Stefan Wolpe (Berlin, August 25, 1902 – New York City, April 4, 1972), German/American composer, born to Jewish parents, studied at the 'Klindworth-Scharwenka Konservatorium' (1916-1920) and the 'Berliner Musikhochschule' (1920-1921). Among his teachers was Franz Schreker.
Here his rebellion against academic musical tradition was instigated, usually, by his discovery of Dada and the Bauhaus. Wolpe visited the Bauhaus soon after that revolutionary school for arts and crafts was founded in 1919, and during the next few years he went to Weimar frequently and sat in on lectures and studio activities in the preliminary course. He quit the diploma course in composition at the 'Hochschule' in the spring of 1921 after only one term and applied to Busoni's class. Although he was not admitted, Busoni took an interest in him, looked at his music and gave him valued advice. Wolpe thereafter regarded Busoni with boundless admiration, and some aspects of Busoni's "New Classicality' entered his thinking.
For Wolpe, however, the Bauhaus was "the place in which modern art was being taught, experimented on, and we all travelled there like pilgrims to Jerusalem or Mecca". Several of the teachers Wolpe came to know - Gertrude Grunow, Itten, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Muche and Oskar Schlemmer - were interested in correspondences among the arts, and music and theatre were important components of the Bauhaus programme.
The Bauhaus influence is everywhere apparent in Wolpe's music and writings, his political engagements, his lifelong associations with painters, his interest in jazz and popular musics, the balance between rigorous construction and imaginative expression, and the creative methods of his own teaching. Wolpe said that he learned mostly from painters, while from musicians he "learned only to liberate himself from his teachers".
Wolpe distroyed much of his music from the early 1920s, but he did save extensive song cycles on the poetry of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Rabindranath Tagore.
He also composed and improvised in jazz styles and earned money performing for silent films and cabarets. He was fascinated by the Triadic Ballet of Schlemmer, composed music (now lost) to Berthold Viertel's Berlin production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and provided music for a film by Hans Richter. Thus he had a considerable background in experimental theatre and film when he set out to compose Schöne Geschichten and Zeus und Elida (1928).
The composer and critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, a friend of Wolpe from 1923, attributed decisive influences to Schönberg, Hauer and Satie, and placed Wolpe ideologically between Antheil and Eisler.
Indeed, the progressive composer must be a socialist in politics and a twelve-toner in music: in his piano sonata Stehende Musik he engaged the extremes of Antheil.
In 1923 Wolpe joined the 'Novembergruppe', an association of left-wing artists and writers, and was active in their musical evenings. But as the 1920s drew to a close the moral necessity to oppose Fascism moved many artists from the moderate to the radical left, and from 1929 until 1933 Wolpe, along with several friends from the Bauhaus and the Novembergruppe, devoted himself to the workers' movement.
Wolpe's first settings of texts by Communist authors were chromatic, atonal, aggressive and dissonant and were criticized by Party officials (probably Eisler) as too extreme. Wolpe moderated his style and wrote tonal marching songs and union anthems, several of which were distributed internationally through song books published in Moscow.
He also provided music for dance and theatre companies, left-wing cabarets, union rallies and agitprop groups.
In 1931 he became music director of 'Die Truppe 31', a company of Communist actors led by the author Gustav von Wangenheim, whose first show Die Mausefalle had a very succesful run in Germany and Switzerland.
After the Nazi Chief of Police banned 'Die Truppe 31' in March 1933, Wolpe escaped from Germany and made his way to Vienna to study with Anton Webern and reconnect with his vocation as a professional composer.
Threatened with deportation by the Austrian police, Wolpe left Vienna after only four months and travelled to Palestine, where he could obtain a new passport.
Wolpe had not been conscious of his Jewishness and was never a Zionist, but it was here that he discovered his roots. He studied Hebrew and was fascinated by 'Oriental' musics both vernacular and classical. From Arabic maqamat he derived scales and forms that he applied in a series of Hebrew art songs, and in a set of instrumental compositions he developed concepts that George Perle later formalized as 'twelve-tone tonality'.
To Wolpe's colleagues at the Conservatoire in Jerusalem this music was utterly loathsome, and he found to his great chagrin that even though he had done much to provide simple music for the Jewish settlers and to teach youngsters composition, there was no place in Palestine for even a Jewish composer with such radical music and politics. He and his wife, Irma Schoenberg, departed for the United States in late 1938.
Wolpe made his home in New York City, where he became a sought-after teacher. Among his students in the 1940s were Elmer Bernstein, Morton Feldman, Isaac Nemiroff, Ralph Shapey and David Tudor.
He also became the guru of 'legit' music for New York jazz musicians who wanted to learn techniques of modern concert music: Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, George Russell, Johnny Carisi and Tony Scott found Wolpe to be an inspiring teacher. They in turn introduced Wolpe to bebop and modern jazz and Wolpe absorbed some elements of jazz, as he had Arabic music.
Wolpe's acculturation to North American life deepened with his association with the Abstract Expressionist painters, many of whom became his friends, and with the poets of the Black Mountain School, where he was musical director (1952-56).
But Wolpe remained an outsider to the main circles of professional concert music until the late fifties, when he returned to live in New York and became a regular participant in the summer courses at Darmstadt in Germany (1956-62).
Wolpe's last period of music from the 60s (he died in 1972 after a ten-year struggle with Parkinson's disease) provides a uniquely American adaptation of the Bauhaus paradigm, the politically situated yet rigorously progressive modernism that fanned out around the world from its birthplace at the Bauhaus.
Austin Clarkson (Stefan Wolpe Society, Toronto)
(liner notes of Ebony Band cd Zeus und Elida - see discography)