A Brief Biography

Stefan Wolpe was born in Berlin, August 25, 1902, and received instruction in piano and theory as a boy of 14. The stifling atmosphere of the State Academy of Music made his stay there a short one; nonetheless, he attended and graduated from the Berlin Academy of Music, during which years he had the friendship and counsel of Ferrucio Busoni. He was a student of Ferruccio Busoni, Anton v. Webern and Hermann Scherchen (Brussels 1938). He was influenced by Hans Schrecker, Scriabin, Hindemith, Satie and Paul Whiteman, and many artists of the Bauhaus School. Raoul Pleskow once said there was a period of time when the avant garde consisted of Wolpe and Varese. Morton Feldman, Ralph Shapey, David Tudor, Yehuda Yannai were some of his pupils. His music and thoughts influenced such composers as Elliot Carter, John Cage, Raoul Pleskow, and Howard Rovics. He died in New York City in 1972.

In 1933 he left Berlin, arriving practically penniless in Vienna where he met, was befriended by, and studied with Anton v. Webern. He reached Palestine by way of Bucharest and remained in Palestine 1934-38, where he became head of the composition department at the Conservatory of Jerusalem. In 1938 he left Palestine and emigrated to the United States, via Brussels in 1939, becoming a citizen of the US. He became head of composition at the Music Academy and the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. In 1948 Wolpe founded the Contemporary Music School in New York City whose alumni are composers of music both classical and jazz. In 1949, he received the Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. "... in recognition of his devotion to highest musical ideals expressed in his own music with striking originality ...". In 1952, Wolpe became musical director at the experimental Black Mountain College not far from Asheville NC. "Enactments" and "Symphony" were written there. When the college went bankrupt, Wolpe returned to NYC, teaching at several institutions. During the '50's and '60's there were trips to Berlin and Darmstadt. In Darmstadt he taught courses at the International Summer Institute. He was chairman of the music department at C.W. Post College of Long Island University from about 1955 until about 1967. Wolpe's last years were plagued with the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease to which he finally succumbed April 4, 1972.

At the age of 18, Wolpe was already recognized as a "phenomenal pianist" by those who knew him; he was to remain a pianist at heart, always having a preference for its crisp tones. The concept of virtuosity, but not of the garden variety, was much with him and much of his music; even in the early years his music has been characterized as ferociously and frighteningly difficult: a major reason why his works have been performed so seldom, and why they are, for the most part, not part of the standard repertory of serious musicians. The Wolpe Trio (Essen, Germany) [Link] formed in 1992, took its name from their signal performance of Wolpe's Trio in Two Parts (1963-64), and has since performed many other Wolpe pieces.

In his early years, say around 1925, his language had already developed the subtle rhythmic complexities that appear again in the searingly intense works of his later years. There is a middle period of work, much of which has been lost, that was influenced by concepts of social consciousness and Hindemth's Gebrauchsmusik. Unfortunately the manuscripts of many of his last works were destroyed in a fire in the apartment building in New York City, where he lived.

In Perspectives of New Music, Elliot Carter wrote, "Comet-like, radiance, conviction, fervent intensity, penetrating thought on many levels of seriousness and humor, combined with breathtaking originality marked the inner and outer life of Stefan Wolpe, as they do his compositions."

As a teacher, and as a human being he was always warm, encouraging of exploration, and humorously discouraging of any sense of self complacency. His selfavowed mission as teacher was to encourage the exploration of all of the possibilities of anything a student had written. He took the art of music more seriously than anything else, certainly more seriously than he took his own ego. Anybody who knew him, knew his only little passionate vice was for chocolate.

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Created: August 13, 1998
Last Updated: May 28, 2000