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Stefan Wolpe

American composer of German descent, born 25 August, 1902 in Berlin, died 4 April, 1972 in New York

Stefan Wolpe was born in Berlin in 1902. In 1920, he briefly undertook studies at the College of Art, but dropped out of the class of Paul Juon, whose conservative teaching style failed to motivate the young student. In contrast, he regularly attended the composition classes of Ferruccio Busoni, whose work he greatly admired. From 1920-1933, Wolpe was somewhat involved with the Bauhaus movement in Weimar, and the Dada scene; he also became involved in politics.

On one hand, his early works, such as his Dadaist opera, Schöne Geschichten [Beautiful Stories] (1929), were strongly influenced by the free atonal music of Schoenberg; on the other, he was no less capable of working in Hanns Eisler’s agitprop style. Such a dialectic of styles remained a prominent characteristc of Wolpe’s work throughout his career.

As a jew and a dedicated communist, Wolpe recognised the scourge of facism and fought against it in any way he could. His cabaret opera, Zeus and Elida, a satire of Hitler’s megalomania, was premiered in 1926. In 1933, he was wanted by the Gestapo and had to abruptly flee Germany. It is thanks to his second wife, the pianist Irma Schoenberg, that his works from this time have survived. Moving first to Vienna, he briefly studied with Webern, before immigrating to Palestine.

In Jerusalem, he made a name for himself as a composition professor and arranger of songs for kibbutz choirs. In the Israeli musical world, he quickly gained a reputation as an “enfant terrible” of twelve-tone music. His intransigence in matters of music and politics led to his ideas being largely rejected. This precipitated his departure in 1938 for the United States. True to his nature, Wolpe soaked in all that the New York of the 1950s had to offer: Bebop, Abstract Expressionism, etc. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he finally found a suitable working environment. He remained there until the college declared bankruptcy in 1956. Wolpe was once again in a financially precarious situation. Given the conservative nature of musical tastes in the USA at that time, he was unable to earn a living from commissions. The League of Composers (ISCM) was the only commissioning body to have shown an interest in Wolpe’s work, and in 1955, it commissioned his First Symphony. The two first movements were premiered in 1964.

Upon returning to Germany, Wolpe again found little interest in his work. Darmstadt, the Mecca of new music, was already firmly in the hands of the younger generation of composers, comprising Boulez, Stockhausen, etc. Wolpe’s abstract expressionism was controversial. His insistence upon the importance of spontaneous creativity was generally seen in a positive light; however, his unorthadox approach to twelve-tone music was widely met with incomprehension.

While in New York, Wolpe had continued to develop the dodecaphonic style, resulting in music that was highly complex. His set of studies in counterpoint (Music for any instruments 1944-1949) is a prototypical example of musical simultaneity, whereby highly heterogeneous elements are superimposed upon one another. In his polyphonic works, a series of snapshots replaces any tangible development. A comparison of his Toccata (1941) with his Battle piece (1943-1947) and the Enactments for three pianos (1950-1953) is testimony to the extrodinary evolution in his rhythmic writing. Also, during his time in New York, Wolpe was a highly sought after professor of composition; notable students of his include David Tudor, Morton Feldman and Ralph Shapey, as well as jazz musicians Elmer Bernstein, John Carisi, George Russell, Tony Scott, etc.

In 1963, Wolpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition which was, at that time, largely untreatable. He fought against the disease for the final ten years of his life, ultimately succumbing to it in 1972. In his final years, tremors and paralysis forced Wolpe to compose very slowly. This compelled the composer to adapt his style, leading to a new method of elaboration of the techniques of Anton Webern. His final works, e.g., Chamber Pieces n°1 + 2 (1964-67) and From here on farther (1969), adopt a closed form, while retaining the dynamic and optomistic nature which characterises the rest of his catalogue.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007

  • Solo music (except voice)
  • Chamber music