Stefan Wolpe: A Biographical Sketch

Populist, Radical, Modernist

Born, Berlin, 25 August, 1902; died, New York City, 4 April 1972.


Unlike his immediate contemporaries Hanns Eisler, Ernst Krenek, Vladimir Vogel, and Kurt Weill, Wolpe did not gain recognition as a professional composer early in his career. . Vladimir Vogel, who was a student of Busoni and later was also involved in the workers’ music movement in Berlin, described Wolpe as “an outsider who belonged to none of the then fashionable schools.” The critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, who came to know Wolpe in 1923 at the Bauhaus in Weimar, wrote of him in 1928, “Plunging from ecstasy to ecstasy, from extreme to extreme, passionately investigating the materials and ideology of his art, he has demonstrated in numerous works of all kinds a more than exceptional talent that awaits maturity.” Stuckenschmidt then placed Wolpe ideologically between Antheil and Eisler and attributed decisive influences to Satie, Schoenberg, and Hauer.

Berlin: Socialism and Modernism, Bauhaus and Dada

Wolpe differed from most ranking composers of his generation by virtue of the unique rapprochement he achieved between his avowed socialism and the modernist vision of the professional composer. His life-long vision of this engagement was formed at the Bauhaus at Weimar, where he learned from participation in the Preliminary Course of Johannes Itten and Paul Klee, from collaboration with Oskar Schlemmer, and from the lectures of other masters–Feininger, Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, how to bring rigorous principles of design into relation to the aesthetic responses of ordinary people. Wolpe needed to find a way of overturning the hide-bound rules of academic composition he learned at the Berlin Conservatory, where he studied music from the age of fourteen, and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, which he attended for one year between 1920-21. He acquired an excellent command of harmony, counterpoint, and the piano, but his basic anarchism led him to plunge into the atonal expressionism of Scriabin and the early Schoenberg. His youthful  efforts were moderated by the counsel of Ferruccio Busoni, who instilled in him the desire for more traditional  musical forms. Similarly, Wolpe’s fascination for the Dadas and their program of outrageous mocking and trashing of bourgeois art and culture, was mediated by his friendship with the collageist and sound poet Kurt Schwitters, whose Dada poem Anna Blume Wolpe set to highly  chromatic music as an hilarious theatrical scene.

Wolpe discovered how to speak the musical language of the people of Berlin between 1929 and 1933, when he gave his talents completely to the anti-fascist cause. He wrote dozens of songs for agitprop troupes, workers’ unions, and Communist theater and dance companies. It took a great deal of discipline for a born atonalist to compose a simple tonal song, but he succeeded in doing so and, next to Hanns Eisler’s, his songs became some of the most popular of the time. 

From Berlin to Jerusalem

Forced to flee from Nazi Germany in 1933, Wolpe found refuge in Palestine, where he was the leading disciple of the Second Viennese School. He did much to encourage music among the settlers in the kibbutzim and wrote simple songs to Hebrew texts for amateur choirs, He also trained choirs on various kibbutzim, as the Jewish pioneers were unfamiliar with the new singing style required for so-called Kampfmusik, the music for the socialist struggle. In his concert music, however, he worked with twelve-tone principles that were too radical for the conservative community of musicians and audiences.

While in Palestine Wolpe discovered  his own approach to the twelve-tone medium in his  concert music. The rigorous construction and expressive power of March and Variations for Two Pianos (1933-4), Four Studies on Basic Rows (1935-6) for piano,Suite im Hexachord (1936) for oboe and clarinet, and the Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1937-41) confirmed Wolpe on his path toward creating autonomous artworks that are concerned with engaging the spirit and transforming the consciousness of the listener. Wolpe’s colleagues at the Palestine Conservatoire, where he taught composition and led the choir from the fall of 1935 to the spring of 1938, were aghast at his twelve-tone music and at the extraordinary devotion he aroused among his pupils for his musical and political views. His contract was not renewed for the fall of 1938, and, deeply hurt at how his efforts to encourage the musical life of the people and teach his students the most rigorous principles of composition were treated, he decided to leave Palestine.


New York

Arriving in the United States in December of 1938, Wolpe had again to start anew. Among the established American composers, who espoused a nationalist tradition that held to neoclassical principles, Wolpe, like his fellow refugee Ernst Krenek, was still the radical modernist. Theodor W. Adorno recognized this and, over the municipal radio station in 1940, described him as “an outsider in the best sense of the word. It is impossible to subsume him.” Commenting on Wolpe’s Oboe Sonata, which was being broadcast, he noted that Wolpe’s espressivo had nothing to do with post-Romanticism, but represented an incursion from the East:

The motive force of his music is a reconstruction of the espressivo. Wolpe’s music has nothing to do with the usual Romantic ideal of expression, nor by and large with musical Expressionism. Here a tone or a chord does not uncover an abyss of the soul. However the musical language as a whole is so passionately spoken that it produces the impression of extremes: just as Oriental, in this case Arabic, music, which has nothing at all to do with our tradition of expression, produces its whole diction through the most ardent passion (1940).

Indeed, in the works of the ensuing decade Wolpe demonstrated that diatonicism and dodecaphony were not mutually exclusive modes of musical thought, but that between the poles lie a rich spectrum of resources, one of which was the octatonic scale of successive whole tones and semitones, which he derived from an Arabic mode, the maqam saba. The seventeen numbers of the ballet, The Man From Midian (1942), are variously based in diatonic, octatonic, and twelve-tone frameworks.. Wolpe continued to employ the octatonic scale as an intermediate stage between diatonic and fully chromatic scales as well as for its Middle Eastern coloring. Although Wolpe was reputed to be a twelve-toner, he refused to be drawn to one or the other side of the ongoing debate. For Wolpe, the rate of circulation of the total chromatic is part of the compositional strategy. He worked with a principle of compensation, whereby when only a few tones are present they take on greater power than when many tones are in circulation. “To the very nucleus of this dynamic approach to a chromatic circulation belongs any number and any sequence of tones, because through an even tiniest number of two tones flows the huge pulsation of the many other non-released tones” (1950). Despite his known credentials as a master of the métier and an inspiring teacher, Wolpe failed to find a permanent position at a university or music school until in his late fifties. Even then, he had to supplement his salary with considerable part-time teaching. Nevertheless, he continued to produce an extraordinary series of works that continued to intermix music for amateurs and professionals. His works of concert music continued to challenge the virtuosity of the most brilliant artists, while his music for college theater productions could be performed by amateurs.

Abstract Expressionism, Black Mountain College

During the 1950s, while Wolpe was more or less ignored by the musical establishment, he was welcomed by the New York abstract expressionist painters and attended meetings of the Eighth Street Club. Esteban Vicente (b. 1903), a member of the Club, saw the impact of cubism and spatial concepts on Wolpe’s musical thinking. At that time the e composer  began to work out a system of spatial proportions that informed his music from 1950 through the sixties. Wolpe also  sought a way to link  classical twelve-tone and developing variation with his new ideas about  constellatory form. While director of music at Black Mountain College (1952-6), Wolpe had the time and the seclusion to compose a series of scores that mark the high point of abstract expressionism: Enactments for Three Pianos (1953), Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano (1955), and his Symphony (1956). In these works he said that he aimed for “a very mobile polyphony in which the partials of the sound behave like river currents and a greater orbit-spreadout is guaranteed to the sound, a greater circulatory agility (a greater momentum too).” Rather than a single center of attention, he sought to create multiple centers, “to give the sound a wealth of focal points with numerous different directory tendencies.” To obtain a more open sound he further fragmented and superimposed derivatives of the shapes: “To keep the sound open, that openness which leads me to think in layers (like the cubists), often I use canonic (or double canonic) foldings to keep the sound as porous as possible. I use then all possible techniques of inversions, retrogrades, like attacking an object from all sides, or moving out from all sides of an object.”

At this time Wolpe developed the notion of organic modes in order to extend the concept of the row beyond numerical permutations and combinations to include expressive associations. Perhaps recalling the notion of maqam, he defined organic modes as “musical-matter-making shapes, events, and a course of action.” To get beyond serial operations that organize numerically only the physical parameters of sound, he assigned each portion of the set a particular shape, texture, and mode of behavior, that is, “specific organic tasks or organic habits.” His notion of organic modes was a vitalistic response to the constraints of integral serialism. Of his Enactments he wrote, “What intrigues me so thoroughly is to integrate a vast number of different organic modes, existing simultaneously under different conditions of age, time, function and substance. The continuity of a piece is the expression (or manifestation) or a number of purposeful reproductions of these modes.” Each movement of Enactments is the unfolding of an action: “Chant,” “In a state of flight,” “Held in,” “Inception,” “Fugal motions.” The score for the three pianists is of an exuberant intricacy cand a pulsing physicality of expressive actions.


Wolpe prepared charts for many aspects of his pieces but applied them with great latitude so that the unforeseen possibilities of the material would reveal themselves during the act of composing: “The charts one sets are the little candles one carries in front of one’s own imagination, which then very often are not bright enough for what one discovers.” Thus Wolpe introduced another level of dialectic, namely, between strict and free adherence to the pre-compositional design: “The protocol can exist under conditions of a great latitude, from the most stringent to the most improvisatory situation.” While certain elements were pre-compositionally determined, the music was open to the influx of unforeseen sounds and events: “Virtually everything is admitted, provided it is included in an asymmetrical sequence of events that no hierarchic order either precedes or controls.” Both John Cage and Wolpe had deep respect for the meaningful happenstance, but where Cage reduced authorial control to a minimum, Wolpe insisted that his “intuitive form sense” should be free to choose from among the myriad possibilities that the material offered. For Wolpe the composer must exercise his creative imagination in order to prevent “the possibility of a false choice that the mechanics of arbitrariness [namely, chance] could cause.”

Spontaneity and Design: the late works

During the sixties Wolpe was discovered by a new generation of composers and performers. They found in him a vigorous and masterly carrier of radical traditions from the Bauhaus and the Second Viennese School who was thoroughly acculturated to American musical life and who continued to be open to new developments. His music was championed by such New York ensembles as Continuum, founded by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer, the Group for Contemporary Music, founded by Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen, Parnassus, and Speculum Musicae. Wolpe at last received many honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships and membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The last ten years of recognition, in which he was no longer altogether the outsider, were clouded by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, which eventually hampered his ability to notate music, and by a fire which damaged all his papers and destroyed his fine collection of paintings. Despite these adversities he continued to compose, completing his last work, “Piece for Trumpet and 7 Instruments,”  a few months before he died.

From faith in the taoist interplay of opposites and from commitment to the Bauhaus philosophy of material and craftsmanship Wolpe composed scores that are radically open in form and that inform the everyday with high abstraction. Wolpe composed in many genres and styles, but whatever the medium his music is characterized by spontaneous vitality and physical presence. He reconciled utopian populism with a profound faith in the prophetic power of the individual imagination, and so he advised against too much rational control that would inhibit creative portents:

Don’t get backed too much into a reality that has fashioned your senses with too many realistic claims. When art promises you this sort of reliability, this sort of prognostic security, drop it. It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing. One should know about all the structures of fantasy and all the fantasies of structures, and mix suprise and enigma, magic and shock, intelligence and abandon, form and antiform.

—Stefan Wolpe