About the Wolpe Society

The Wolpe Society is a non-profit organization founded in 1981 to further the knowledge and understanding of the music of Stefan Wolpe. Funds raised by the Society are directed to meeting the following needs: preparation and publication of critical scores for the use of musicians and scholars; sponsorship of recordings of outstanding performances of the music; assistance to performers and scholars in obtaining information on the music and writings of the composer.

Executive Committee

Noyes Bartholemew
Nora Born
Martin Brody
Brigid Cohen
Matthew Greenbaum
Cheryl Seltzer
Heidy Zimmerman

Members at Large

Carol Archer
Hannah Arie-Gaifman
Ina Henning
Larson Powell
James Kendrick
Robert Morris
Zaidee Parkinson
Paul Sadowski
Fred Sherry
Becky Starobin
Tod Vunderink

In Memoriam, Austin Clarkson (1932-2021)

Austin Clarkson

For those of us who had the privilege of working with him, Austin Clarkson was a constant inspiration.  His passionate beliefs—in music, teaching, social activism, building community, and cultivating individual imagination—were matched by his unwavering dedication. His commitment to preserving and honoring the legacy of Stefan Wolpe was unflagging.  In furthering this mission, he deepened our understanding of what it means to be a critical musical thinker and a creative advocate for the arts. 

Austin met Stefan during his student years at Columbia University. Their first contact came through Beverly Bonds Clarkson, a composition student of Wolpe, who became Austin’s life partner.  Austin went on to a distinguished academic career on the faculty of Yale University and then as Chair of the Music Department at York University.  His devotion to Wolpe’s music continued throughout his professional life.

Austin spearheaded all of the Wolpe Society’s initiatives since its inception in 1981. He created critical editions of Wolpe’s music and writings, produced historical and theoretical scholarship, organized conferences, inventoried Wolpe’s Nachlass, and supported performances and recordings of his music.  Without his incessant acts of devotion, we would know so much less of this astonishing composer.  The history of twentieth century music would be incalculably diminished.

Austin’s commitment to the Stefan Wolpe Society was all the more inspiring for the ways that it reflected his dedication to social activism.  He was an exemplary musical citizen whose devotion to scholarship was shaped by ethical and spiritual values that took him far beyond academe.  His worldview is reflected in the range of projects he nurtured.  He founded the Milkwood Collective to promote creative expression as a fundamental human value.  He inaugurated a related program, “Exploring Creativity in Depth,” to provide opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to explore their artistic potential.  Only a few years ago, Austin and his life partner, Beverly, launched another new initiative, working within indigenous communities in Ontario to fashion new collaboration in new environments.

Austin (as Hilda Rademacher Wolpe described Stefan Wolpe) had a “shining view of man.”  He devoted himself to increasing the light in the world.  In these dark times, we honor his shining example and aspire to continue his work.

An Interview with Austin Clarkson

SOURCE: Robert Carl, “’His ultimate goal was to challenge: An Interview with Austin Clarkson,” Fanfare, Nov-Dec (2011): 224-228.

Stefan Wolpe (1902–72) was one of the most original and uncompromising composers of the 20th century, yet it feels as though he has never received the recognition he deserves. Instead he has been an inspiration to an exceptionally wide range of highly original composers (think Cage, Feldman, Shapey, Carter, for starters) who recognized that his passionate take on European modernism was quite personal and different from the musical doctrines and dogmas that came across the Atlantic at midcentury. He’s a sort of “composer’s composer,” though without the hermetic overtones suggested by the term. Wolpe may well be just finding his time now, though, as he is postmodern in his refusal to choose between popular and esoteric traditions, multicultural in his embrace of Middle Eastern musical practice, and iconoclastic in his very personal adaptation of serialism, which avoids strict note-counting and concentrates on the meanings pitches and intervals project, dependent on and reflective of the space they inhabit.

Bridge Records and the Stefan Wolpe Society, Inc. have been collaborating for several years now on a series of recordings that are gradually shepherding the composer’s collected works into a cohesive discography. On the occasion of three recent releases (reviewed below), I spoke with Austin Clarkson (chair of the board for the society, editor of Wolpe’s music, and formerly professor of music at York University in Toronto) about the project and Wolpe’s continuing presence in musical discourse.

Q: Can you tell us about the origins of the Wolpe Society?

A: When Stefan Wolpe died in 1972 only a handful of his works were in print and he had signed several major works over to a small British publisher that went out of business. Wolpe died without a will and so it took years for his estate to be settled. Fortunately, a New York lawyer helped persuade Peer Southern (now Peermusic) to accept the Wolpe works. Ellis Freedman helped a group of friends of Wolpe, including Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, and Leonard Meyer, to found the Wolpe Society. It was incorporated in 1981.

Q: What does it see as its mission? What are its major activities and projects?

A: The Wolpe Society is dedicated to publishing authoritative editions of Wolpe’s works, sponsoring performances and recordings by fine musicians, and encouraging scholars to study the music. To celebrate the 2002 centenary of Wolpe’s birth, the society assisted in organizing and funding festivals and symposia in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Berlin, Freiburg, Moscow, Toronto, and Berlin. Over 60 scores have been edited under the supervision of my colleague Thomas Phleps (Kassel) and myself and are now listed in the Peer catalog: peermusicclassical.com/composer/composerdetail.cfm?detail=wolpe

Q: How did its relationship with Bridge Records emerge, and what has been the nature of the collaboration between the society and the label?

A: Volume 1 of the Bridge Wolpe Collection was organized by the cellist Fred Sherry, who in the early 1990s was artistic director of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. He had invited Oliver Knussen to conduct and Peter Serkin to perform Wolpe’s Piece in Three Parts for piano and 16 instruments. The CD was filled out with performances of two pieces by Speculum Musicae. Volume 2 was a solo piano recording by David Holzman to celebrate Wolpe’s centenary. It won a Grammy nomination and Deems Taylor award for the liner notes. Together with the series of many other composers that Bridge releases, David and Becky Starobin continue to add to the Wolpe Collection, finding superb performers for the repertoire.

Q: What do you see as particularly important about Wolpe’s musical and artistic legacy?

A: Wolpe embodies a strain of modernism that has been given little attention in the dominant narrative of 20th-century music. He and Edgard Varèse were deeply influenced by the aesthetic ideas of Ferruccio Busoni, which brought them together in a close friendship in the 1950s and 1960s. Another bond was their interest in visual art, particularly the abstract expressionists. As a youth Wolpe spent time at the Bauhaus, sitting in on the lectures and studios of Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and Oskar Schlemmer. It was there that he learned how to apply in practice the ideas of Busoni, which were very similar to those of the Bauhaus masters. Wolpe was thus one of the leading protagonists of the Busoni-Bauhaus ethos of socially committed modernism.

His approach to serialism was thus to organize music around the color, character, and drama of the various intervals rather than the more abstract properties of 12-tone series. He also had a most creative approach to time and space, developing a theory and practice of synthetic rhythms and spatial proportions.

As a passionate socialist, Wolpe made his politics known, sometimes at considerable risk. Thus he believed that the most advanced concert music should not be above including elements from vernacular musics (whether Berlin marching songs, Arabic dances, or New York jazz). His ultimate goal was to challenge musicians and the audience so that their minds would open and become more inclusive of all experience. After experiencing life under the Nazis and conservative musicians of all stripes, Wolpe was alert to any kind of provincialism.

Q: Wolpe has a stylistically diverse and geographically wide-ranging trajectory through his life and career that’s astonishing. How do you think this has affected his reception and evaluation since his death?

A: You are quite right to note the astonishing diversity of Wolpe’s oeuvre. At each phase of his career he wrote pieces of extreme virtuosity as well as simple music for amateurs. Furthermore, he submitted his music to a radical critique every 10 years or so, which is why there are such differences between his works of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Wolpe did not think or teach his students in terms of a concept of style. His music is stylistically so various that it is hard to categorize, which often led to criticism and rejection by his more decorous colleagues.

Q: Do you feel these factors may in fact be more in tune with contemporary cultural assumptions than was the case earlier?

A: Yes, indeed! Listeners today are now able to hear musics that are mash-ups of the old stylistic categories. They are now open to hear the passionate intensity, integrity, and brilliance of Wolpe’s music for what it is rather than in terms of some stylistic norms. His time has definitely come.

Q: Wolpe became best known to American listeners during the postwar era, when his very personal take on musical modernism led to a series of important works that were recorded by such labels as CRI and Nonesuch. At that time, the “late” Wolpe was the predominant one for most listeners. What do you feel are the particular strengths of the earlier works, and in particular the vocal music, which constitutes the majority of music on two of the releases under review?

A: Wolpe’s works of the ’60s were in response to the music he heard at Darmstadt, which he visited during the late ’50s and early ’60s. He created a synthesis between American abstract expressionism and European structuralism that was of great interest to such young composers and musicians as Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, and Peter Serkin, and such groups as Continuum, the Group for Contemporary Music, and Speculum Musicae.

The earlier works have equivalent value for their own time and place, as Wolpe had a gift for absorbing the aesthetic ambience of his surroundings. In his youth in Berlin Wolpe was primarily a composer of works for voice, mainly ethical texts and spiritual poetry of iconic German authors—Hans Sachs, Hölderlin, Kleist, Rilke. Then he tried his hand at musical theater. After the Nazis took over and he found refuge in Palestine, he became fascinated by discovering in the Biblical prophets’ expressions of resistance to tyranny in the ancient Hebrew language that he was beginning to learn. He also set many Hebrew texts by modern socialist poets. Then in New York, he composed a cantata on the Hebrew prayer Yigdal, but also set a simple children’s story, Lazy Andy Ant, for a puppet theater. And while teaching at Black Mountain College and C. W. Post College he wrote songs for many theatrical productions. He tried his hand at every possible genre.

Q: Finally, could you speak some about your own history as a scholar and advocate of Wolpe’s life and work?

A: I first encountered Wolpe when I picked his first long-playing record out of a new releases bin in a Toronto record store in 1956. I had no way to comprehend what I heard, as I had only gotten as far as Bartók and Stravinsky. But when I was working on a Ph.D. in musicology at Columbia, my roommate said that his girlfriend was organizing a group of students to study Schoenberg with a composer who needed money. His name was Stefan Wolpe. As I was interested in contemporary music and the courses at Columbia were all about medieval and Renaissance music, I leaped at the chance. When I entered his living room, in a third-floor walkup on West 70th St, it was like entering an ongoing seismic event. Wolpe’s energy and enthusiasm, his penetrating ideas about music and life changed everything about what music could be. From that moment on I realized that I would have to become adequate to Wolpe’s ideas and to his music, which informed and inspired my career as a scholar and teacher. Advocating for Wolpe’s music has brought me in touch with fine musicians in many countries. Even on retirement from teaching I still find myself learning from Wolpe’s music. I am currently editing in collaboration with the pianist David Holzman the Four Studies on Basic Rows from 1936, in which Wolpe discovered his approach to serialism. Mr. Holzman made the first complete recording of the Four Studies on Bridge Volume 6.