Stefan Wolpe was one of the lucky ones. A left-wing Jewish activist who had been composing difficult music for Dadaists and workers choruses, he knew he would have to leave his native Germany as soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. After a year in Vienna, he moved to Palestine, from which he was able, ruefully, to watch the flames mount in his native Berlin and the rest of Germany. By the time those flames engulfed the rest of Europe, Wolpe was in the United States to stay.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Wolpe’s birth. It has been 30 years since his death. The moment has arrived for a comprehensive re-evaluation of a major musical talent, of one of the most striking and yet neglected musical modernists of the past century. The festivities begin this weekend at Merkin Concert Hall, continue at the end of the month at the 92nd Street Y and will carry on into 2003.
“A decent interval passes,” says Fred Sherry wryly. A distinguished cellist and member of the board of the Stefan Wolpe Society, Sherry is intimately involved in the centennial programs at Merkin. “When a composer dies, his music is forgotten for a bit of time. Then that either turns into oblivion and he’s forgotten forever or a seed that was planted when he was still alive starts growing and people get interested. A hundred years after his death, a composer is either going to be more famous than when he was alive or less.”
That process, Sherry says, took place with such giants as Beethoven and Schoenberg. Now, he hopes, Wolpe is about to blossom once more.
Still, even Wolpe’s most ardent supporters will readily acknowledge that he didn’t make “easy” music.
“It’s not graceful or grateful music to play,” David Holzman says.
Holzman is one of the foremost interpreters of Wolpe’s piano music, most recently on a dazzling new CD “Compositions for Piano (1920-1952)” (Bridge). He has wrestled with Wolpe’s piano compositions many times and finds them an endless source of fascination, in no small part because of the knowledge that the composer, himself a pianist, brings to the instrument.
“It’s almost anti-piano,” Holzman says. “It’s meant to explore things that are awkward in the extreme. It’s as if he wants the exertion to come through in performing it. You cannot play it in a French polished fashion. Almost invariably the hands are fighting each other. One hand will start a phrase on one beat and the other [hand] on another and the effect is that your hands are making different gestures at the same time. Each hand has its own personality. Sometimes even the fingers in each hand have to do different things.”
Holzman laughs, “I’m sure there is a certain degree of spite in his piano writing. He wanted to prove his manhood.”
The difficulties presented by Wolpe’s music are only part of the reason for his neglect by the musical establishment.
Matthew Greenbaum, the artistic director of the New York centennial festival suggests that something in Wolpe’s own personality may have nurtured his outcast status.
“Wolpe was very much an outsider,” Greenbaum says. “It was almost a psychological position I think. He was a lefty Jew, then he was in Palestine as a kind of European radical, then here [he was caught up in] the Red Scare. He came into American music when Americana was the big thing. His interests were always very different, even from the Serialists with whom he was frequently associated (and in many ways wrongly). He was overshadowed by [John] Cage and his most significant student, Morton Feldman, went over to Cage and for a while denied he had studied with Wolpe.”
Yet Wolpe was always around when and where things were interesting. In Berlin in the 1920s he was part of the Dadaist circle and set to music texts by important figures like Kurt Schwitters. In fact, his chamber opera “Schoene Geschichten (Pretty Stories),” which receives its North American premiere at the 92nd St. Y on Sunday, Oct. 27, was originally written to be performed (by a marionette theater) with a wild mix of circus, vaudeville and modernist archness that looks backwards to Albert Jarry and ahead to Bauhaus. (Wolpe was more comfortable with visual artists than with other composers, becoming an integral part of the Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionist circles in Berlin and New York, respectively.)
“It’s a kind of ‘free jazz’ avant la letter,” Werner Herbers wrote in an e-mail last week. Herbers, founder and conductor of the Ebony Band and the principal oboist with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, is conducting the premiere performance.
“Wolpe’s early works border on genius,” Herbers stated emphatically. “If one desires a picture of the period, he is one of the composers one must know, and a model in many ways: absolutely honest towards himself, no concessions whatsoever, politically engaged and maintaining his ideals in spite of the evident damage this caused him. Also, his musical creativity was great, sometimes too much, too many ideas in every bar, inextricable for the listener.”
For all that Wolpe — and much of music — sounds forbidding, he was a man who was more than willing to impart knowledge. During his six-year sojourn in Palestine in the 1930s, he would carry a 100-pound harmonium on his back as he traveled between the isolated Jewish communities of the Yishuv, teaching the knots of musically involved listeners. Both Holzman and Sherry have fond memories of Wolpe as an elderly teacher, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, yet still exuding a personal charisma.
“He was very whimsical, talked to himself, didn’t hide when he was bored,” Holzman remembers. “He was obviously a free person.”
That emotional and intellectual freedom, that unwillingness to kowtow or to bend can be seen in his writings and even more clearly in his music.
“The desire to communicate is very strong in Wolpe,” Sherry says. “It’s the strength of his inner character that comes out through his music, that shines through after all the other things are said.”
The New York centennial festival of the music of Stefan Wolpe begins on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Merkin Concert Hall (129 W. 67th St.) with a program that includes Wolpe’s “The Man from Midian” and a panel discussion on his Palestinian period, led by Fred Sherry. On Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Sherry leads a stellar group of musicians in further programs highlighting Wolpe’s Palestinian works. For information, (212) 501-3330.
The festival continues on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m. at the 92nd St. Y (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue) with a program of Wolpe’s Dada, Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionist-inspired compositions performed by Peter Serkin, Daniel Phillips and the Brentano String Quartet. On Sunday, Oct. 27 at 11 a.m., the Y will host a panel discussion on Wolpe and the Berlin arts world of the 1920s, followed at 3 p.m. by a concert that focuses on Wolpe and his contemporaries in that milieu, including the North American premiere of Schoene Geschichten. For information, (212) 415-5500.
On Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m., the Riverside Symphony will perform the World Premiere of Wolpe’s “Two Studies for Large Orchestra,” at Alice Tully Hall (Broadway and 66th Street). For information, (212) 875-5050.
For more information on Stefan Wolpe, his life and music, contact the Stefan Wolpe Society at www.wolpe.org.