A NEW YORK SCHOOL: THREE GENERATIONS OF COMPOSERS
By Jeffrey Kresky
In 1972, Charles Wuorinen (NW 209, New Music for Virtuosos I) wrote in Perspectives of New Music (XI, 1; p. 6):
Stefan Wolpe's insights into composition were profound and original; I am indebted to him on both counts. His "originality" lay in his special notions of musical continuity, which root in tradition but branch unexpectedly and indirectly. His "profundity" lay in his use of traditional means, values, and materials to achieve his special continuity.
And Mario Davidovsky, Wuorinen's contemporary, recalls Wolpe's influence: "He was extremely important to all composers blooming in the early sixties. I think it was his unique harmonic language, his enormous rhythmic vibrancy."
Stefan Wolpe was a pioneer, one of those strikingly independent figures (like Varese) whose aesthetic development is extremely difficult to trace. Though one can hear in his pieces of the fifties and sixties (his final period, amazingly different from his earlier periods) certain echoes of his early studies with Webern and Busoni, the pedagogy seems not to be at issue in the style. Nor do we find clues of any useful kind from Wolpe's international and political wanderings, from Berlin to Palestine and finally to America, and in and out of a variety of convictions, periodically projected in groups of compositions, about the politics and sociology of music.
What we do know is that Wolpe came to New York, first in 1938, then permanently in 1956. It is during this period, with pieces such as Form for Piano (1959) (New World Records NW 308), the two Chamber Pieces (1964, 1965-66), and the Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments (1971), that a true, and very remarkable, Wolpe voice emerges. It is a tense, densely textured declamatory style, of the sincerity of Varese, but gesturally much more compact and unique in its virile phraseology. In its unusual brevity and in the complex sum of its thirteen contributing players, the Chamber Piece No. 2, heard on this recording, represents the typical Wolpe sound in all its brilliant vitality.
Not long after Wolpe established himself in New York, his music began to receive a very special kind of exposure. In 1962 Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger (NW 254, New Music for Virtuosos 2) formed the Group for Contemporary Music, which, along with Arthur Weisberg's Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, was the first of many specialized (and at first university-based) new-music performing groups. Wolpe's music was presented by the Group with such regularity, and the Group's concerts were attended by New York-area composers of all ages with such consistency, that the influence of his unique sound on the ears and thoughts of those around him underwent an unusually forceful expansion. Wuorinen's personal enthusiasm was greatly instrumental in the influence that Wolpe's work came to bear. As early as 1963, Wuorinen wrote in Perspectives of New Music (I, 2; p. 59)-then a Princeton-based professional journal that functioned as the theoretical counterpart of these performing groups, for much the same audience:
"One may turn perhaps to ... Stefan Wolpe, who combines serial pitch organization with gestural and dramatic formal conceptions that in the most generalized sense are related to [Elliott] Carter's ideas. ... It is possible that Wolpe's influence on young composers may ultimately prove to be very great."
Much of Wolpe's music was published by the New York firm of McGinnis and Marx; Josef Marx, a friend of Wolpe's and a great champion of his music, was for many years general manager of the Group for Contemporary Music.
JEFFREY KRESKY, composer and theorist, received his B.A. at Columbia and his Ph.D. at Princeton. He is assistant professor of music at William Paterson College in New Jersey and is the author, most recently, of Tonal Music: Twelve Analytic Studies (Indiana University Press, 1978).
Stefan Wolpe Discography, ca. 1980:
Chamber Piece No. 1. Arthur Weisberg; Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Nonesuch 71220.
Form for Piano; Broken Sequences; Form IV. Robert Miller. CRI 306.
Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments. Mario Guarneri, William Kraft, cond. Crystal S-352.
Piece for Two Instrumental Units. David Gilbert, cond. Opus One 9.
Piece in Two Parts for Five Players. Frederick Prausnitz, cond. Argo ZRG-757.
Piece in Two Parts for Flute. Samuel Baron. Desto 7104.
Quartet for Tenor Saxophone, Trumpet, Piano, and Percussion. Arthur Weisberg, cond.; Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Nonesuch 71302.
Solo Pieces for Trumpet. Robert Levy. Golden Crest GC-7045Q.
---. Gerard Schwarz. Desto 7133.
String Quartet. Concord Quartet. 3-Vox SVBX-5306.
Trio. Group for Contemporary Music. CRI 233.