In his career the German-born composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) crossed paths with most of the Modernist movements. His greatness lay in the ability to absorb divergent styles and ideas and to produce out of them music of striking and compelling originality.
Stefan Wolpe was born in Berlin on August 25, 1902, the third of four children to David and Hermine Wolpe. His father had established a successful manufacturing business after emigrating from Moscow, and his mother, who was Viennese, played the piano a little. Wolpe began to develop his musical gifts early, composing by the age of 14. At the same age he began formal studies at the Klindworth-Schwarwenka Conservatory but was expelled for a composition he had written.
In 1918, the year of the November Revolution, Wolpe left home to join the Wandervögeln, the name given to roving bands of young people in search of lost ideals. He supported himself at the start with menial jobs but was soon offered patronage by the wife of a wealthy attorney, who allowed him the use of a studio with a piano in her home. Her friendly assistance ended only when Wolpe had to flee Berlin in 1933. In the years 1919 to 1921 Wolpe made two more attempts at formal education, both unsuccessful.
Wolpe's needs and temperament benefitted much more from lectures at the Bauhaus, which he attended shortly after its founding in 1919. There Paul Klee, Laszio Maholy-Nagy, and others recognized the advantages of allowing students to pursue an individual artistic identity through experimentation rather than making them submit to a rigid, pre-established methodology. It was also at the Bauhaus that he met his first wife, Ola Okuniewska; their daughter Katerina Wolpe became a pianist.
Learns from the Dadaists
At about the same time that he was attending lectures at the Bauhaus, Wolpe began associating with the Berlin Dadaists—George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Richter, and others—who were no doubt largely responsible for his inclination toward the combination of irreconcilable opposites, a major thesis of his later music. It is noteworthy that among the many artists Wolpe had come in contact with, few were musicians. The principal exception was Ferruccio Bussoni, whom he met in 1920 and who, in advocating what he called "junge Klassizimus" (the young classicism), succeeded to some extent in steering Wolpe away from the expressionistic abandon of some of his music.
In 1922 Wolpe joined the Novembergruppe, a leftist group originally made up of visual artists and architects, but by that time also including writers and musicians. Wolpe served as a pianist and composer for Novembergruppe, possibly until its demise in 1932. He was said to have been an exceptional pianist.
Wolpe found additional outlets for his combined musical/political interests. He was musical director for Die Truppe '31, the first fully professional agitprop theater group. The troupe staged three productions in the two following years, of which the first, Die Mausefalle, was the most successful, with over 300 performances in Germany and Switzerland. As a communist, a Jew, and a radical artist, Wolpe found it increasingly difficult to co-exist with Germany's rising National Socialism. The third play of Die Truppe '31 was closed by Nazi edict on March 4, 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor. When Nazi storm troopers invaded the district in which Wolpe was living, he escaped to Zurich aided by the pianist Irma Schoenberg.
Although he destroyed most of the music he had written before 1925, a few extant piano pieces from 1920 display a thorough grasp of freely atonal expressionism. His encounter with the Dadaists engendered several pieces employing mixed media and prefabricated sound. But greater recognition probably came from the Kampfmusik (music for the struggle) composed for agitprop groups. One song, Es wird die neue Welt geboren, remained in East German political songbooks until the fall of communism. Jazz elements appear in his works after 1925.
But neither the rapidity with which he moved from style to style nor his readiness to draw from more individual traits of composers so diverse as Arnold Schoenberg, Eric Satie, Bela Bartok, and Igor Stravinsky could be taken as the mere immature groping of a young composer. His later works would continue to acknowledge these sources and to add to them.
In the fall of 1933 he made his way to Vienna, where he studied for three or four months before the threat of deportation back to Germany again compelled him to flee, now to Jerusalem in May 1934. There he was married to Irma Schoenberg. Delighted by the Palestinian folk music and the sound of Semitic languages, he responded with simple songs for the kibbutzim and by incorporating oriental scales into his stylistic vocabulary. Two important pieces from the period, Four Studies on Basic Rows and Duo im Hexachord, show the influence of others in the partitioning and relatively free ordering of pitch-classes and of Anton Webern in their economy of material. However, the cosmopolitan situation and the uncertain politics in Jerusalem did not offer Wolpe the stability he sought. He emigrated to the United States in 1938 and became a citizen in 1945.
In the United States he quickly won the respect of composers but remained unknown to the larger public. He taught at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (1939-1942), the Brooklyn Free Music Society (1945-1948), and the Philadelphia Academy of Music (1949-1952). Gaining a reputation for his enthusiatic and capable teaching at these institutions and among private students, he founded the Contemporary Music School in New York in 1948. In that year he also met the poet Hilda Morley, whom he married in 1952.
In 1952 he became music director at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental school that attracted many of the leading exponents of Modernism. Among its faculty were several of the newly-ascendant Abstract Expressionists, including Willem DeKooning and Franz Kline, with whom Wolpe developed lasting friendships.
Studies Still Another Art Group
The Abstract Expressionist ethos no doubt encouraged Wolpe's tendency to view the problem of contemporary music as resolvable strictly within its traditional parameters. But music, too, had long partaken of the literary model in its dialectical resolution of thematic and tonal differences. Wolpe's originality lay in his abandoning of this model and replacing it with the constant, never resolving interaction of opposites posited as non-hierarchical, non-thematic shapes, and filling out what he called a "constellatory" rather than a layered space. Opposition occurs not only within fundamental syntactical components, but also as the rapid succession of stylistic clashes. But the systematic unfolding of pitch and interval relationships that nevertheless controls the succession of disparate events results in a language that is at once unpredictable and yet highly ordered, fragmented and yet musically logical.
Wolpe's duties at Black Mountain left him ample time to compose, and he responded with several notable compositions of extreme complexity, among them Enactments for three pianos and the Symphony. But the college was soon to fold, and Wolpe, sensing its end, left for Europe on a Fulbright scholarship in 1956. He spent that summer, the first of several, lecturing at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music. In 1957 he became chairman of the music department at C.W. Post College, Long Island University, a post he held until 1968.
In the compositions of these years, beginning with Form for piano (1959), all excesses were stripped away in a style now taut and lean, conveying an urgency born of stark images thrust forward by propulsive rhythms. Other pieces from this period include Chamber Piece No. 1 (1964) and II (1967), the Trio (1964), From Here on Farther (1969), the String Quartet (1969), and his last composition, Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments (1971). Beginning in 1963 his health declined slowly but steadily due to Parkinson's disease, the illness to which he succumbed on April 4, 1972.
Given the reluctance of the public to accept advanced music, and in spite of the fact that he had strong populist leanings, Wolpe may never claim a large following. But a growing interest in his music has led to an increase in recordings and publications, frequent performances at new music festivals, and the founding of the Stefan Wolpe Society for the purpose of promoting his music. Among his students were Ralph Shapey, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Robert Man, and many jazz musicians, including Tony Scott, George Russell, and Eddie Sauter. The composers Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger also acknowledged his influence.
Further Reading on Stefan Wolpe
Two extended reviews of Wolpe's music appeared in The New York Times (April 5 and August 30, 1992). The latter, written by his former student Austin Clarkson, is especially illuminating, as are all Clarkson's writings on Wolpe. Clarkson is also responsible for Stefan Wolpe: A Brief Catalogue of Published Works (1981), which contains biographical information as well as the catalogue. His essay "Stefan Wolpe's Berlin Years" is included in Music and Civilization: Essays in Honor of Paul Henry Lang (1964). The composer's widow, Hilda Morley, wrote a book of poems, What Are Winds and What Are Waters, about their relationship, and her book A Thousand Birds: A Memoir of Stefan Wolpe is forthcoming. Several of Wolpe's lectures have been published. The best known of these is "Thinking Twice," contained in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music (1967). A complete bibliography can be obtained from the Stefan Wolpe Society, York University, Ontario. Of the ensembles that have championed and recorded his music, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (now defunct) and Parnassus deserve special mention.