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In Memoriam: Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) Author(s): Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Larry Stempel Source: Perspectives

of New Music, Vol. 11, No. 1, Tenth Anniversary Issue (Autumn Winter, 1972), pp. 3-10 Published by: Perspectives of New Music Stable URL: Accessed: 19/02/2009 17:38
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Comet-like radiance, conviction, fervent intensity, penetrating thought on many levels of seriousness and humor, combined with breathtaking adventurousness and originality marked the inner and outer life of Stefan Wolpe, as they do his compositions. Inspiring to those who knew him, these inspiring qualities reach many more through his music. A man, a musician for whom everyone who came close could not help but feel admiration and affection. Contact with him was such an important experience that he was understandably surrounded by many devoted, convinced friends and students who helped with his problems of publication, performances, helped in finding him teaching positions, helped to save his manuscripts during the fire of a few years ago, helped him to move about when his physical condition was deteriorating. The force of his artistic personality, motivated as it was by deep conviction and by an innately original way of doing things, occasionally seemed to be utterly unconcerned with prudence and caution, yet frequently what he did turned out to be the only right way of acting. I remember a very vivid day in England, when I was teaching at the music school at Dartington Hall where Stefan had come to visit. I asked him to teach my class of young English students composers -feeling really, that he, at least, would give the students one worthwhile class. He started talking about his Passacaglia, a piano work built of sections each based on a musical interval-minor second, major second, and so on. At once, sitting at the piano, he was caught up in a meditation on how wonderful these primary materials, intervals, were; playing each over and over again on the piano, singing, roaring, humming them, loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, short and detached or drawn out and expressive. All of us forgot time passing, when the class was to finish. As he led us from the smallest one, a minor second, to the largest, a major seventhwhich took all afternoon-music was reborn, new light dawned, we all knew we would never again listen to music as we had. Stefan had made each of us experience very directly the living power of these primary elements. From then on indifference was impossible. Such a lesson most of us never had before or since, I imagine. ?3


Stefan's work first came to my attention in the 1920s when he wrote workers' songs, somewhat of the type of Weill and Eisler, during the Weimar Republic. When he left his hometown, Berlin, as the Nazi menace grew, he went to Russia, Rumania, Austria, and the then Palestine. During this period little of his was heard here until he came to America to live in 1939. It was in about that year that I reviewed his March and Variations for two pianos, written in 1931, as "the only work on the program with signs of real originality". But it was with his Songs from the Hebrew sung here at McMillan Theater that Stefan became one of the modems I was and still am most enthusiastic about. Then we heard the piano Passacaglia, the amazing Battle Piece, the many wonderful chamber works, and finally the Symphony written in 1955-56, commissioned by Rodgers and Hammerstein in collaboration with the League of Composers-ISCM. It turned out to be one of the most remarkable but also one of the most difficult-to-perform pieces of our era. When it was finally accepted for performance by the New York Philharmonic, six years after its completion, Stefan, already ill, had the parts copied hastily so that later, at the last moment, the Philharmonic librarian had to do many of them over, for which many of his friends contributed. The music itself proved beyond the level of difficulty that the Philharmonic could cope with, given its lack of experience with new music and its limited rehearsal schedule, despite the good will and valiant efforts of many of the performers and of Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg who had been called in to conduct. As all his friends remember bitterly, only two of the three movements were performed and these not well. Tragically, shortly before this performance-ordeal, while Stefan was at the American Academy in Rome, he began to show signs of the illness, Parkinson's disease, which from then on fell like a heavy shadow on the physical body of this extraordinarily animated man. For from about 1961 until his death in the spring of 1972, physically weakened often to the point of not being able to push a pencil across a piece of paper, he still continued, undiminished in spirit, to teach, think and compose, producing more of his remarkable works. In this phase of his life, the courage, determination and will to live and act through his art were inspiring. Few have been put to the terrible test that he endured and few that have, have been able to carry on as he under the circumstances. . 4


Now, his physical life over, what emerges more clearly than ever, is that the surpassing moral fortitude Stefan exhibited in these last years is the very quality which gives the radiant power and originality to his work. His music, to me, unequivocally expresses his deeply felt conviction about the values of art and life-makes them immediately graspable-a most inspiring thing in these unencouraging times. -Elliott Carter

Stefan has left us-his music. And so I join you in a refusal to mourn the mortality of the man when there is so much to celebrate in the immortalities of his music. For the composer, there is no puzzle in "the relation of music to life", for music is of life, of his life, and Stefan's music was, and is, passionately and singularly his life, for each individual work replicated his sense of life, his sense of a musical composition's life, the form of a total life in process, in progress, ever-evolving, everdeveloping, ever-mutating, yet ever reflecting the character of the idea at the kernel of the work, the character of the man at the heart of the work: his musical imagination, his musical intelligence, his musical courage, his human courage. I recall Stefan's Composer's Forum those many years ago, at which his Battle Piece for piano was performed. In the question period following the concert a member of the audience asked if the work had been intended for use in actual battle. Stefan didn't answer; no answer was necessary, since the answer so obviously was "yes". For battles are not only against, but for; some battles are engaged, and some are thrust upon one. Who of us, who but for the grace of geography would have suffered the same imposed wanderings, have not secretly measured our own internal strengths by comparing our imagined response under those unimaginable circumstances with the actual responses of those who made the sad, circuitous journey from Germany to the U. S., from Berlin to us: the Schoenbergs, the Reichenbachs, the Wolpes, who managed miraculously to transmute adversity into creative advantage, to discover in their uprooting the sources of new and greater creative energies. ?5


For us, his colleagues, there is-unavoidably and unashamedlythe tragic sense of those profound pleasures and privileges of his presence which are lost, but there is yet so much to be found in the inventions of his musical mind that, if his task now has been completed, our obligations, our responsibilities have only just begun.
(Recalled from words spoken at the funeral services for Stefan Wolpe)



Stefan Wolpe's insights into composition were profound and original; I am indebted to him on both counts. His "originality" lay in his special notions of musical continuity, which root in tradition but branch unexpectedly and indirectly. His "profundity" lay in his use of traditional means, values, and materials to achieve his special continuity. There are many for whom the confrontation with the results of his efforts meant an incalculable broadening of compositional capacity, and in them as well as in his own remarkable music, the inner balances that supported his external volatility will endure. -Charles Wuorinen

A Colophon for Stefan Wolpe And I wish that I were not any part of that fifth generation of men, but had died before it came, or been born afterward. Maybe Hesiod was right! At times like this I get the feeling that every generation is a little bleaker than the last. Something at the very core of our style is out of touch with what went before. They tell me, since I'm under thirty, that's as it should be. But I know that even the best things we have to say seem truncated, not as full-and full with life-as the finest thoughts and feelings already uttered. *6


Stefan Wolpe's death marks the first toll that time has exacted from the best minds of that first generation of musicians no longer able personally to recall the nineteenth century. The death of Stravinsky exactly a year ago signalled the end of a Golden Age, the generation that created the sound we still hallmark as modem: Bart6k, Webem, Schoenberg, Varese. These were the direct heirs of Mahler, Debussy, and Richard Strauss; they waged the decisive battle for "the new music"; and their legacy was a spiritual, artistic, and technical breakthrough of magnificent proportions. But the enormity of their achievement cast a shadow over the most vibrant energies of their inheritors. Now I would not for one second want to part with the luminous organ sonorities of Olivier Messiaen, or Roger Sessions's sinewy counterpoint, or with the limpid aristocracy of a melody by Luigi Dallapiccola, or the rush-hour athleticism of Elliott Carter's rhythmics, or even with the microtonal madcap of Harry Partch. But in all these-the very best of Wolpe's contemporaries-I miss the fullblooded sense of breadth and scope. Their music bears the traces of a haunted elegance, a self-consciousness, an almost Prufrockian reticence. It is shot through with a tragically fleeting quality that too often cries out for something more substantial which it will not yield. It is the first music to catch the feel of the new century for all its ambiguities. It is a music not ready to give up on the past, but that can all too rarely capture its monumental ease. Wolpe's was a Silver Age, and an Age which found its own voice rather late. For it was Wolpe's generation that first had to survey the cultural landscape solely within the horizon of the twentieth century. And for its musicians, the most prominent feature of the new sensibility was the overwhelming freedom of the complete chromatic gamut of pitches and the danger of its anarchic bent in the absence of any tonal landmark. While Wolpe's life became caught in the extremes of personal and political contingency, his mind grew accustomed to moving at the fringes of artistic thought. In his early years, between Berlin and Vienna, there were the contacts with Busoni, Scherchen, and Webern that were to take their deepest root in him. Later in New York, his music found a multiplicity of resonances in the last works of Arnold Schoenberg, in the ventures of progressive jazz, and in the abstract canvasses of his friends Franz Kline, de Kooning, Olitski. ?7


Like that of his contemporaries, Wolpe's sound-world was beset with the structural problems of chromatic organization. Unlike Schoenberg, however, who had felt the cohesion of notes peculiar to the operations of traditional tonality would survive and take naturally when transplanted into the total chromatic medium, Wolpe understood that "chromaticism imposes no sense of restriction within itself. .... The more endless the combinations of tone, the more necessary it is to invent or develop a system to evaluate sounds in order to give them sense." To create this "sense" was, in fact, what composing was all about. And since the new chromatic pitch material in its full autonomy was different in kind (not just degree) from that chromaticism which simply inflected the common diatonic order of pitches, there was no intrinsic need to vassal it to tonality altogether. It was here that the outsider's vantage particular to Wolpe was to yield its most startling results. With the sole exception of Edgard Varese-another loner who had gone on to question the basic raw material of sound-Stefan Wolpe was the first to feel the fresh resources of total chromaticism, not just by simply abandoning the tonal model, but by developing a new sense of listening to the possibilities inherent in the new attitude toward the chromatic sound material itself. Instead of succumbing to the permutational cabal of the twelvetone canon that ruled postwar thinking, Wolpe quarried his "constellations." These clumps of chromatic pitches were held together by a selected grouping of intervals whose content formed a perceptible "harmonic" unit. During the course of a piece, this gravitational nucleus could attract those pitches originally excluded into its orbit and so enlarge the scope of its intervallic combinations. By further extending the magnetic push-and-pull of its component intervals throughout the various octaves, the "constellations" engendered a very palpable sense of an expanding and contracting space. The chance that intervals would commingle in such a manner as to resemble the sonic surface of the old tonality was only a possible combination within this Lucretian sound-space (made more or less probable by the initial choice of constellation), but Wolpe seldom hesitated to toy with the intriguing aural overlap. At times irksome, often delightful, this elusiveness confounds surface with structure and appears to look backward and forward at the same time. It is part of an ambivalence characteristic of his generation,


and it lies close to the core of the rich complexity process that is now complete and our inheritance.

of a musical

Last April we waited outside a funeral chapel off Madison Avenue. Not even Luciano Berio, who was standing next to us, could get in to hear the service for Stravinsky. Today, as the chill of spring swept Amsterdam Avenue, no one had to wait. The extraordinary achievement of Stefan Wolpe goes virtually unnoticed. Little of his music has been published or performed. Less has been recorded. It was not Wolpe's way to seek out the public ear and his abiding sense of humility only partly explains it. It seems rather that he was so completely caught up in the power of sound itself, so deeply in love with the inner lives of intervals, rhythms, textures, forms that he lost sight of the outer trappings of the music world altogether. "In other circumstances," he put it wistfully, "I would have been a troubadour." Unknown to those of us who had gathered to pay respects at Riverside Chapel, the Juilliard Quartet, too, was preparing to give tribute. They had chosen the Adagio of Beethoven's Opus 127. Barely audible and from the lowest of their instrumental registers, they started to play the staggered entrances, the faltering rhythms, the rare intervals. I thought for a second I might be listening to a piece of Wolpe's himself. In those first enigmatic utterances, before the recognizable patterns of history and style could form themselves, you could hear hints of that common matrix of sound from which the imaging power of music has spawned. For Wolpe and for Beethoven the compositional process was never a routine-several composers have built reputations largely on cranking out opus numbers-but always a fresh way of shaping and reshaping the same basic sonic materials. In the unexpected recesses of their imaginations both shared the uncanny ability to illuminate some unusual nook of sound overlooked by other composers or, if noticed, dismissed as too barren for further care. And in Beethoven's dissatisfaction with those artistic paths he had already travelled, Wolpe heard an echo of his own refusal, in facing his most recent musical problems, to accept the resolution of an earlier compositional impasse. We no longer feel at ease in talking about a moral commitment to one's profession, but for Wolpe composition was more than the formal pursuit of a vocation or even a calling. His high-mindedness . 9


in the very act of composing involved a certain morality of choices and implications, the thrust of which imbues so much of his work with its particular force. Yet far from verging on the pompous, his music is tempered by a warm sense of humor and a delicious wit. For all its utter seriousness, there is a master's skill and playfulness that underlies Wolpe's best work. It glows in the be-bop second movement of his Quartet for trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums. It informs the nursery-rhyme lilt of the tonal reminiscence that ends the String Quartet of 1969. Only in one place that I know of did he ever let the setbacks and disappointments that hounded his life creep into his art: the curt movement in his Oboe Sonata which he called "A Piece of Embittered Music." Through his music Stefan Wolpe refashioned a life fraught with the contours of tragedy into the very stuff of triumph. The painful journeys from Berlin to Jerusalem and to New York, the long bout with Parkinson's disease, the fire in the Westbeth Housing Project that claimed his manuscripts-all these have been superbly transformed by undeterred energy and the plastic vividness of imagination. It is this metamorphosis that has so compellingly drawn me to the music of a man I never knew. But I'm getting to know him better all the time. April 10, 1972 -Larry Stempel

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