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

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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/832460

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IN MEMORIAM:

STEFAN

WOLPE

(1902-1972)

Comet-like

radiance,

conviction,

fervent

intensity,

penetrating

thought

breathtaking

outer life of Stefan Wolpe, as they

to those

through his music.

came close could not help but feel admiration and affection.

tact with him was such an important experience that he was under- standably surrounded by many devoted, convinced friends and

students who helped with his problems of publication, perfor- mances, 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 worth-

while class. He started talking about his Passacaglia, a piano work built of sections each based on a musical interval-minor second,

major

caught up in a meditation on how wonderful these primary mate-

sitting at the piano, he was

on many levels of seriousness

adventurousness

and humor, combined

with

and originality marked the inner and

do his compositions.

Inspiring

who knew him, these inspiring qualities reach many more

A man,

a musician

for whom

everyone

who

Con-

second,

and so

on.

At

once,

rials, 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

smallest one, a minor second, to the largest, a major seventh- which 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.

the class was to finish. As he led us from the

? 3

PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

in the 1920s when he of Weill and Eisler,

wrote

during the Weimar Republic. When he left his hometown, Berlin,

as the

and the

here until he came to America to live in 1939.

year that I reviewed

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,

sioned

League

remarkable but also one of the most difficult-to-perform

our era.

pieces of

Stefan's

work first came to my attention

songs,

somewhat

workers'

Nazi

of the type

menace

grew, he went

to Russia, Rumania, Austria,

of his was heard

then

Palestine.

During this period little

his

March

It was in about that

for two

pianos,

and Variations

and

by

finally

Rodgers

the

and

Symphony

written

in

1955-56,

commis-

Hammerstein

It turned

in

collaboration

with

the

out

to be

one of the most

of Composers-ISCM.

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 Phil-

harmonic 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,

ments were performed and these not well.

only

two

of the three move-

Tragically,

shortly

before

this performance-ordeal,

while Stefan

was at the American Academy

the illness, Parkinson's disease, which from

heavy

this

mated man. For from about

in Rome,

body

1961

of

he began to show signs of

then

on

extraordinarily

a

ani-

fell

like

shadow

on the

physical

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, undimin-

ished in spirit, to teach, think and compose, producing more of his remarkable works. In this phase of his life, the courage, determina-

tion

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.

and will to live and act through his art were inspiring. Few

.

4

IN MEMORIAM:STEFAN WOLPE

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 origi- nality 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 unencourag-

ing 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

for music is of life, of his life, and Stefan's music was, and is,

life",

passionately and singularly his life, for each individual work rep-

licated his sense of life, his sense of a musical composition's life,

the form of a total life in process, in progress, ever-evolving, ever- developing, 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 courage, his human courage.

at

which

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 suf- fered the same imposed wanderings, have not secretly measured

our own

under those

of those

circumstances

period following

his musical intelligence,

many

years

ago,

In the question

I recall Stefan's

his Battle

Composer's

Piece

the

Forum

those

for piano was performed.

concert

a member

of the audience

internal

strengths

by

comparing

our

imagined

response

unimaginable

with the

actual responses

from

Germany

to

who

made the sad, circuitous journey

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.

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PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

For us, his colleagues,

there is-unavoidably

and unashamedly-

the 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 com-

pleted, our obligations, our responsibilities have only just begun.

(Recalled from words spoken at the funeral services for Stefan Wolpe)

-Milton

Babbitt

and

original; I am indebted

lay in his special notions of musical continuity, which root in tra-

dition 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 confronta- tion with the results of his efforts meant an incalculable broaden- ing of compositional capacity, and in them as well as in his own remarkable music, the inner balances that supported his external

volatility will endure.

Wuorinen

Stefan

Wolpe's

insights

into

composition

were

profound

to him on both

counts.

His "originality"

-Charles

A Colophon for Stefan

Wolpe

And I wish that I were not any part

of that fifth generation

but had died before it came,

or been born afterward.

of men,

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

IN MEMORIAM:STEFAN WOLPE

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 rhyth-

madcap of Harry Partch. But in

all these-the

blooded

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

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.

mics, or even with the microtonal

very best of Wolpe's contemporaries-I

miss the full-

century

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

chromatic gamut of pitches and the danger of its anarchic bent in

the absence of any tonal landmark.

complete

While Wolpe's

life

became

caught

in the extremes

of personal

and political

to moving at

Berlin

and Vienna, there were the contacts with Busoni, Scherchen, and

Webern that were to take their deepest

York, his music found a multiplicity

of Arnold

the

Olitski.

in the ventures of progressive jazz, and in of his friends

the fringes of artistic thought.

contingency,

his mind grew accustomed

In his early years, between

root in him. Later in New

of resonances in the last works

Franz

Kline,

de Kooning,

Schoenberg,

canvasses

abstract

? 7

PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

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 restric-

tion within

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 com- mon 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 pos- sibilities inherent in the new attitude toward the chromatic sound material itself.

Instead of succumbing to the permutational cabal of the twelve- tone canon that ruled postwar thinking, Wolpe quarried his "con- stellations." These clumps of chromatic pitches were held together by a selected grouping of intervals whose content formed a per- ceptible "harmonic" unit. During the course of a piece, this gravi- tational 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" en-

gendered 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 pos- sible 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

structure

time. It is part of an ambivalence characteristic of his generation,

surface with

and appears to look

backward

and forward at the same

IN MEMORIAM:STEFAN WOLPE

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

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

achievement

music has been published

was not Wolpe's way to

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 alto-

"I would have

gether. "In other circumstances," he put it wistfully, 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

the rare intervals. I thought

piece of Wolpe's himself. In those first enigmatic utterances, before

the recognizable patterns of history and style could form them- selves, 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

ability to

recesses of their imaginations

illuminate some unusual nook of sound overlooked by other com- posers or, if noticed, dismissed as too barren for further care. And in Beethoven's dissatisfaction with those artistic paths he had al-

ready travelled, Wolpe heard an echo

of an

earlier compositional

I might be listening to a

Avenue,

no one had to wait. The extraordinary

Little of his

Less has been recorded. It

the public ear and his abiding

of Stefan Wolpe goes virtually unnoticed.

or performed.

seek

out

started to play the staggered entrances, the faltering rhythms,

for a second

both

shared the uncanny

of his own refusal, in facing

the resolution

his most recent musical problems,

impasse.

to accept

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

PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

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

trans-

formed by undeterred energy and the plastic vividness of imagina-

tion. 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.

that claimed his manuscripts-all

these have been

superbly

April 10, 1972 -Larry Stempel

10

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