I came to Wolpe with my compositions for an interview in the fall of '39. He said, "Well, you're a composer, therefore you have to be in the composition class. But you don't know harmony, and you don't know this, so you have to be in all the classes." I remember asking him if he thought I had any originality, because I was very shaky. He looked at me and just shouted in horror, "Originality is a bourgeois virtue!" For a year I had four hours a week and one individual hour with Wolpe. [...]
One of the most striking things about him, which influenced me strongly, was the idea of teaching as a compositional activity, that teaching provided the same kind of creative or expressive needs as composition. He didn't seem to think that it was very important to compose if he were teaching. And I think that this influenced me also, the whole idea of composing in front of other people as a way of being in the world as a musician and as a creative process. His idea of teaching composition was to continue to inspire the student until he finds inspiration within his own being, within himself. So the idea of being an external source of inspiration was completely congenial to him.
Every once in a while he would mention Hindemith as a teacher and very negatively dismiss his way of setting up rules and of thinking that musicianship is something you study prior to composing. At the same time he respected his music enough to make us study Mathis der Maler for orchestration. Wolpe's idea is that anybody can compose and that composing is the way you grow as a musician. I am only now realizing the extent to which I was influenced by him in this respect. [...]
Everything composed in front of the students was accompanied by the most remarkable use of language and metaphor, so the idea was being expressed that every musical element stood for some event, that something special was happening. Metaphor was dragged in from any place under the sun, from cooking, from sex, from traffic control, from warfare. You name it, everything got dragged in. This metaphorical imagination was important because it was not an exercise. I remember fellow students being very, very confused and disturbed, as very few in the harmony class were able to understand what he was doing. According to the group of people I hung out with, to think about music in that way was almost as bad as program notes. At the same time we were all turned on. His idea was to disturb, and I think that was the main thing that happened. Before that, music was notes on paper, it was almost fruitless, there was absolutely no connection with anything. But for me Wolpe's way of doing it was immediate, alive, and never trivial. It wasn't a description of something, it was going on there. It was an insistence that music was part of life. [...]
In the individual lessons, if he saw a student confining himself to one mode, he would make suggestions. "Why are you using only these notes? You have these, and these, and consider this as a possibility." He was very, very anxious not to distinguish systems of tonal organizations, because that would represent some kind of ideological commitment. So he talked about the twelve-tone system, but never taught it. He talked about tonality and tonal organization, but he wouldn't teach it. He wouldn't teach rules of cadence or anything like that. [...]
He was very open with students. When he left the classroom, his idea was to take a bunch of students and go and sit some place where the real thinking takes place. I remember sitting around in cafés afterwards with him and other students who would just enjoy being around him. Wolpe started talking about how he had written worker songs when he was in Israel, and how people sang his songs in the street. He was preaching his whole ideology of the relationship of music to ordinary lived life, and that to write songs that workers would sing in the streets was more important than writing symphonies. He said that he came into conflict with the authorities in the Histadrut, the main workers union, and they wouldn't publish his works, but that people sang them in the streets anyhow.
After the sessions with Wolpe I did nothing but think music to the point of not sleeping for two nights in a row. After graduating from high school, I decided to try the University of Pennsylvania for a while. When I sat down in my first harmony class, I said, "But when do I do composition?" The harmony exercises were trivial and meaningless. After I explained my background, the chairman of the music department said, "Well, we're not going to recognize the work you did with some refugee composer." That was the last straw. My family moved to California, and that was the end of my studies with Wolpe.
Eli Yarden studied with Wolpe at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia in 1939. Wolpe's influence is apparent in most of his work, as well as in his politics and in his dedication to teaching. Interview: AC, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 8 March 1986.