Friedrich Gulda (16 May 1930 – 27 January 2000) was an Austrian pianist and composer who worked in both the classical and jazz fields.
Born in Vienna as the son of a teacher, Gulda began learning to play the piano from Felix Pazofsky at the Wiener Volkskonservatorium, aged 7. In 1942, he entered the Vienna Music Academy, where he studied piano and musical theory under Bruno Seidlhofer and Joseph Marx.
During World War II as teenagers, Gulda and his friend Joe Zawinul would go out and perform forbidden musics – like jazz, in violation of the then occupying Hitler regime's prohibition on the playing of such musics (this is mentioned in the documentary film "Friedrich Gulda: So What – A Portrait").
Gulda won first prize at the Geneva International Music Competition in 1946. Initially, the jury preferred the Belgian pianist Lode Backx, but when the final vote was taken, Gulda was the winner. One of the jurors, Eileen Joyce, who favoured Backx, stormed out and claimed the other jurors were unfairly influenced by Gulda's supporters. Gulda began to play concerts worldwide. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Together with Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda, Gulda formed what became known as the "Viennese troika".
Although most famous for his Mozart and Beethoven interpretations, Gulda also performed the music of J. S. Bach (often on clavichord), Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. His recordings of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier are well regarded by collectors. Apart from the Well Tempered Clavier, Gulda performed very few other pieces by Bach and recorded even fewer. Gulda's later reliance on co-operating with companies whose recording techniques were primitive in comparison to those espoused by more sophisticated rivals stood him in very poor stead with regard to posterity. The rescued Mozart sonata tapes issued on DG are unbelievably bad in terms of recorded technical quality; likewise the Debussy Preludes and Bach recordings of the late 60s and early 70s.
From the 1950s on Gulda cultivated a professional interest in jazz, and in Free improvisation or open music improvisations, writing songs (he also recorded as a vocalist under the pseudonym "Albert Golowin" – and using trick photography the very mischievous Gulda even combined film footages and still images of himself – wearing a wig and a fake beard as a disguise – as "Friedrich Gulda and Albert Golowin performing together", to his delight fooling the music critics for years ["It was great fun while it lasted!" – exclaimed Gulda], until finally someone figured out that Friedrich Gulda and Albert Golowin were the same person...), and instrumental pieces, and at times combining jazz, free music, and classical music in his concerts.
In 1956, he performed and recorded at Birdland in New York City and at the Newport Jazz Festival. He organized the International Competition for Modern Jazz in 1966, and he established the International Musikforum, a school for students who wanted to learn improvisation, in Ossiach, Austria, in 1968. He once said:
There can be no guarantee that I will become a great jazz musician, but at least I shall know that I am doing the right thing. I don't want to fall into the routine of the modern concert pianist's life, nor do I want to ride the cheap triumphs of the Baroque bandwagon.
In jazz, he found "the rhythmic drive, the risk, the absolute contrast to the pale, academic approach I had been taught." He also took up playing the baritone saxophone.
In the 1960s, Gulda wrote a Prelude and Fugue with a theme suggesting swing. Keith Emerson liked Gulda's Fugue so much, that he often performed it in live Emerson, Lake & Palmer concerts in the 1970s, and a studio version of it was also issued on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's The Return of the Manticore.
In addition, Gulda composed "Variations on The Doors' 'Light My Fire'" (aka 'Variationen über "Light My Fire" (von Jim Morrison)' ) for solo piano, and released it in 1971 on Track 11 (LP disc 1, side 2, track 1) of "The Long Road To Freedom (Ein musikalisches Selbstportrat in Form eines Lehrgangs)". A earlier instrumental rock-style piano/bass/drums trio version (sans any of the complex Gulda composed and improvised variations...) of Light My Fire can be also be found on Gulda's album As You Like It (1970), an album that also includes standards such as "'Round Midnight" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?", as well as Gulda's classic "Blues For H.G. (dedicated to Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer)."
In the late 1960s through the 1980s – while continuing his straight ahead swing and bop-based jazz (often in European Jazz big bands, that he often organized yearly) performances and recordings, and his classical performances and recordings, he also performed and/or recorded (often using a custom electrically amplified clavichord, percussion instruments, and a bass recorder wooden flute) with a wide range of musicians involved in Free improvisation, including: Cecil Taylor, Barre Phillips, Ursula Anders, John Surman, Albert Mangelsdorff, Stu Martin, Gunther Rabl, Limpe Fuchs, Paul Fuchs, Mounir Bashir, Gerhard Herrmann, Leszek Zadlo, and Fritz Pauer.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Gulda was involved in yearly music festivals, such as the Münchner Klaviersommer – where musical guests coming to perform over the years with him, included Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea.
In 1980, he wrote his Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, which has been called "as moving as it is lighthearted", in five movements "involving jazz, a minuet, rock, a smidgen of polka, a march and a cadenza with two spots where a star cellist must improvise."
In 1982, Gulda teamed up with jazz pianist Chick Corea, who was between the breakup of Return to Forever and the formation of his Elektric Band. Issued on The Meeting (Philips, 1984), Gulda and Corea communicate in lengthy improvisations mixing jazz ("Some Day My Prince Will Come" and the lesser known, adapted by Miles Davis song "Put Your Foot Out") and classical music (Brahms' "Wiegenlied" ["Cradle song"]).
Gulda and Corea continued their musical relationship and recorded the Mozart Double Piano Concerto (Piano Concerto No. 10 (Mozart)) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor), and Gulda and Corea also playing jazz piano duets of Gulda's "Fantasy For Two Pianos" and Corea's "Ping Pong For Two Pianos."
In the late 1980s and 1990s, organist/MIDI keyboardist Barbara Dennerlein also studied with and performed with Gulda (Reference: DVD "I Love Mozart, I Love Barbara".
In the late 1990s, Gulda organised rave parties, where he performed with the support of several DJs and Go-Go dancers.
These unorthodox practices along with his refusal to sometimes follow clothing conventions (he was notoriously described as resembling, in one South German concert, "a Serbian pimp") or announce the program of his concerts in advance earned him the nickname "terrorist pianist". In 1988, he cancelled a performance after officials of the Salzburg Festival objected to his including jazz musician Joe Zawinul on the program. When the Vienna Music Academy awarded him its Beethoven Ring in recognition of his performances, he accepted it but then later reconsidered and returned it. To promote a concert in 1999, he announced his own death in a press release so that the concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus could serve as a resurrection party.
Phillips Records included Gulda in its Great Pianists of the 20th Century CD box set, which came out in 1999. His piano students included Martha Argerich, who called Gulda "my most important influence," and the conductor Claudio Abbado.
He died of heart failure at the age of 69 on 27 January 2000 at his home in Weissenbach, Austria. Gulda is buried in the cemetery of Steinbach am Attersee, Austria.
Gulda was married twice, firstly to actress Paola Loew (1956–1966) who bore him two sons, David Wolfgang and Paul, and secondly to Yuko Wakiyama (1967–1973) who bore him another son, Rico; both Paul and Rico became accomplished pianists. In 1975 Gulda began a relationship with the oratorio singer Ursula Anders which endured until his death.
In 2007 a documentary film for television was made about his life, So what?! – Friedrich Gulda.