Throughout his life, Stefan Wolpe was a fearless musical explorer. As a young man in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, he took up the cause of socialism and committed himself to a life in music. During the 1920s, he became both a member of the radical Novembergruppe and a proponent of Busoni’s “Young Classicism.” He composed workers’ songs and anti-fascist theater music alongside complex atonal concert music.
Inspired by visual forms, he embraced the dadaists’ art of juxtaposition and studied at the Bauhaus. Forced to flee from Nazi Germany in 1933, he settled for four years in Palestine, where he studied Arab musical structures and forms as well as atonal and twelve-tone techniques.
In 1938, he started anew again, this time in the United States. After WWII, he entered the circle of New York abstract expressionist painters and attended meetings of the Eighth Street Club.
As director of music at Black Mountain College (1952-6), he galvanized a youthful, artistic community, as he had at the Bauhaus and on the kibbutzim in Palestine. During the sixties, he inspired a new generation of American composers and performers. He was a teacher and mentor to jazz musicians, modernist composers, and artistic avant-gardists alike.
During his last years, he was no longer altogether an outsider; but he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1964. Even as it became almost impossible for him to notate music by hand, he continued to compose. He died in New York on 4 April, 1972.
Berlin (born, 1902)
- Studies at the Bauhaus (1920, 1923) and with Ferruccio Busoni (1921); marriage to artist, Ola Okuniewska
- Encounters with Berlin Dadaists
- Member of Novembergruppe, 1922-32
- Pianist for the political theater group, Die Truppe ’31 (1931-33)
- Die Truppe shut down by Nazi government (March,1933)
- Escape from Germany with Irma Schoenberg, March, 1933
Stehende Musik (1927)
Migration and Life in Palestine (1933-38)
- Studies with Anton Webern; departure from Vienna under fear of deportation
March and Variations for two pianos (1933)
Oboe Sonata I. Allegro comodo (1937-8)
New York (1938-12)
- Teaching at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (1939-42), Brooklyn Free Music Society (1945-48), Philadelphia Academy of Music (1949-52)
- Involvement with Abstract Expressionism and the artists’ circle at the Eighth Street Club in New York
Dance in the Form of a Chaconne, from Zemach Suite (1941)
Battle Piece for piano (1942/1947)
Black Mountain College (1952-6)
- Music Director at Black Mountain College, 1952-56
- Works with musicians John Cage and David Tudor, poets Hilda Morley, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley and artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline
Enactments for Three Pianos: Chant (1953)
Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion & Piano: IV. Taut, to Oneself (1954)
New York (1957-71)
- Far-ranging influence as teacher and mentor in New York, Students include jazz musicians such as Elmer Bernstein, George Russell, Eddie Sauter, and Tony Scott; composers Morton Feldman and Ralph Shapey; pianists Robert Levin and David Tudor
- Music Department Chair, C.W. Post College, Long Island University
- Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease; dies of complications from Parkinson’s Disease eight years later (April, 1972)
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.
—Elliott Carter (In Memoriam, Stefan Wolpe)
Form for Piano (1959)
Chamber Piece no. 1 (1964)
Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments (1971)
Gil Evans didn’t study with Wolpe in the way that students did who would like to write like Wolpe or write in the style of Wolpe. But I have a feeling that other people like myself just wanted to absorb as much not only of the music but of the man. Gil was one of those, and Wolpe loved him, I’m sure. If anyone would influence Wolpe it would be Gil. I do remember Wolpe being at one of the initial concerts of that Gerry Mulligan-led group that’s been given the credit for founding the whole cool movement in jazz. Some of Wolpe’s influence is in there. Monk would have been open to Wolpe’s ideas and Charlie Parker….
I felt a living, breathing force in this man that was extremely life-positive. You couldn’t be around him without that force entering you….He’s alive in those of us that he touched.
It was a time of the great shift in the music world. On one hand “modern” composers such as Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartök were hailed and played over and over again till they came out of your ears. On the other hand, composers such as Edgard Varese, Stockhausen, and Maurice Kagel were receiving for being the forerunners of electronic music. Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Morton Feldman were applauded for their avant-garde pioneer efforts. Stefan’s work fell in between those two contemporary schools, as he still used the musical vocabulary which was considered less fashionable at the time. He himself was very aware of this situation. He complained how the composers were no more dealing with music, but noise. Where is the human spirit? Where is the soul? I loved him for his belief in his work. . . and for not joining the crowd.
I went several times to 110th Street, out where Stefan had an apartment with Irma Rademacher. And it was always filled with students who were absolutely devoted to him, so that one had the feeling, being there, that one was at the true center of New York. And it was almost an unknown center of New York. And that was what gave a very special strength to one’s feeling about Stefan, that it was in a sense a privilege to be aware of him, since it was like being privy to an important secret.
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 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.