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Bernard Benoliel

I heard some pieces by Wolpe and thought they were exceptionally interesting. There was a symposium magazine published about who was who in contemporary music in the U.S., and I looked through the biographies. I took one look at Wolpe's and saw he had studied with Busoni, and I thought that's the man for me. So I wrote to him and told him a little about myself and what I wanted to do. I got a letter about six or eight weeks later--he had been away for the summer. It was 1968. He asked me to ring him. When I did, he said, "Come down and say hello." The voice was quite faint.

When I arrived at his flat, he came to the door himself. He was wearing some crumpled, khaki-colored trousers, a shirt of similar color, partially covered by a greyish-brown sweater. By then he was hollow-cheeked, slightly bent in appearance, and looked very fragile. He invited me in, shuffling along unsteadily into his studio room, where we sat down at his piano. I brought him a batch of my early music and a choral work which I had just finished, Eternity-Junctions, First Sequence. I was very lucky that in the nearly two years I spent with him he was very compos mentis most of the time, and the lively mind, which obviously I didn't know before he had Parkinson's, was always very much in evidence. He just looked and looked at the same passage, back and forth over three pages, the kind of thing he always did at my lessons. Then he said to me, "What do you want here? What do you want to learn? What are you looking for? I think I was a bit downtrodden after being in New York a few years and not doing very much of anything. I thought perhaps I needed more traditional stuff. He said to me, "You're already a very erudite composer. You don't need that. If you want to go back and do that kind of thing on your own later for analysis, that's fine. That's not what you need now." I realized later this was very high praise from him. Then he proposed the question again, "What kind of music do you want to write?" I told him, "Well, frankly, at this point I don't know. That (Eternity-Junctions) is the closest I can get to what I would like to do. But I feel it's very limited, and it won't really lead anywhere." He tended to agree with this and said with great sincerity and quiet emotion, "I will tell you what I know. I think you will learn quickly." From then on I had a lesson once a week for about eighteen months, and we became quite friendly. I was very much grafted onto his European circle, now a vanished world. I sometimes saw him socially two or three times a week. I would take him to concerts, sometimes to the hospital, at other times if he was going to see a friend and he needed someone to help him. As we walked, I used to half-sing tunes from the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies. We used them as a kind of rhythmic pulse. He entered into the swing and then he could walk much better.

About Busoni, he said, "I saw Busoni six times for composition lessons over a period of a year and a half." And he added, "I remember every word." That's the quote that sticks in my mind. Another time he mentioned to me how important the aesthetics of composition were to Busoni. One hears Busoni's fingerprints on so many of his pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. What I was getting was a composite of his own thinking and Busoni's, and no doubt other great minds he came into contact with. Any great teacher is like that--which he certainly was. When I attended the 1968 Bennington Composer's Conference, Mario Davidovsky, after hearing my Variations, said to me, "Yes, the thing about Wolpe is that he prepares the slate, he gives you what you need, but he leaves your own personality to write on the slate." In other words, another personality could learn from Stefan without sounding like him.

Stefan loved to use vocabulary from other disciplines, the jargon of contemporary painters and imagery borrowed from chemistry. He talked about amalgams, crystallization, and the compound makeup of certain liquids. He was a great one for using different levels of language within a composition, creating a juxtaposition of complex and simple situations. He said to me, although this is not a quote, if you're going to compose a composition from only one or two viewpoints, the piece is going to suffer terribly from being one-sided. He said, "You have to work against yourself." He meant you just don't do the things that you like, but you must also do things that you don't like to do in order to make a composition richer. That is one of the most important things I learned from him.

I was very pleased that he liked my work as much as he did. He would make criticisms, but he seemed to feel that I knew what I was doing, what I was going for. But sometimes he would say, "Well, you'd better lighten this up a bit." And then we'd have our jokes, because he knew that I was a passionate Brucknerian and loved Pfitzner's Palestrina. He would laugh. He also told me no one had mentioned Schmidt and Pfitzner to him since he had left Germany. He liked the Bruckner adagios very much, but not the works as a whole. I don't think he admired Mahler unreservedly either. Mahler stood for something important because he used to say that the opening of the Seventh Symphony was a tune that he and his cohorts used to whistle when he was studying in Berlin--a kind of signal.

His comments at lessons were usually very cryptic. I know he was different with different pupils who had different talents and different weaknesses. With me, when not actually teaching his concepts and techniques, he was very monosyllabic. But sometimes: "The rest of it is fine, but in those two bars I think the texture could be a bit more elaborate." Another time he pointed to a passage and said, "I think maybe a little traditional counterpoint here." He didn't like music that was thin in ideas. He was concerned that something was always happening. Did every note have a purpose. Was the organism healthy in the way it was functioning. Once he sat for twenty minutes looking at a phrase from my Variations. I remember the spot. He said absolutely nothing. I was waiting for the big pronouncement, but didn't get it. At a later lesson he was worried a little about the lengths of the variations in relationship to each other, and to be careful if I was going to use different lengths I make sure that the pattern added up to something. About a passage in another piece on which I was working he said, "Is this meant to be an organ piece?" I said, "No." "Well, what I think you have done here is written something where the tessituras are being kept too much at the same level." Actually I was thinking about passages you sometimes find in Varèse, Bruckner, and even Schubert. I don't think he liked anything too slow moving or static.

Returning to my first lesson with him, we worked with serial procedures. I showed him several scores I had written much earlier, which I considered to be bad. He said, "Well, yes, they are not good pieces." He realized there had been a lot of development since. He looked over a very early string quartet and said, "You look like you were doing everything you could not to write a serial piece." This was very astute, because it was the literal truth. Regarding serialism he said, "You have to learn it, you have to learn the complexities. Do your row transpositions. I no longer use them, I only work with a group of five or six pitches at a time." He brought out his Trio and said with a smile something to the effect that it was one of his most conservative pieces. When he made that kind of statement, it was always ironic and layered with other meanings. Another time he commented, "I'm not against traditional counterpoint," again with more than a touch of irony. About the composing process, "one has to give up certain things," the inference being, if you give up something there's the possibility of something else taking its place. He believed that a composition should be controlled by a protocol, but that too much pre-planning could destroy the natural form suggested by the original group of pitches the composer chose to work with.

We were talking about how much great music did this or that composer produce. I said, "For me there's nothing that compares with late Beethoven from Opus 101 onwards." "Yes," he said, "the sonatas and quartets, these pieces are miracles." I think he admired Tristan very much. He would always answer a question. I never asked him to expand on his comments. If it was monosyllabic, I knew that is all he wanted to say. In my second or third lesson he asked me to do an exercise for instrumental ensemble. I chose a double trio, three strings and three winds. He read through it at the piano. At one point he said, "Ah, it's Wagner, but good Wagner--Siegfried--very youthful." "What do you think of Wagner," I asked. Once again he expressed his admiration for Tristan. He also told me he found some of the harmony of The Ring very interesting. We discussed Schoenberg, and I was guarded, and very guarded about Webern. We were working on my Variations. Between lessons I decided to add a solo soprano. With a look of surprise he said, "You've turned it into a cantata. Well then, one piece you should look at is the Schoenberg Serenade." He wanted me to see the relationship between the vocal parts and the ensemble. He did not suggest going through the score with me. For him it was enough to give me the hint. He asked me what I thought of Webern. I answered, "For me it's just impossible, I just can't relate to his music at all." After that he never mentioned him. He was very sensitive to the likes and dislikes of other people. He had a very subtle mind. He could teach Webern without mentioning him. It was not the Webern aspect of his background that attracted me, yet it was this aspect which probably liberated me most of all, for it was the world of pitch relationships that he taught me more than anything else.

He first discussed pitch relationships in terms of serial procedure. He was a firm believer in keeping certain pitches back, not using the whole series. He also believed in using different transpositions for different types of music and different kinds of musical events--back again to different levels of language. The first thing he asked me to write was a piece for piano on four pitches only. He particularly wanted people to hear what they were actually writing, which is not the simple matter it might seem. In the little piano piece I used octaves towards the end. Looking at them he said, "Don't use octaves, it's false power." So I asked "Well, what about Bartók?" There was a long, long pause. He was obviously very loath to say anything. For once I pressed the point, "Well, do you like any of his pieces? I am particularly fond of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." He replied, "That's his best work, that's a good piece." End of subject. A few lessons later, he said, "You are learning very quickly, you are getting to the root of my ideas, but I don't want to overwhelm you either." He was concerned that I had time to assimilate everything. I wrote the first version of my String Quartet at the same time as he wrote his long delayed one for the Juilliard Quartet. He told me he was having trouble with the beginning of the second movement. I think he was concerned about setting the right mood. After spending a good deal of time looking over a passage of my quartet, he would often make no comment. I came to understand this meant it was all right, because he was not remotely shy about making a definite criticism. If he came to the conclusion you knew what you were doing and why, he felt there was nothing to say. If he was unsure, he would say, "Well, why have you done that?" Of course, I always knew why, which made him smile. I took his teaching and my music very seriously. He appreciated sincerity and had an attitude of reverence towards high ideals.

About From Here on Farther he considered it a kind of scherzo. When we attended the first performance, he smiled and said, "It's just a little piece." I feel it had a special significance for him because his humor crossed over from the ironic to the wistful. Before he began Form IV he said, "I want to do a group of piano pieces." After he had finished it he said with a very wide smile, "It's my last Beethoven sonata."

His humor was always in evidence. He loved the Marx Brothers and never tired of Harpo's antics. I think for Stefan there was a touch of Don Quixote in this man, and he identified with him. I used to come for my lessons on Thursdays. One week this was going to be difficult, and I suggested another day. He said, "Oh no, not on ... that's the day I teach the idiots." There was no malice, just a tacit acceptance expressed with genuine good humor. He wore a similar expression when he mentioned that he lived with his third wife, while his second lived upstairs. The immortal child, naughty and wonder-struck was very strong in him. He was reticent to give opinions about colleagues or their music, but when he was asked at the New York premiere of Stockhausen's Hymnen what he thought of it, he said, "I like the tunes best." After a premiere by one ex-pupil he grinned and whispered, "He sometimes composes my music better than I do." I once mentioned liking Scriabin, he was surprised and said with a twinkle in his eye, "I am a better composer than Scriabin." On another occasion I said that I thought his place in music history was assured. He answered, "What, little Wolpe."

I related to Stefan in three different ways--as a very important composer, a great and revered teacher, and, for too short a time, a personal friend. I admire Stefan's early music more than I love it. When you listen to a piece like the Oboe Sonata you can understand why he later developed the way he did. It is the music from the last decade that I like the most. I think it is epoch-making in its own subtle way. Sometimes I find his music a little cool, but I always succumb to the mercurial intelligence and masterly technique. I feel his music will really be understood when his potential audiences can hear almost as fast as his mind moved. What he achieved in his late pieces was to become free of the late romantic sound world with its grandiose gestures without abdicating the traditional techniques on which it was based. He was a great teacher and certainly the perfect teacher for me. Without his ideas, I don't think I would have taken the broad jump I needed to become myself as a composer. He taught me to see so many possibilities, and I know for him that is what it was all about.

Bernard Benoliel (b. 1938) was educated in the United States, won a Bennington Composers Award in 1969 and a Tanglewood Fellowship in 1970. He moved to England the following year, where he divides his time between composing and his position as administrator of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Interview: AC, London 11 June 1985, revised for publication, 1998.


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