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Elmer Bernstein

No individual had a more profound impact on my life and music than Stefan Wolpe. As a matter of fact he also had an impact on certain culinary matters. I will never forget going to his apartment for a lesson and watching him put lemon rinds into coffee. Young Americans in those days (early 1940s) knew nothing of such coffee refinements as espresso.

Wolpe pushed very hard to expand one's musical horizons, and as a student you were "liberated" from some academic concepts when you backslid into conventional mediocrity. He would cry out, "What do you want to be--a Leoncavallo?" I must say that as my music was "freed up" my piano compositions became more and more complex, and I would find myself going to lessons when I found it impossible to play what I had written, it being too technically difficult. Not so for Wolpe, who could sight-read almost anything I could write, which was among his many startling talents. I learned a great deal from him about rhythmic intensity and how to achieve it. With all his forward-looking compositional techniques one never lost respect for the past. When I was married in 1942, his wedding gift to me was a bound score of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand.

We spent a summer together at Port Clyde, Maine, during which time, between picnics, he analyzed Bach preludes and fugues and Mozart sonatas. Although it is daunting to see and understand the works of genius, it still illuminated "the way." I remember contentious evenings of modern music when Wolpe would spar with adversaries. I remember one particular evening which got overheated, and Wolpe accused one of his adversaries of having no sense of counterpoint. When the victim remonstrated, analyzing his work to illustrate the counterpoint, Wolpe characterized the counterpoint as "a syphilitic dog swimming in stagnant water." He projected a great vision with overpowering energy and humor.

Actually his tastes in music were especially catholic, and this quality is demonstrated by the great variety of students he taught. Some were in the big band and jazz world, in the film music world, and the concert hall. He was a superb teacher and a great energizer.

Pianist, composer, and conductor Elmer Bernstein (b. 1922) was educated at New York University. Mr. Bernstein is the past president of the Young Musicians Foundation and currently is president of the Film Music Society, which is devoted to the preservation of film music. He has composed scores for television and documentary shows as well as more than 200 major films. Written communication, Santa Monica, CA, 11 December 1998.


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