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Claude Ballif

I met Wolpe in Darmstadt, where I went from 1956 to 1959. For me Stefan Wolpe was an American, while Varèse ise is French. Wolpe was not at all a German composer, although he had the sense of humor of a Berliner just to have some joy in life. In his music is some humor. What I remember of Wolpe is the man, his music, and his gesture. When he was in Berlin 1956-57, I went to see him every week and showed him my music. He loved to make plays on words, and he called me Pilaf or Piaf. When I visited Wolpe, it was for the whole afternoon or the whole evening. His house was open, there was no limit. For me Wolpe is the world of childhood. He was only truly himself when one saw him alone in his home and he revealed that childlike world. He loved Paul Klee and showed me much about it. For him it was music. About music he spoke always with images, a splendid gift of the image. I never had a technical discussion of his music, but he told me about his system, which I liked very much, and I have examples that he made for me. Not abstract.

Wolpe was wonderful because when he spoke about music he gave the sense, the essential analysis. Josef Rufer invited Wolpe into his class at the Berlin Hochschule, and Wolpe began to speak about fish, so Rufer did not invite Wolpe to give an official lecture at the Hochschule. Rufer was very astonished that I visit Wolpe, and I noticed that he sometimes didn't take Wolpe seriously. I think it's wonderful to speak about fish with music, because for me the most important thing in music is not to have an a, b, and c--a fixed structure, the principal thing is movement. When I think of the man, I have a sense of a sort of mise-en-scène. He sits down to explain some things to me, and he suddenly cuts his discussion, is completely lost, gives me some orange and things to eat, and asks Hilda to bring some cakes to Pilaf. The lesson that I have from Wolpe is that we are not in the world, but we try to be in the world. With our little genius temperament we do just what we can.

Wolpe was the first musician I've met who spoke really like an artist about music. We spoke about Bach and the choice of the voice for some subject, the choice of the color of different instruments for saying different things, and to respect the spirit of the instrument. The idea of the subject of a fugue giving the sense of the whole construction, the importance of the choice of the beginning of the piece. Wolpe considered music like a physical thing. He opened my mind about the idea of register. It was really interesting for me, because before Xenakis Wolpe was very concerned with this idea of register and pitch. He explained to me his idea of taking in the middle a pitch, and after, two, four, five [pitches], and so on, like a tree. For me this great sense of register is Wolpe, and I owe him my own path. This is my tribute to Wolpe.

Wolpe said you must read Busoni's book on new music. He was interested in the structure of the piano music of Busoni. He gave me the good poison of the most important things. I was fascinated by the String Trio of Schoenberg because for the first time Schoenberg put away the idea of serial construction. We discussed the Trio and Wolpe was very interesting about the idea of building the piece around timbre and register. I have a word, scale-harmony, and for each piece we must have a color which is given by the beginning. When you fix the register, you fix also the scale-harmony. Wolpe said, "one should know about all the structures of fantasy and all the fantasies of structure." He is for me the example of freedom of structure and not mathematics, how to bring the human, physical impulse into a real composition, with the brain, with intelligence, and with the ear.

It was really amazing for me when Wolpe said that he was a student of Webern, because his music is completely different. Wolpe said Webern was a very ordinary person, so simple, and never spoke about his music as an example. That was a good lesson. This was completely different from Boulez's idea of Webern. The French people like clear-cut ideas, but you cannot put this music in a little vase. I asked Wolpe what sort of man was Webern. Was he like Boulez, sure of himself, no discussion, mathematical? Wolpe said, on the contrary. He was a marvelous, simple man, not a star. I said to Wolpe, "What is your opinion about the Second Sonata of Boulez?" And he said, "Splendid!" He liked the sense of virtuosity of this Sonata.

In Wolpe's Violin Sonata what interested me was the freedom of the relation between the violin and the piano, the fresh, open feeling in the treatment, and no pretension to do a classical Beethoven violin and piano. It was the goal of Wolpe to give an impression of improvisation. He was not a specialist of jazz, but he has respect for light music, for music of the people. He liked that, but it was not his goal. He did not give a fixed image of himself, he was mysterious, and sometimes happy to be not celebrated. It was his strength, his force, and I thought for me there is really a great American musician, because he is American now.

Wolpe is completely different from Cage. He doesn't play that amusing, "I give this music, but I can give another." Wolpe needs a deep human feeling and requires the exact expression. We spoke about that with Beethoven, and there is a sense of Beethoven about Wolpe. Wolpe was so deeply wounded by memories of the Nazis that he put it away. He was not a man who cultivated the nostalgia of things. A man is great by the feeling of his insufficiency and by the desire to grow up despite his limitations. He was enthusiastic, excited by his environment and by life. It is a great chance to be able to express ourselves and to write music, and he had that. His music is a quest.

Composer and theorist Claude Ballif (b. Paris, 1924) studied at the Conservatories of Bordeaux, Paris, and Berlin. Since 1971 he has been professor of music analysis at the Paris Conservatoire and since 1982 associate professor of composition. Interview: AC, Paris, 31 May 1985.


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