A sampling of Wolpe’s comments on his compositions
Wolpe wrote formal program notes for only a few of his compositions. Additional remarks have been compiled from lectures and correspondence. The original documents are in the Stefan Wolpe Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, unless noted otherwise. Translations from the German are by Austin Clarkson.
Table of Contents
Sonata, “Stehende Musik” (1925)
The three piano sonatas are concerned with a music that is formally experimental in nature, in which the thematic and modulatory elements withdraw to the background in favor of purely rhythmic and dynamic elements. One can best apply the term ‘Stehende Musik’ [music of stasis] to these pieces, for the formal tensions and relaxations are here developed from the principle of repetition (in contrast to variation). The attempt is made in this music to analyze the concept of musical time to the furthest possible limit.
Thus arise effects and structures of which there are only a few examples in earlier music, but which are striven for more or less by Schönberg in the third of the Orchesterstücke, Op. l6, or the Piano Rag Music by Stravinsky.
If this music requires the performers to use the fist or the forearm, it is not a gratuitous excess, but rather an extension of pianistic possibilities that deserves no more opposition than Beethoven experienced with his immense extension of orchestral techniques.
Program note for the Nineteenth Evening of the Novembergruppe, Berlin, May 2, l927. The concert included a Sonata by Hans-Jörg Dammert played by Franz Osborn, a Sonata by H.H. Stuckenschmidt played by Wolpe, and Wolpe’s Sonata played by Else C. Kraus (Stuckenschmidt, 1979, p. 95).
March and Variations for Two Pianos (1933)
In these Variations new degrees of assent and affirmation are used as elements of expression of the élan of a l5-bar, one-voice theme. The four variations develop in an uninterrupted succession: the basic characters vary in appearance without destroying the authentic order. The rhythm of the March becomes more refined; it loses its open gestures and becomes a compound structure of multiple rhythmic connections. To weld these four variations together into one integral unit, it was necessary to invent all harmonic relationships (because the theme is in unison) and to involve all elements contrapuntally. The cadence of one becomes at the same time the beginning of another variation, which in turn coincides with the further development in another voice, with the results that the different elements of the theme are contained throughout. A sort of canon of different proportions. At times (for example, the fourth) in the same way that beginning and ending coincide, the theme and its variation fall together. Technically this involves the prolongation, or rather augmentation, of the theme placed against its original presentation. With the fourth variation the more classical type (in which the innermost structure of the theme remains unchanged) ends.
In the rest of the work each variation reaches a greatly augmented state by a development of specific elements of the theme. While this goes on in one voice, the lacking parts of the theme are presented in the other. This changes the shape, as though the theme had been born under different conditions. As such it is discussed, accepting the consequences of the new state without losing sight of the original. As a result of this procedure, one variation grows out of, and is a variation of, the previous. The highest conde of the theme is mirrored in and reflected against its development and variation by contrapuntal means. By this, all re parts, as separate entities, are subdued by one all-embracing unit . . . a material symbol of the main features.
Another procedure is the separation and release of motivic parts from the whole, and the invention or revelation of their counterparts. A sort of reflection of a part against itself. Further development consists of a disintegration of motivic elements and allowing them to proceed self-actively. The limit of the expansion of traits depends upon a sincere and true representation of their relation to the original. There are variations in which the single parts of the motive are carried through and developed from bar to bar. As the motives have their own consistent consequences, their individual and collective development is valid as regards the theme as a whole.
As a result of all these technical procedures, an extraordinary situation is reached. The struggle of the individual motive to act as itself against the attraction of its relationship to the whole results in striking forces which pull away from and are drawn back to the original point of association. It is this force which is used as a transitory element between variations and developments.
The prevailing character is intentionally heroic. This justifies a great development of those features which reveal the purpose. The characters of courage, looming consciousness and faith are expounded as intense emotional principles. The Adagio [Variation 8], for instance, is not one of quietness, but of the deepest concentration and the emotional response derived therefrom. The simplicity of the language of the material is presented in a way that denies all conventional and hide-bound regulations for connections. This was a willful creative act.
*Program notes read by the composer on the occasion of the U.S. premiere performed by Irma Wolpe and Edward Steuermann, February 11, l940, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The text is on two typewritten pages with many lines crossed out. The edges are badly singed by fire, thus obscuring some words, which have been completed in angle brackets.
Songs from the Hebrew (1936-1938)
These songs, which I call Palestinian Songs (and which belong to a larger group of related songs) were written for the greater part in Jerusalem in the years l937-l939.2 They represent an unique experience for me in the sense that some of the inherent traits of these songs are akin to elements in the music of Palestine. I in no way intended to adapt myself to a folkloristic language in connection with which I have no fetishistic prejudices. Nor did I intend to abandon any of my artistic experiences in connection with which I refrain from any stubborn defense of aesthetic prerogatives. The music of Palestine was unknown to these experiences. Whatever I heard there, however, transformed itself into new aural images, re-crystallizing itself in its encounter with a modern musical mind. This constituted at the same time a process of crystallization within me, which pushed me (as I still intensely remember) into new stylistic directions over which I no longer had any retarding control. So that at the end I found that I had composed a language which I sensed as peculiarly possible in this corner of the world. It was only after I had finished several of these songs that I became fully aware of the orbit in which this music exists.
From the program of the Fifth Annual Festival of Contemporary American Music, sponsored by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, May 14, l949, McMillin Academic Theater. The ‘Six Palestinian Songs’ were performed by Arline Carmen, mezzo soprano, and Irma Wolpe, piano: ‘Si meini kahotam’ (1937), from Two Songs from the Song of Songs, in Hebrew; ‘Epitaph’ (1938), in English; Song of Songs (1949), in English; ‘If it be my fate’ (1938), in English; Isaiah (1938), in Hebrew.
Ten Songs From the Hebrew were composed between l936 and l938. They are not the results of an analysis of the folklore of the country, but, when I was in that country, I felt the folklore which I heard there to be profoundly latent within me. The songs of the Yemenite Jews, the singing of Coptic monks in a monastery near Jerusalem, and the Arabic songs filled me with enchantment. To this day I cannot forget how the cadences of the languages there struck me, how the light of the sky, the smell of the country, the stones and the hills around Jerusalem, the power and the sinewy beauty of the Hebrew’s language, all turned into music, which suddenly seemed to have a topographical character. It seemed new to me, and yet I felt it as an old source within me. The musical language is, naturally, related to a wider heritage than that which seems so purely instinctual. The whole orbit of the material yielded to my techniques of composition, which are, naturally, of contemporary origin. The musical language stretches, therefore, from strict patterns belonging to a particular locality to their most extended transformations.
Notes for the recording on Columbia Masterworks, Modern American Music Series, ML 5l79 (l957) of Six Songs From the Hebrew and Two Songs From The Song of Songs. Two of the songs were composed after Wolpe immigrated to America: ‘Song of Songs’ (1949) and ‘David’s Lament over Jonathan’ (1954).
Psalm 64 and Isaiah, Chapter 35, Two Songs for High Voice and Piano (1939)
Ladies and Gentlemen: I was asked to speak about the Palestinian song. I think this is not the occasion for speaking about musical affairs in scientific ways or in an analytical manner, disintegrating, examining, and criticizing a music which you love. All of you know, of course, there is much singing in Palestine, much composing, and much playing of music. The percentage of the people in Palestine who are in one or in another way interested in music is amazing. The enthusiasm is enormous. An inborn emotional fervor, a vivid sense for any kind of creative manifestations, are evidently great. These are facts. Why should I enlarge upon them? But about two facts I would like to talk. One is concerned with the relationship between the audience (which in Palestine, you must understand, is the people) and the composer. The other is concerned with the composer’s attitude to writing music which deviates from what we call popular/folk music.
In Palestine exists a closer cooperation between the composer and the people. The needs of the people for songs and choral music are the expression and the proof of an intense collective life. In songs sung together, in choral works studied together, a multitude of single individualities is merged into one body. This being a frequent experience of these people creates a need for an increased repertoire, thereby making demands on the composer. An intense musical practice like this evokes dormant creative abilities among people themselves, which are evidenced in a great number of amateur composers in the cities and farms of Palestine. The professional composer, in his awareness of the musical needs of the community, willingly participates in ministering to these needs, thus himself becoming an active part of this community. His production having become organized, he no longer writes only for an undefined market. This contract between the professional and the people results in a reciprocal influence, wherein the composer reacts to the spontaneity and ability with which the people accept his work, and the people exert a subtle influence on the composer’s formulation of his own ideas. Another result of this interrelation is that the composer becomes the guide of the amateurs, gradually lifting the musical values and preventing the stagnation of musical folklore. The composers, for example, like Zaira, Postolsky, Ben Haim, Gideon, whose songs you are familiar with, were (if I may mention it) pupils of mine when I was in Palestine.
The coincidence of popular needs and the composer’s astuteness abilities creates that which we call a folksong, which becomes so much the part and property of the people. And so complete is this union, that the seeming anonymous authorship of these folksongs becomes even a matter of pride to the composer. But this participation in the creation of the folksong is by no means the only manner of expression of a composer. His own personal needs often lead him in very different ways. In the same as people and things are the product of a historical development, so is the composer rooted in a heritage of musical history and evolution. His is a language of accumulated emotions, thoughts, and expressions, a language which is constantly changing in relation to a changed need for expression. This naturally requires a greater complexity in the presentation of ideas. In this language is embodied a world of forces and energies of its own, comparable to the forces in all the various manifestations of nature itself. In the same way as the composer reflects the time and world in which he lives, it is this world documented through the composer’s everlasting search for an adequate and valued medium of expression.
The two songs which you are going to hear [Psalm 64 and Isaiah Chapter 35] were written about eight years ago, when I arrived here from Palestine. It was my first work in America.
Read at the Fourth Public Meeting of the Jewish Music Forum, Feb. 18, 1946, Young Men’s Hebrew Association, New York. The holograph text is written in pencil on six pages, with a few notations and strikings out in ink. The three leaves are only slightly damaged by fire. The concert included music by Wolpe and Mordecai Sandberg. Wolpe’s Zemach Suite (1939), Two Songs on Poems of Berthold Viertel (1945), Toccata (1941), and Psalm 64 and Isaiah Chapter 35 (1939) were performed by Anneliese von Molnar, soprano, and David Tudor, piano.
The Man from Midian (1942)
In the summer of 1940 Richard Pleasants, director of Ballet Theatre, asked me to write a ballet scenario on the subject of Moses. I was told that Darius Milhaud would compose the score and that Eugene Loring would do the choreography. As I had never written a ballet scenario i informed myself about the method by studying the livret of Giselle and of Claudel’s Christophe Colombe. The point of view was left to me, so i decided to write about Moses as an epic hero and studied enough Hebrew to be able to read the Book of Genesis in the original text. The scenario was accepted by the directors of Ballet Theatre, Milhaud set it to music, and Loring designed the choreography. However, it was never performed by Ballet Theatre.
In 1942 Loring took the libretto for his Dance Players Company. The Milhaud score belonged to Ballet Theatre. Loring asked Stefan Wolpe to write a new score, and the work was performed by Dance Players with Loring in the title role. Janet Reed as Miriam, Michael Kidd as Aaron, and Zachary Zolov as Joshua. The Man from Midian had its premiere in Washington and was given eight or nine times at the National Theatre in New York City. In the Ballet performance of 1942 the music was performed on two pianos, played by Walter Hendl and Arthur Gold. . . .
The whole ballet is a set of variations on musical statements contained in the first piece. This first section is meant to be an anguished invocation of Moses, the Man from Midian. It is called ‘Serfdom-Lamentation’, the chant of an enslaved people who have a tradition of freedom and grandeur. The Lament spreads in circles, in the final curves of which bitterness finds itself redoubled.
The curtain rises on a group of enslaved an oppressed workers. They are the children of Israel suffering under the tyranny of Pharaoh. Among them is Moses’ mother, his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam. The mother hides her new-born son in the bulrushes and tells Miriam to guard him while she and Aaron flee.
This second section, ‘Mother Conceals Child’, creates images of stillness and delicate intimacy, of tenderness and purity. Its restraint reflects the sweetness of the beginning of a life and its seriousness anticipates the purpose to which this life will grow. the third section, ‘Pharaoh’s Daughter, Bathing in the Nile, Finds the Baby’, is composed as a dance, so that Pharaoh’s Daughter and her maidens may be sensed in all their ceremonial elegance. But the dance is coordinated with a chorale, which, as the voice of Moses, lends gravity to the scene. . . .
In ‘Procession’, the music of the fourth piece, Moses is carried to the court of Pharaoh. This becomes a procession of the Hebrew people. The child Moses embodies the seed of their liberation. It is a movement of the people, expanding like a tide. Its folklore-like components are elements of basic human expression. In the fifth part, ‘The Pet of the Court–Political Intrigue’, the music sets out to convey on one hand the court’s political climate: nervous, scheming, histrionic. On the other hand it also generates a different kind of intensity—anguished, ominous, decisive. Here the tremendous forces of the Hebrew people, still slaves, become identified with Moses.
He leaves the palace in a fit of despondency and comes upon a group of enslaved workmen. The music of the section ‘Moses among the Workers’, articulates in a gradually mounting chant Moses’ increasing fury as he witnesses the suffering and degradation of his people. As the chant expands, the killing of the Taskmaster is made clear in the accompaniment. . . . Moses buries the Taskmaster in the sand and flees to Midian.
The last section, originally the overture, is called ‘Portrait of Moses’. It unfolds in music his huge stature. An epic incantation is heard. The music, in waves of motion, allows the air to reverberate with the voice of The Man from Midian.
From the program of the premiere of the First Suite, November 1-4, 1951, performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos, at Carnegie Hall. The program note was excerpted from a text by Mrs. Winthrop Bushnell Palmer, who wrote the original ballet scenario. It would seem that Wolpe provided the information about the music.
Two Studies for Piano, Part I (1946-1948)
The Two Studies were composed in the year 1947. They are part of a collection of pieces (also for different instrumental combinations) which I then called ‘Displaced spaces, shocks, negations, a new sort of relationship in space, pattern, tempo, diversity of action, interreaction and intensity’. I later dropped the title, reserving its programmatic character for other works like my Enactments for 3 Pianos.
Holograph, ink on paper. David Tudor Papers, Paul Getty Library. No date.
The Part One refers to seven pieces (short ones), which I wrote with no instrumentation in mind, but they are for different instrumental combinations. One day (if you publish them, then earlier) I will write them in score. These pieces are very important pieces in my development. I wrote them between l946 and l948, and all those other pieces on sixths, thirds, fourths, seconds, I also wrote during the same . This was its title: ‘Displaced spaces, shocks, negations, a new kind of pattern, tempo, relationship, action, interreaction, and intensity.’ My Enactments weren’t written yet. Two years were still apart from the Violin Sonata. All was a new begin [sic]!
Letter to Josef Marx, Sept. 27, l954. Josef Marx Archive, New York. The set ‘Displaced spaces’ (1946) is published in Music for Any Instruments (1944-1949).
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1949)
This phrase [beginning of the first movement] is as general as it can be, and with it goes a personal interest in a sort of anonymous material, like peasant art, or the static material of scales, primordial units (pattern), like those in tropes, modes, figure-types, as in maquams of Arabian music, or Japanese, or any of these which move in rooted, moulded materials (as certainly our music does too, and easily 50 perhaps, or less, primary, elemental units could be deduced like central figures, turns, coincidences). The three motives represent the initial cells from which everything in the first movement (basically) is fed. The piece is maturing, progressing (progressively) towards the making of greater, more diversified entities. The piece becomes the perspectual [sic] situation of primordial units, a process (in action) of continuous, generative furtherances (a process of consequences) arising at other higher organized unit-specializations or ‘deeper-set’ recurrences (later stages) of prototypes of action.
Letter to Joseph Livingston, July 14, 1954, in which Wolpe discussed the pieces on the Esoteric Recording.
Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion and Piano
(1950, first movement revised 1954)
The Saxophone Quartet is one of my best Kampfmusiken [music for the struggle], as one called it so most scheußlicherweise [wretchedly] in Germany. Es ist populism and my personal human radicalism mit offenen Armen gesungen [sung with open arms] (that’s a good title for a piece of music).
Letter to Josef Marx, November 1, 1954. Josef Marx Archive, New York.
The popular expression I speak of is not only the athletic mirth and peppiness of Copland’s piece, or the city noises and sirens in Varèse, or the voice (the hymnic sonority) at the end of Ionisation, or the physical frenzy of jazz. Sometimes one reaches below one’s own language; one begins to sing and begins to bite into one’s own consonants and vowels; one has the feeling of folding up together the tongues of all peoples in one’s own tongue. There is something of that in this piece. It [the first movement] is a lament.
The material of this movement is defined by the interval relationships of a particular chord and the pitch structures derived from it. From the fact that a series of varied structures can continually be combined with the central situations that are variants of the chord, it follows that the constellation of the chord regulates the material as much as do the departures from it. There are two kinds of departures, because there are two kinds of constellations: one is elastic, the other is static. In the former one encounters variations, in the latter one expects none. The timidity of analytical approaches often derives from a misunderstanding of a condition of variations in which variation belongs to the givens of a situation. Variations in which a situation continually involves itself in its original condition does not conform to any protocol. Variation is part of the situation itself.
‘On new and not-so-new music in America’, Darmstadt, l956. (Wolpe, 1984, pp. 9-10).
I didn’t intend at all to write a piece which even by its faintest traces would include jazz. But it came out as a piece which allows to think of jazz in a remotely related way. Because among my students which came to me in the years from 1946, immediately after the war till including the present days, I taught an enormous amount of jazz people. I didn’t teach them jazz altogether, I taught them theories and the concepts of serial music, or even of serious music—oh, that’s a nice connection between serious and serial. They came to me to get a technique of composing based on concepts which they could assimilate. Among them were Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, Kenyon Hopkins, Elmer Bernstein, John Carisi, endlessly, endlessly many people. And it’s very well possible that certain material dormant in me, material which belongs to my own ancestry, my ancestry of doing those things, might have been reawakened. But something is more important than jazz, namely, my genuine relationship to what I call material-in-use, material which has an empirical character, which is tongued, what I call tongued material. Tongued material is not quotational material, though quotational material today plays an enormous role in my music. I will use the material for a thousand different purposes—of destruction, of liberation, or construction, or deconstruction, or reuse, and so on. So I know that the Saxophone Quartet, which you plan to play, has something to do with that. And what is important in the Saxophone Quartet is the concept of simultaneity, the concept that the musical ideas run on many different tracks that this was my earliest piece.
Conversation with Eric Salzman in 1962, broadcast over WBAI in 1963 (Wolpe, 1999, p. 399).
There is a coincidence between my artistic condition and the existence of a language so profoundly and genuinely constructed as jazz is. It should be understood that the coincidence is not a calculated act, but an act of certain artistic interests of mine to write a piece which has a variety of levels, only one of which is jazz, and only scarcely used. I love the piece. I love its craziness, its openness. It really should be played also in public places, so closely is the spirit of the piece related to people’s exaltations.
Program note for the recital of Ronald Anderson, Town Hall, New York, September 27, l966.
Enactments for Three Pianos (1950-1953)
I am busy till my neck with writing (writing the music which I started to write in my Seven Pieces for Three Pianos**,** the ones I did for Yale), only doing it on a much vaster and bolder scale. 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. I longed (and did terribly much in that direction) for writing this music. For a first time (for years) I see a vast orbit possible to write music existing (as definite totalities of organic modes) under most different conditions of complex behavior. I come close to my ideal of writing a language with a common-sense, and this in a sense of an all-union-of-the-human-tongue.
Letter to Josef Marx, June 17, l952. Josef Marx Archive, New York.
I just finished the fourth movement (called ‘Inception’) and I am fully (and a little fearfully) concerned with the writing (and gathering) of the last movement (called ‘Fugal Motions’), which is to be a thing in between two stages of formation, verging, and also not, on freer channel, and on those of more preformedness. A main concern of mine is the direction and focalisation of shapes in ways where I can (if I can) combine enormously bound and pushed forces of definite focal directions within a scheme of thoughts of multifocal-shooting-in-multiple-opposite directions (like order of stars, or the stream of motion in which fishes swim and act). This work deals as a whole with the phenomena (and intriguing intricacies) of simultaneous modes of action, structures and organisms.
Letter to Josef Marx, January 25, l953. Josef Marx Archive, New York.
More (a little bit) about my sound sensations. I very much like to maintain the flexibility of sound structures (as one would try to draw into water). That leads me to the promotion of 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). The sound gets the plasticity of figures of waves, and the magneticism and fluid elasticity of river currents, or the fire of gestures and the generative liveliness of all what is life (and Apollo and Dionysus and the seasons of the heart and the articulate fevers). This also is done in order to give to the sound a wealth of focal points with numerously different directory tendencies . . . 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.) Often I use a different technique. Where the sound is a solid, compact, terse, closed-up entity, and only its linear involvements are fluid and open. This sort of squaring up or freezing the sound mass (which remains variable nevertheless.
Letter to Joseph Livingston, July 14, 1954.
Enactments doesn’t mean anything else but acting out, being in an act of, being the act itself.
From a letter to Beverly Bond, 9 February l96l.
In my Enactments…, where the sound (as such) may appear as a shred of fragments, as a ‘thing’ without cause, as a position of ‘light’, shot, shock, a reflex (without motivation), a suddenness without cause, without time, a matter in itself, embodied in its intense, non-linear, non-extensive configuration (with no sides to either side) ending in itself and ‘without begin’ [sic], a thing, lump, essence, multiply folded and complexly held together). Nothing of this exists in these three works.
Liner notes, Esoteric Recording of several works by Wolpe
Now I would like to play a piece of mine, a work for three pianos, where what then was really a bold and never-heard-of assemblage of multiple aspects of the same thing has become today a normal workable procedure of a composer who knows what he is doing. Then, one didn’t know so well what one was doing. One wanted only to try out how the thing comes out. But in music one can try out things and the musical material is very benign in its behavior. It doesn’t come in and hit you in the face back. One tries out and discovers numerously many interesting things, and later on one masters these things and knows exactly what to put together in order to get the blessing of a lively simultaneity. There is something new in this kind of simultaneity, namely, so many things happening that you can move like in a landscape. The composer offers you a large territory through which you can move. Many things are happening at the same time, curves hugely expanding, curves enormously contracting, new curves, a sound, a hit, a tone, a silence. These are not random situations, they’re highly calculated, but one experiences also the disparity of different qualities of events. For example, the maximum activity, while much is going on in music, finds in a minimum activity its silence is a complementary condition. I can have deeee-KA! and then all of a sudden shhhh. Burst out into acts, then the acts can crumble, and I have very quiet passages. By which is meant that you have in this kind of music a kind which was also one of the early Dada obsessions, or interests, namely, the concept of unforseeability, non-influence, non-directivity. You cannot explain. It means you cannot infer what is going to happen. That means that every moment events are so freshly invented, so newly born, that it has almost no history in the piece itself but its own actual presence. It has its presence, its now situation, and then the now situation is joined with another, with the next now–an unfoldment of nows!
Lecture on Dada (Wolpe, 1986, pp. 212-214).
Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus (1954)
I managed to work on three choruses for which the Israeli government has set out a contest. The deadline was December 31 . I read about it a few days before. They have to be for amateur choruses. How I love (the whole world then circles in me, rages in me, flowers in me). How I feel good to write music for the people (I, son of my many people, of all the Mediterranean people).
Letter to Irma Jurist Neverov, January 4, l955. Estate of Neverov.
I was ill on Christmas Eve and composed in bed, structuring, moulding, filing, edging, welding tonal phrases. Oh how my Hebrew music settles in my blood!! And how this bloodstream, this remarkably ancient, history-filled stream, deepens, mingles wonderfully and is purified. I was truly born for this state of working, to be a rhapsodist, to sing melodies for epics, legends, and true stories. I have composed a Psalm about Jerusalem, then Isaiah and Jeremiah, and a piece from a contemporary writer, G. Shofman. (I am very happy to have done it.) About 40 pages in score. One can win $100, which I hope to do. Even though I missed the deadline of Dec. 31 by two weeks, (I sent a telegram to Tel Aviv to allow two weeks more, which they did), I would be very proud and content to win in the contest; I verily cannot fathom that one could write better choruses (in a somewhat preordained material).
Letter to Irma Wolpe Rademacher, January 22, 1955. When Wolpe visited Israel in 1956, he was told that the jury was unanimous in judging his the best piece, but that it was thought too difficult for amateur choirs. The prize was awarded to Haim Alexander of Jerusalem, who had studied with Wolpe in Jerusalem. The texts of the four pieces: 1. Psalm 122; 2. Shelu na’alekhem, by Gershon Shofman; 3. Isaiah 43: 18-21; 4. Jeremiah 31: 6-12.
Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano (1955)
. I finished one big movement of the Second Sonata for Oboe, etc. [. . .] I originally thought it is the first movement. But I wish to precede it by an ‘early morning music’, in which I am very much involved this minute. (It will take me a week to finish this movement.) I plan to write then the slow, pure, still, simple, alabaster-like chant of the second movement. Then comes (I think) the one which I finished the other day, which is of a very “concretish”, rustic, realistic, con-moto quality. After this I let follow a very short movement-separating affair, and as the last will come a sort of moderato part (which some is of multiple motions, quick, slow, hampered, expressive, popular, and with peopled speech…) Vielleicht [perhaps]. . . .
Letter to Josef Marx, July 27, l954. Josef Marx Archive.
. I finished the oboe work for oboe, cello, percussion and piano. An important work, I think. Compressed, ‘handy’, tight, wild, fluctuous, sometimes moist and like burning air. My Enactments poured into a bottle.
From a letter to Irma Jurist Neverov, November 19, l954. Neverov estate.
Symphony No. 1 (1956)
I just finished the second movement of the Symphony, a fugue with 3 subjects, territories, acts, procedures of course not voicish alone, each settled in its own framework of structures, genetics, conducts… its fierce and compact and thrusting in, within its circles, held in extensities…
Letter to Josef Marx, July 11, 1955. Josef Marx Archive.
I have worked incessantly and–I guess–in a few weeks, perhaps earlier the third movement of vital, vehement, charged, blown, zestish, rampant bursting affairs will be finished. I don’t have any idea how much time I have composed by now. It is much. And of a character of wide dimensions. I had interrupted to work on the orchestration of the 2. mov. (a fugue with 3 subjects) because it always splits up my thinking, channels me wrong and it goes even slower than my composing is already (and always a bit too slowly) going. But I am trying now again and I must get to a better coordination.
Letter to Netty Simons, 1955. Netty Simons Papers, Music Division, New York Public Library.
I worked terribly hard (with damaged sleep. I am just swept into my many vortexes) on finishing the orchestration of the first movement, which I finished yesterday. I am wide awake and awake to the conditions of my whole artistic existence which–so I feel–breaks open through–out of all–all its fences and fogged and often falsely mirroring walls, windows, mirrors, self-containments–How doing all the things at the same time?! I work fiendishly but my biology carries the shadows of a man becoming 53 on the 25th. Who in history started so late his essential work? Who?
I think feel that the symphony will be an important work. I have many difficulties to overcome. Moulds of thoughts to destroy, ‘Habits’ of technical solutions to revise. I didn’t write for such a long time for orchestra. And my music changed very much. Many solutions I had to find anew! Many possible solutions I find, found impossible. I am happyly [sic] occupied with studying entirely new the techniques and studying the instrumental areas with an entirely new curiosity, need to know more encompassing the things, more penetrating less the arts of disposition, of setting content in to sound, which is a linear device, or had been so, or was a device for articulating the motion of sound, which I master sufficiently and which is no problem. But here I am working with a much greater fluency of radical shifts, more use of leaps of relations and a greater drasticness of changes.
I have forgotten the harmonics on flute and oboe. I remember distinctly your harmonics of a distinctly different quality of piano, a kind of lucidly floating tone. Can you tell me about the harmonics on flute, how they are being produced and where they are. (I heard the other day gorgeous ones in Strawinski’s Pulcinella).
Letter to Josef Marx, August 12, 1955.
Symphony No. l was written at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, in l955-l956. It was a Rodgers-Hammerstein commission given to me by the League of Composers-I.S.C.M. (American Section). It is in three movements. All of these movements consist of a series of transformations of an initial two-bar melody that acts as root and source material. This is a structured field of pitches, the various tones standing in relation to one another that the composer views as an analogue to those of physical bodies in a force field. The successive elaborations of the material resume when these relations of the tones are in some way disturbed and at times restored. The material is such as to admit of manifestations that vary widely in nature, and in fact often contradict each other. Thus, there are treatments of complexity and of simplicity, of tension and of calm, of animation and of ebbing activity.
I Not too slow. This movement has a high concentration of such oppositions.
II Charged. In contrast to the first movent, the second represents a vast, arc-like expansion of the root materials. It begins with a unison passage that sets a tone of emotional intensity, which is sustained up to the closing bar.
III Alive. The third movement uses elements acquired and revealed in the first two, and is meant to be an exuberant, joyful, athletic piece.
All three movements are characterized by great metrical complexity, with time signatures changing at almost every bar. Even so, the score used in these performances is simpler than the original version; the re-notation was the result of an extended collaboration in the spring of l962 between myself and Mr. Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg.
Note for the program of the premiere performed by the New York Philharmonic, January 16, l964. The performance was introduced by Leonard Bernstein and conducted by Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg. The third movement was not played.
Quintet with Voice (1957)
I am in midst of the Rothschild [Foundation] work, with setting a poem of Hilda [Morley] about Cézanne to music. Which isn’t easy. I am not a ‘lyricist’, and to blend a human’s vibration of throat and chest with music which fits my knowledge of the human species, or the being or the socialness of all that is in him. But I will have to find it, a musical speech-maker, which I am, a folklorist (on total trails), a street-musician–eigentlich, virtually, after all (of that).
Letter to Jonathan Williams, January 1, l957.
I used Hilda’s poem about Cézanne for a baritone song as a second movement. Altogether I feel I have come to an end of a circle of works, of which most of them were written in Black Mountain, and I wished Black Mountain College stood there forever ever, and my longing for it sits deep, and I hold with a smiling eye the place in my hand.
Letter to Charles Olson, May 2, l957.
I did finish the Quintet with Voice (on a beautiful text by Hilda about nature and Cézanne) for the Rothschild Foundation (for clarinet, horn, cello, harp, piano, and in the second movement a baritone), and finished a cycle of four works, a concept of doing, inventing, realizing. After this I’ll start anew on a different plane.
Letter to Irma Jurist Neverov, May 7, l957.
Piece in Three Parts for Piano and Sixteen Instruments (1961)
The Piece For Piano and Sixteen Instruments consists of three interfluent parts, the middle of which focuses on the piano as an autonomous and continuous unit, separated from, though coordinated with, a reduced ensemble of, for the most part, two flutes and two trumpets. In the outer parts the piano maintains among the shifts of instrumental combinations (caused by the fluidities and volatile transformations of musical actions) a principle of instrumental constancy, which affirms the sense of the title: Piece For Piano and Sixteen Instruments. Only in the last thirty bars is the full ensemble used.
The choice of instrumental combinations depends upon the choices made in regard to the serial (fixed) material and is often decided upon by the permutational devices. The functional role of the piano is at times one which initiates action, or ramifies, or multiplies it on other levels. At other times, it opposes, deflects, confuses, destroys events proposed by the orchestral ensemble. Then again, it simultaneously filters or catalyzes them, always a focal force, in the same way as the total musical spectacle is a multifocal force.
The organic quality of the material is of a constantly changing nature. It sometimes exists as a reservoir of a limited amount of pitches from which any number can be chosen and used freely, recombined freely in exchange with other pitches drawn from slightly altered, mode-like formations. Or the pitches are joined in an order whose sequence is at times absolutely unalterable, at other times unalterable only in certain sections, yet in other ones free, as, for example, part of a disorderly pitch conduct.
The idea is to modify greatly the character and tempo of the unfolding of the chromatic circulation, in the same way as the level of the musical language is often very rudimentary, often intricately involved, depending upon the generic role the material is appointed to play, which also (among a host of other things) decides behavior and articulation of content.
*Program note for the premiere at the New School Auditorium, May 13, l962, with Ralph Shapey, conductor, and Paul Jacobs, pianist. The piece was commissioned by Paul Fromm in celebration of Wolpe’s 60th birthday. Wolpe dedicated the work to his daughter, the pianist Katharina Wolpe.
Piece for Two Instrumental Units (1963)
\It’s almost unnecessary to have that particular title, ‘Two Instrumental Units’, because I always compose, always set up the intercourse of a variety of units. But it was a particular situation where one unit was, so to speak, a stationary unit, meaning the unit of Charles Wuorinen, Harvey Sollberger, and Joel Krosnick. So this is an instrumental unit well knit together. Pre-existing to the fact of my composition they play together. Against that unit is set another one, which is a temporary unit, a unit used ad hoc. Sometimes I composed it as being separate from each other, sometimes I composed it as being not so separate from each other. So it’s like two objects sometimes in search of each other, and sometimes they get lost. Whatever distances can be composed between two units, I think I did them. And whatever distances could be caught up with, I think I did that also. It happens so enormously much in that piece that I wouldn’t know where to start. Something which is of importance to me, namely, that the traffic problems of handling units in a state of simultaneity is an interesting one, and I solve all these things with particular concepts of how to operate with large units in space. I have particular ideas about symmetrical relationships, asymmetrical relationships, in a particular proportion in which these proportional distances, at which all these bodies in space move. So what is for me terribly important is a certain elegance of movement to which, naturally, belongs everything from the sparsest and unhampered, untrammelled condition to a condition of cloggedness and stuckness and a diabolic and fiendish density, like a beehive. So that I have a layout, a very particular direction in regard to a particular situation, and in regard to a particular pitch constellation how these things shall move. And my traffice sense is form. My operational sense—how to operate in state of densities—is based on elaborate systems of proportional interactions of these bodies in the space of sound.
Excerpt from the conversation with Eric Salzman in 1962 and broadcast over WBAI in April, 1963 (Wolpe, 1999, pp. 406-407). The piece was commissioned by the Group for Contemporary Music and premiered by Charles Wuorinen, Harvey Sollberger, and Joel Krosnick, February 18, 1963.
Trio in Two Parts for Flute, Cello and Piano (1964)
I am working on the Trio for [Charles] Wuorinen and write an amazing (that is I am amazed) piece of simple events in a less simple, syntactical environment. Long bygone time elements, like etc. I have a horror of exaggerations and long-drawn out grandeur (at this moment). I wonder about the un-weight of leaves, and letters, and facial expressions.
From a letter to Austin and Beverly Bond Clarkson, June 17, l963.
I am composing a Trio for the Wuorinen group [Group for Contemporary Music], a simple thing (though what can be so simple these days in music). I probably mean music hardened and freed by earlier complexities, by that insatiable pleasure of multiple exposure of progressive facets. I am writing less notes. The time is coordinated on the basis that to each configuration belongs a number of time progressions (variable or extendable), as to the pitch configuration itself belongs characteristic morphological structures (conditions, behavior forms, castlike proportions, reduced dynamics, etc.
From a letter to Austin and Beverly Bond Clarkson, 25 June l963.
Chamber Piece No. 1 (1964)
The work belongs to a recent group of works of mine concerned with the economy in the invention of musical structure and exercise of restraint even at moments of great activity. The apparent simplicity of the music is only one of the levels of language that, along with the mobility of the ensemble and constantly varying texture, make up the materials of this one-movement work.
Program note for a concert, 9 May l968.
Second Piece for Violin Alone (1966)
Three notes found in the major scale–G, A, B–and played simply on the lowest string. Classical music, folk music, how many pieces start that way! How many pieces start that way and then take you on a musical journey, like a symphony, down the great Mississippi River from one state to another, from one region to another–levels, motion, development–how many! And then again, afterwards, how not to do it! How not to take that trip! Suppose you have a steady state in which you can elect to remain, but a state the parts of which can be rearranged endlessly, kaleidoscopically. Now let’s start again! Take these three notes G, A, and B, play them five times and then stop! And then. . . .
Program note read by Max Pollikoff before he gave the first performance at Kaufmann Auditorium, New York, May 11, l966.
Solo Piece for Trumpet (1966)
Many of the musical concerns found in a multifocal and spendthrift way in the Enactments, the Piece For Two Instrumental Units, and the Symphony are found in a more economical and rarefied manner in this work of concrete phrases, asymmetrical events, and implied polyphony.
Program note for a concert by Ronald Anderson, to whom the work was dedicated, Alice Tully Hall, New York, October 6, l97l.
Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments (1971)**
In today’s aesthetics, brilliantly managed densities weigh a great deal. The use of densities means the opening of sources hidden in the material. One must purge oneself of certain aspects of contemporary writing which have been used so much that they have lost their significance and exploitability. This means, for instance, that in the composition of my String Quartet (1969) the elimination of simultaneities of movement became an open problem to work at. Everything multiple had to be put under control. Movement and directions of the multiple layers of language had to be re-engaged with the new control.
In the Piece For Trumpet and Seven Instruments one must look as well for unique environments. Beautiful situations are one of these environments. A regained symmetry, rarefied events and a multiple mobility of the instruments employed form the materials of the piece. The work was commissioned by Ronald Anderson and was composed in the spring and winter of 1970.
Program note for the premiere, Alice Tully Hall, New York, October 6, l97l.
“My Primary sensation of sound…”
My primary sensation of sound relates to the Ausdruck, expression, expressiveness of sound due to the summary effects of responsibly chosen, combined component parts (partial elements) of the sound—its weight, tension, looseness, hardness, roundness, softness, sweetness, its modulation, its minimal changeableness, its maximal changeableness, its slow and quick ones, its constancy, inertness, flexibility, quickness, grandness, hymnic-openness, fire, monumental stillness, etc., etc. That is, that the sound is the dynamic reflex, the immediate field, trace, the physical temper of the content-forces in operation. The content of sound is fluid there where the sound is created by continuous diagrams, multiple intersections of lines whose harmonic impact is either vertically immediate or exists in orbits; (diagonally distributed, in gradual but continuous summations). Because the component parts of the sound are always part of the linear-thematic forces, are ‘shot through’ by them, permeated, channeled, led in and out and this changes and affects the scene of the sound. In those situations the choice of component parts reflects my personal idiosyncrasies, the conduct of my fibres, vessels, deeply set and set without arbitrariness in a sense that it is willful. As my nose is, my gestures are, my fall and lift and the (unpondered) streams of my nature’s demons and desires. I definitely know what elements have to be rallied, amalgamated in order to satisfy and respect my needs.
Letter to Joseph Livingston, July 14, 1954.