacher was there; my mother was there; they were going to be really bummed out if I played like a pig. I would feel miserable. I also realized it would be good for you if other people like your playing.”
Watts played Liszt’s E-flat Concerto at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The concert was taped for CBS’s Young People’s Concert series and was televised on January 15, 1963. Bernstein introduced the young pianist to the national audience. Less than three weeks after he was soloist for the Young People’s Concert, Bernstein asked Watts to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould, who was the scheduled soloist for the New York Philharmonic’s regular subscription concert on January 1, 1963. Again Watts performed the Liszt E flat Concerto. So spectacular was this performance that he made international headlines and Columbia recorded an LP entitled, The Exciting Debut of André Watts. Time magazine quoted the liner notes: “Andre approached the piece as a tone poem. In scherzo passages, he had the speed and power necessary to dignify his delicately poetic ideas of the slow pianissimos. His singing tone stayed with him in every mood of his varied approach, and when he had sounded his final cadenza, the whole orchestra stood with the audience to applaud him. Even the Philharmonic fiddlers put down their bows and gustily clapped hands.”
Following his debut, Watts’s manager restricted him to a limited number of engagements: the first year, six concerts; the next, 12 concerts; the next 15 concerts, and so on; his mother and manager had decided that his entry into concert life would be gradual. In addition, success would not isolate him from his classmates. His English and American history instructor, Roy Cusumano wrote in International Musician, “he became friendlier and more responsive.” Gradually the number of concerts increased, reaching 150 by the mid-1970s. By then Watts was performing about eight months out of the year. In the late 1990s, he fulfilled roughly 100 engagements per year, divided between concert appearances and solo recitals.
Though he attained celebrity status at an early age, Watts continued to study with the noted pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher. Following high school graduation, Watts began to study part-time for a bachelor of music degree at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where Fleisher was a member of the faculty. He graduated with his BM in of 1972.
In July of 1963 Watts appeared at New York City’s Lewisohn Stadium with Seiji Ozawa and the New York Philharmonic, performing Camille Saint-Saen’s Concert No. 2 in G minor. In September of 1963 he again performed the Liszt concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. He opened the 1964-65 National Symphony Orchestra’s season in Washington, D.C., performing the Saint-Saens concerto. He returned to New York in January of 1965 to perform Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the Philharmonic.
Watts made his European debut in a London performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in June of 1966. Shortly thereafter he appeared with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, Holland. In October of the same year, he made his New York recital debut, opening the Great Performers Series at Philharmonic Hall. He made his debut in Berlin, Germany, also in 1966, when he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic under the leadership of Zubin Mehta.
Watts embarked on a three-month world concert tour beginning in September of 1967, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. He celebrated his 21st birthday by signing a long-term exclusive contract with CBS Records. By 1969 he was on a full-scale concert schedule, booked three seasons in advance.
Anniversaries were becoming more and more frequent. Though only 30 at the time, Watts celebrated his tenth consecutive appearance in Lincoln Center’s Great Performance Series at Avery Fischer Hall in 1976. Since he was the first classical artist to make his initial public impact through television, the producers believed that his should be the first solo recital televised live in its entirety from Lincoln Center. Watts’s relationship with television in the field of classical music is unique. His PBS Sunday afternoon telecast in 1976 was the first solo recital presented on Live from Lincoln Center and the first full-length recital to be aired nationally in prime time. The 1988-89 season offered a televised concert featuring the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Watts doubling as piano soloist and program host.
In June and July of 1974, Watts made a five-week tour of Japan and made summer appearances at the Hollywood Bowl, Ambler, Ravinia, and Concord festivals. Between recitals and orchestral appearances throughout the United States, there were two European tours during the 1975-76 season. Watts lived up to his early promise and was a greater sensation as time moved on. A 1975 press release from the Judd Concert Bureau described Watts as: “Serious-minded and worldwise Watts dresses conservatively and comes on rather like a mature college professor as he talks soberly of the artist’s responsibilities to society. He is not for the gimmick of any kind, plays his programs straight and shies away from publicity not specifically related to his metier.”
Watts described the playing experience to James Con-away of the New York Times: “My greatest satisfaction is performing. The ego is a big part of it, but far from all. Performing is my way of being part of humanity—of sharing. I don’t want to play for a few people, I want to play for thousands. There’s something beautiful about having an entire audience hanging on a single note. I’d rather have a standing ovation than have some chick come backstage and tell me how great I was.
In 1964 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented Watts with a Grammy Award and in February of 1973 he was selected as Musical America’s Musician of the Month. Other honors and awards include honorary doctorates from Albright College and Yale University—Watts was the youngest person ever to be granted an honorary doctorate from Yale—the Order of the Zaire from that African country, and a University of the Arts Medal from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
In December of 2002, just before a concert in Costa Mesa, California, Watts underwent emergency surgery. A vein on the surface of his brain had ruptured. Watts recovered well from the procedure and returned to performing.
In his fifties, Watts remained one of the world’s most in-demand pianists. He continued to perform on the world’s most important concert stages and with the world’s most celebrated orchestras and conductors. In addition, Watts took great satisfaction from his life and work. As he told the Washington Times “When you turn back and look at your life and see that it all worked out, you know you were really lucky.” He also commented, “I actually love playing the piano and performing before audiences, and I’m very fortunate to have this career.”
The Complete Marquis Who’s Who, Marquis Who’s Who, 2003.
Current Biography Yearbook, H. W. Wilson, 1968.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th ed., Gale, 2003.
American Record Guide, May-June 1997.
Amtrak Express, April/May 1989, pp. 20-24.
International Musician, April 1969, pp. 5, 21.
Jet, December 9, 2002.
Musical America 23, February 1973, pp. 4-5.
New York Times, November 26, 1976; August 13, 1987.
New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1971, pp. 14-26.
Washington Post, April 16, 1993.
Washington Times, April 13, 1996.
“André Watts, pianist,” Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, www.cincinnatipops.org/aboutus/guest_artists/Watts.htm (October 17, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes of The Exciting Debut of Andre Watts, Columbia Records 1963, and press material, provided by Judd Concert Bureau, 1975.
—D. Antoinette Handy and Jennifer M. York
(b. 20 June 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany), Hungarian/African-American concert pianist who received overnight acclaim in 1963 and crossed the racial barrier by captivating classical music audiences with his virtuosity.
Watts is the only child of Herman Watts, a black American career soldier, and Maria Alexandra Gusmits, a Hungarian and his first piano teacher. He studied violin at four, switching to piano at six. When he was eight, the family moved to the United States and settled in Philadelphia, where he attended the Lincoln Preparatory School and the Philadelphia Academy of Music, studying under Genia Robinor, Doris Bawden, and Clement Petrillo. At age nine he substituted as soloist for his first public performance, playing a concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn with the Philadelphia Orchestra's Children's Concerts. His parents divorced in 1962, and Watts lived with his mother. He graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1963.
Watts's big break came on 24 January 1963, at age sixteen, when illness forced the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould to cancel two scheduled performances with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Seeking a substitute, Bernstein recalled the young teenager from Young People's Concert, televised on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on 15 January 1963. Watts was the first classical musician to make an initial public impact through television and the first black instrumental soloist since the turn of the twentieth century to play with the Philharmonic in a regular concert. Before a concert audience of two thousand, Watts executed a stunning interpretation of Franz Liszt's Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major. Afterward, fans and critics pressed into his dressing room doorway. When asked whether he would join the classical concert circuit, Watts calmly responded, "That would be foolish. I have so much to learn." Bernstein called him "a natural, a real pro." Watts even made the front page of the New York Times, while Newsweek discussed his "pyrotechnics … and lyricism." The next week, ticket requests for his student recital at the Philadelphia Academy of Music exceeded the number of seats available.
In January 1968 Bernstein welcomed Watts back to the hall to play Johannes Brahms's Piano Concerto in B-flat on the fifth anniversary of his debut. Bernstein commented, "If he goes on this way, he will become one of the world's major pianists." Harold Schonberg, the music critic for the New York Times, wrote that Watts "matured in the right direction," and Harriett Johnson, music critic of the New York Post, said that he was "ageless before he has grown up." Watts's schedule included a fall 1967 European tour with the conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and sixty-nine concerts in 1968, each earning $6,000 to $7,000. But Watts agonized over his popularity, trying to limit his expanding concert schedule. Meanwhile, he studied piano with Leon Fleisher and worked part-time toward a bachelor's degree at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. (He graduated in 1972). At age twenty-one Watts described the bridge from youth to mature musicianship: "I don't think you're really aware of it until you've crossed over." In 1969 Watts lived in a roomy apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall. He practiced as much as eight hours daily, mastering the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin, stomping his feet when not pedaling, and adding vocalization to completed rhythm. To "add vocalization" means that like all masterful pianists, he initiates rhythm, adds content, and then concludes with interpretation of the music he is adding to his repertoire. After practice he relaxed his 145-pound body with yoga and a good cigar.
In May 1969 Watts performed Liszt's Piano Concerto no. 1 under the Boston Symphony conductor Erich Leinsdorf for the Inaugural Concert in Constitution Hall. An elderly lady, who turned out to be Jane Beeson of Lindsay, California, leaned over to her nephew and former music student and said, "If you only had practiced more, you could have been up there on that stage yourself, instead of sitting just here." Her nephew was Richard Milhous Nixon, president of the United States.
A black critic for the Saturday Review critiqued Watts's interpretation of Beethoven's Sonata no. 24 in F Sharp Major, op. 78. "I thought the greatest pleasure of the evening would be the novel sight of hearing a brother playing the piano … but before he got two feet into his program, … who he was or what he looked like had no part in his accomplishment. He became a pianist without race." Watts himself rejected the idea of a black aesthetic or a black ideology. "I share both the black and the white worlds.… I think I'm qualified to criticize both sides." Black militants resented Watts for "making it on their money but keeping too quiet on the Cause scene, that he must have a hole in his soul," and some musical critics accused Watts of careless musicianship. Despite negative commentary, Watts was a symbol for the civil rights movement, a quiet fighter "who lets his good example as a famous artist have the effect of a thousand protesters," according to Norman Darden, writing in the Saturday Review (26 July 1969). By 1969 Watts had played with nearly every major orchestra in the United States, Asia, and Europe, with a growing list of recordings to his credit.
As the decade of the 1960s closed, Watts was compared to Van Cliburn, Artur Rubinstein, and Vladimir Horowitz. Watts believed "in fidelity of the mind" and chose to live a solitary life, admitting, "I suppose when I'm old I'll be very lonely." Around his neck hung a gold medallion, a gift from his mother. On it, his motto was inscribed: "Even this shall pass away."
Notable Black American Men (1999) covers Watts's development as a concert pianist. Linda J. Noyle, ed., Pianists on Playing: Interviews with Twelve Concert Pianists (1987), contains a personal interview with Watts about his technique and practice habits. Numerous periodicals discuss his life, including "A Real Pro," Newsweek (11 Feb. 1963); "Prodigies," Esquire (May 1964); "Beautiful Innocence," Newsweek (29 Jan. 1968); "André Watts: A Giant Among Giants at Age 22," Ebony (May 1969); "My Man André," Saturday Review (26 Jul. 1969); "I'm Doing All Right, I'm Never Good Enough, But I'm Not Standing Still," New York Times Magazine (19 Sept. 1971); "André Watts," American Music Teacher (Apr. 1972); "Ten Outstanding Single Men: André Watts," Ebony (Aug. 1972); "Watts Plays for the Millions," New York Times (26 Nov. 1976); and "Concert: André Watts Plays Mozart," New York Times (13 Aug. 1987).
Sandra Redmond Peters