I was studying at the Settlement Music School, where the fees were a nickel a class. Then in 1941 they went up to a dime. I had had harmony lessons with a guy called Perchik, who warned us about this radical coming in, who was Wolpe. Then I had harmony classes with Stefan. The class was meant to start at nine, but he sometimes arrived at five of ten. He would dictate chords and his command of the material was amazing. I was considered a budding composer and had a class with Stefan. He said you do not need everything in consecutive order, but you could reorganize the elements as in a portrait of Picasso. Others in the class were Jack Maxin and a young black composer, Frank Middleton. Wolpe was very outspoken in praise and in condemning. I mentioned Medtner, and he said, "I knew him in Berlin. He was a schmuck." During one of our classes someone came into the next studio and began playing de Falla, and he went next door and said, "Please, anything else." He loved Scriabin and would assign sonatas as an orchestration project. What struck me about Stefan was the tremendous energy, the great vitality, the love of music and deep involvement. In 1942-43 I graduated to studying piano with Irma. Then I left Irma and went to Joseph Schwarz. At the Settlement Music School in the early 1940s there was a Greek soprano Mathilda Kondax who commissioned Stefan to arrange Greek folk songs for chamber ensemble. They were performed and recorded.
It must have been 1950 when Stefan was teaching at the Contemporary Music School. I wandered in there with a friend, and Stefan was wildly copying out parts for the Saxophone Quartet. Anyone who wandered in was impressed into service. Then Jack Maxin wandered in and played the piano.
While I was at New Haven John Strauss arranged this conference of composers from different music schools--Eastman, Columbia, Yale. He asked me who else should we have, and I said why not invite the Contemporary Music School. And sure enough he did. Wolpe gave an afternoon lecture, and I came to hear the end of the lecture. When I arrived in Sprague Hall people were staggering out holding their heads. Stefan was lecturing and was fantastically brilliant. Morty [Feldman], Isaac [Nemiroff], Ralph [Shapey], and a couple of other Wolpe students were on stage as part of a panel fielding questions. They were looking thoroughly disreputable, like the mafia. Morty was very sinister looking at that time. This was the regime of Hindemith, remember. I was supposed to play in the Seven Pieces for Three Pianos. I said yes I'll do it, then I gave the part back, and Stefan was very hurt. The pianists were David Tudor and Larry Smith, but I don't remember who the third one was. [It was Arthur Komar, Ed.]. The culmination of the week's conference was a lecture by Dmitri Mitropoulos, who came up on Saturday. Wolpe was there, as Mitropoulos was doing a big work of his with the Philharmonic [The Man From Midian]. Easley Blackwood came to work with Hindemith. After this conference Easley sat down and wrote a piece à la Wolpe. I played the piece the following week for Hindemith's composition class. There ensued a heated discussion that this music was just pretty sounds. Hindemith came and sat in on Wolpe's lecture and stayed for a few minutes and left. Stefan didn't like Hindemith either. Irma said she saw Stefan pointing out every bad note that should have been somewhere else.
I was accompanist for the dancer Merle Marsicano from 1952 to 1962. As a result of my playing with Merle, Morty got to know my music. I was asked to play the multiple piano pieces in a recording of Morty's music for David Oppenheim of Columbia Records [Morton Feldman, The Early Years, 1959]. With Russell Sherman and David Tudor I played a very complicated three-piano piece [Extensions 4]. Russell Sherman came in and said, "Well, I know my part, so all we need is a conductor." So Morty said, "I'll conduct." After getting through it, he said, "You can get really crazy doing this." So he didn't conduct any more. We recorded it in bits and spliced it together. At that point Morty decided there was no point writing pieces that would fall on their face, so he began writing aleatory pieces.
Wolpe had a program of his theater music on [radio station] WEVD [17 Jan 1962], including his songs on Brecht. Natasha Lutov was managing the Kootz Gallery, and Harriet Vicente suggested to Wolpe that Natasha sing them. I then was accompanying Jennie Tourel. Natasha and I got together on the basis of that in November of 1961, and we got married in 1963. We then prepared lovingly some of Wolpe's Palestinian songs. He listened to one or two and didn't want to hear any more. Natasha was very hurt. He was interviewed for the radio by Midi Garth around 1964. Stefan needed to have a radio to listen to it, so he came to our apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up. It seemed odd that he didn't have a radio. He listened to the program and couldn't get down the stairs. I was holding his hand and got him on the handrail, and then it was all right.
Wolpe was a tremendously vital force. I felt he was the end of a long and constantly enriching tradition. A somewhat similar position to Bach, very rich and complex and then taken over by a much simpler style. I felt historically that Wolpe would be vindicated when things would develop yet again and people could handle this music. There was a simplification toward the very end with Street Music. He used to think he could write popular songs as he had populist ideas.
Stefan cultivated certain painter friends. If you say "action painting" Stefan certainly wrote "action music" in the sense of having tremendous rhythm, energy, vitality, and very complex structures. But a lot of the complexity of the painters was quite random, while Stefan's music was always calculated and controlled, supercontrolled. That's why Morty gave up writing music of such complexity. It became easier to write aleatoric music or music for tape. Even with such expert performers the piece is about to fall on its face any minute. We always had the idea in our evolutionary thinking that slavery and imperialism would evolve into Communism, and simple Hadyn pigtail music would evolve into Stefan Wolpe, and simple players who do Mozart sonatinas would eventually do Wolpe. It's impossible. Stefan never will be rediscovered by a Mendelssohn in the next century. It will never become currency. Which is a shame because it's problematic. When I play a piece of Wolpe's, I have to give up the greater part of a year to work on it.
Edwin Hymowitz (b. 1931), is a pianist. Interview: AC, New York City, 15 March 1992.