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Hilda Morley Wolpe

We met at the end of 1948 because he was looking for a translator for Songs from the Hebrew, which he had written in Palestine. He came to see me. I was on the telephone, and he resented this very much that I didn't immediately drop the telephone. I just sort of waved at him and asked him to sit down, and he felt this was very rude, he said later. But he began to look round the walls of my sitting-room, and I had reproductions of most of the great modern painters--Miró, Picasso, Braques, Klee, Mondrian, and so on. And this interested him. He said, "You're interested in modern painting?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I knew Klee." I nearly fainted, and he seemed extraordinary to me from the very beginning. His directness, kind of a fiery light in his eyes. It wasn't just fire, but light also, a kind of penetrating look that he would give you. And the way he always talked about essentials, no little things, nothing trivial.

His connection with Klee struck me as something so rare and marvelous that set him apart already. We went out to have dinner, and he seemed to me then immensely tall. I know that he was not really very tall, but he seemed to me bigger than ordinary people. Actually in size larger, as if he had come from some other race or some other planet almost. One of the ways he tells me that evening was when I actually mentioned the word "God." He said, "Do you believe in God?" angrily. I said, "Sometimes." He said, "How is that possible?" angrily. "No intelligent person can believe in God. Do you really?" He looked at me so challengingly that I wasn't sure that I did, and I felt very hesitant. I had had one experience where it seemed to me that something like God did exist.

At this period [1920s] he went through several stages. One was that he believed in the total anonymity of the artist, and that one should not credit oneself with what one does. For example, he signed himself "X" in many cases on modern music concerts. At another point he had a kind of Tao or Zen idea, he followed Tao a good bit at one point. Lao Tse influenced him a lot, the hidden great man, the concealed one, which to a certain extent he remained to the end of his life. He felt that a piece of music performs its function when it's performed once and need not be preserved after that. It's flowered and had its one blooming, and after that he would destroy his work, if it had one performance, after the premiere. He did that, I think, for about a year or so, and signed himself "X." Then he went through a period, I think he said for a whole year, when he composed only in his head, didn't write anything down, because what he felt was most important was the spiritual state you arrived at through the process of composition. It doesn't help other people directly. It can help them indirectly insofar as you have become transformed and improved. So a lot of that early music has been destroyed one way or another.

He went through a phase of almost being a Catholic. I think it was [Jacques] Maritain who came around to Berlin and tried to proselytize a lot of the young artists there. And Stefan was influenced by that. Anyway he became interested in Gregorian chant, and he went to a small town in France called Poligny, where they had a school for Gregorian chant, and he studied it. There's some extraordinary letters from there, mostly about the French landscape, which he loved very much.

When I first met him I was amazed, because no one I knew had ever done this. When he wanted a few moments of peace and contemplation, he would walk into churches (which were usually empty) and think, and just gain those moments of stillness that he needed to get in the midst of the day. Another thing that was surprising about him, but delightful, was his love of Christmas. He adored Christmas in a purely childish way. It had nothing to do with Christ, but he loved the Christmas tree and the ball. He always had several sprigs of evergreen and loved the idea of buying gifts and the festivity connected with it, giving something to one's friends. And every year when he was well he used to write and decorate his own cards with green and red ink in very beautiful designs and scribbles, and kind of abstract inscriptions for all his friends. He worked over that for days.

In Palestine he fell in love with the Hebrew language in terms of musical expression, and expression as such. And not only the Hebrew language, but even the Arabic seemed close to him and to his sense of sound. He would sometimes imitate the chants of the Copts. He used to go to a Coptic Church in Jerusalem and hear these fantastic sounds in their chanting. Stefan knew a certain amount of Hebrew and understood a good deal, particularly of the poetic aspects of Hebrew, I mean the Bible, and he picked up phrases, but he didn't use it himself in ordinary conversation much. He had a marvelous sense of the sound of it, and the meaning of the sound, that meaning that was related to the sound. And he loved to imitate typical Hebrew sounds as the Orientals used them. He had probably studied a certain amount, but he never really got into it very much as a language. But instinctively he knew how to handle it. Just the way he could never read a whole novel through. I don't think he had the patience for fiction because used to say, "That's too anecdotal." He liked to hear stories, particularly if they were funny. He claims to have read The Brothers Karamazov when he was young. That's the only one I could swear to.

He was brought up ostensibly as a believing Jew by his father. He was bar mitzvahed, and he used to go to the temple once a year with his father on high holy days. But he very soon broke away from that and the idea of all orthodox religions. There was a growing rebellion against all of the beliefs of the generation just before him, which reached its height just before the end of World War I, when youth simply became totally disillusioned with the leadership of the country, with all the mores that they'd been brought up to respect. And Stefan was one of those who led a students' rebellion at school, and a students' strike, and chalked up slogans on blackboards. He'd also become a member of what was called a Tolstoi-Bund when he was about sixteen, a pacifist organization based on the teachings of Tolstoy.

The first experience he had that he told me about of his musical needs came when he was in his early teens, before he had a theory teacher, when his father gave him a toy railway set for his birthday. He was about thirteen, I guess. And Stefan became fascinated with the varying speeds that he could use to make the trains run round the track in relation to each other, with some slower, some faster, speeding them up and diminishing the speed. And this became for him later a kind of analogy for what he wanted to do with musical rhythms and with the pace of musical movement as a whole. I also remember the way he described his going up to this very conventional theory teacher. He used to go up to the door, and before he'd knock or ring the bell, he used to say to himself, "Now Stefan, remember, everything he's going to tell you is nonsense, is not true, but you have to learn it." And of course at that time he knew nothing of the Schoenbergian school, it hadn't reached Berlin yet, at least not at his age level. But he tried to construct a kind of modern music for himself, he said, by turning Beethoven upside down and trying to look at it that way. Or speeding things up on the early gramophones that they had, speeding things up and slowing them down, or playing them backwards.

He broke completely with the traditions of his own family and his own past, and he had practically no teachers to help him, although Busoni was a great influence on him. Busoni was an avant gardist in his thinking about music in certain ways, in certain ways no. Also his sense of form. Perhaps most of all in his warmth and tenderness and affection for the young Stefan. When he was seventeen or eighteen and had run away from home, he was practically starving to death, worked as a porter in the railway station to earn his living and was dressed in hand-me-downs of soldiers' uniforms and old military boots that were too big for him. When Busoni saw him in that way, he was horrified. One of the first stories was that when Busoni met him, after he'd shown him some scores of his, Busoni said, "My God, look at the way you're dressed! You can't go on like that! You don't look as if you've eaten anything, come to my house." And he did the next day, and Busoni found him a suit of clothes and fed him. And then when there was the premiere of Doktor Faustus or Arlecchino Busoni insisted on taking him into the private box in which he sat. And he remembers Busoni saying with a kind of naive delight (because there was a blue light on the stage), "Oh, that's the mystic blue light!"

He was never an aesthete. On the contrary, that's what differentiates him from a great many modern composers. He always had the feeling that art should be at the service of the people, not in the sense of the Soviet idea (as it's understood now) in a hide-bound way, but that art exists to help people. His idea of art was a very humanistic one. The way I'm putting it sounds rather naive, but it was not. It was deeply true, and it was through art that he learned what was essential in life. One of the pieces he wrote toward the end of World War II is called Battle Piece, one of a group of pieces called Encouragements. He really thought of art as being a form of encouragement for the people, a way of helping them. He used to say that the trouble with our society is that everyone's left alone, nobody's helped. He was an idealist really, though he was fascinated with scientific expositions of reality.

I think he basically remained a Marxist in broad, general terms. I don't know whether he read much of Marx in the original. He probably read a few of the significant chapters in Das Kapital. But his way of thinking was certainly that of dialectics. I wouldn't say he was a dialectical materialist, because he was a highly spiritual person and his sense of the values of life were spiritual. But he knew that the basic needs of human beings are material, and that first those have to be satisfied before you have anything else. But he didn't ever think of that as adequate. He was spiritual in a Renaissance humanist way. He thought of man as at least the center of our attention, even if he's not the center of the universe as a whole. He had a general feeling for the suffering of human beings. One of his piano pieces is called "There's too much suffering in the world." That was how he felt.

His music sprang out of basic inner impulses, like the way he breathed almost, or the way he talked. They were part of his inner rhythms. But he did think of his music as helping people either to transcend their suffering or in some way to place it in a perspective that would help them. As a kind of a gift of energy. The essential energy of life is in that music. It's like part of the essential electricity of life that's in his music, like a cell electricity, a cell that's vibrant and pulsing with some form of life. His temperament basically tended to express itself in terms we could call radiant or joyous ones. Not only that, but there was so much of that in his temperament that his music couldn't be all anguished. He had a lot of sentiment about love. He was very romantic about love, and he would say things that were almost embarrassing, that he really believed in. He believed in the kind of magical power of love, that love can really conquer everything.

He had a block about mathematics, because he had a teacher in his Gymnasium years that would frighten him very much with regard to mathematics. It was some Prussian-type teacher who bullied him, and so he just blanked out and didn't develop any mathematical [skill]. He was fascinated by modern physics and by the world view that we get from it. In fact, in talking of music-making with his students he would often use terms that sounded as though he was very knowledgeable in physics. Of course he used them as analogies rather than as precise scientific terms, but then artists do that. And when he looked at some of the photographs in Scientific American, say, of the constellations, or of black holes and the milky way, or of the opposite kind of photographs of minute living matter under microscopes, he always felt that there was something of the image of his own music in these images, that is, that the essential cell of life is what he started from, and it was really the same everywhere. His sense of time relates to his sense for modern physics and this global-spherical sense of life that he had, that is, of organic life, and of the need to get rid of the purely linear, horizontal nature of music, and to experience things vertically as well. Sometimes I think some of this was derived from what he learned at the Bauhaus, where he took courses under Paul Klee, who also writes about different levels of visual experience, all of them organic, but to be apprehended simultaneously by the artist. So that Stefan also thought in terms of various forms of life going at the same time at different levels. And that's why you get that sense of clots. In the music sometimes you move from one level to another, and sometimes you could call them levels of language, and sometimes levels of organic modes, depending which way he was thinking at the time.

It wasn't something that he talked about, but it was a total fascination with nature. He could get impatient with cities and would feel they were too purposeful, there's always some direction, you always have to run after something. The beauty of nature is that it seems so purposeless, as far as man is concerned. You just look, and you become part of it. It was a kind of Goethean attitude in many ways, the multiplicity of forms in nature that were all related. For example, the forms of a leaf, which is never exactly the same leaf, but which is always recognizable as "leaf." That sort of thing fascinated him. He didn't have the romantic, pastoral sense of nature, it was more intense than that. For example, in the Duo for Oboe and Clarinet [Suite im Hexachord], there's a movement called Pastorale, which is completely un-pastoral in the usual sentimental sense. It's a very fierce, intense kind of vision of (as I understood it after Stefan talked to me about it) of small darting insects dashing at each other and biting pieces out of each others' wings and tails, and lashing tails in fury at each other. A kind of furious intensity of the movement of nature, which you sometimes see in fishes in a stream.

He adored Beethoven. Beethoven was his god, identified with him very much. The heroic nature of Beethoven's music was very close to him. Beethoven's basic response to life and the world was very close to Stefan's. When I went to buy some records for him once, I asked him what did he want, and he said, "All of Beethoven's symphonies." I said, "What performance?" He said, "Well, if possible Kleiber or Mengelberg, but anybody." The things that he listened to continuously was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, the last few months of his life. He seemed to identify with it. The tears welled up in his eyes. They didn't fall when he was listening to it, and I knew he felt his own death approaching. Which I didn't realize so much at the time, but only later. He was very close to Mahler anyway. He didn't ask for that much Mahler, he asked for Das Lied von der Erde.

He adored Schubert. He especially adored Chopin. I think Chopin was some kind of a personal, profound love of his. He was absolutely mad about Chopin. So much so that he believed in that myth that so many musicians have inherited concerning the diabolic or destructive nature of George Sands' influence on him. He kept on asking me, "Was she really anybody? Was she really of any value?" Because he really couldn't believe that there could be two people of value and the other one could be Chopin. He recognized Wagner's genius. One of the last things in the last few years of his life that he said was that he'd like to hear The Ring. He told me that Tristan was extraordinary.

He adored Scriabin, and Scriabin's one of the greatest influences on his youthful development. Alban Berg meant perhaps less to him, because he felt him to be more derivative, but Scriabin was a great discovery for him as a young man. Because Stefan knew as an almost normal part of his human experience, the experience of ecstasy, of extreme bliss, of an ecstatic kind of delirium, and that was what Scriabin expresses, of course.

He didn't know Schoenberg well personally, but he attended his classes in musical analysis in Berlin. He admired him tremendously and respected him. He did feel, though, that the content of Schoenberg's music was not the content of the music that he wanted to write, because it represented a different kind of psychological, emotional trend, for the most part. Except, say, certain things in Moses und Aron, of course, and the Trio. What he felt to be Schoenberg's greatest works were really closed to him. In general the music of a hyper-sensitive sensibility which seems to find no way out of its sensibility was something that he was not going to express in his music, and this is what he felt to be true of some of Schoenberg's music, even the most exquisite and marvelous, which he enjoyed despite the fact that it wasn't close to his nature. He thought Erwartung was marvelous, but he wouldn't want to write music that expressed that kind of experience.

He loved Webern. He thought of Webern as a rather saintly man, very spiritual person, very warm, very simple, very direct. Webern warned him against staying in Vienna too long, because he thought the Fascists were taking over there soon, too. He used to imitate Webern's Viennese accent very well, too. If Stefan learned anything about concentration, of course, he learned it from Webern. He did towards the end, this way of working with small units may have had something to do with Webern.

He was very friendly with Copland in the first years. They were great friends, and Copland continued to be among his major supporters to the very end. Though he didn't hear very much of his music, he had absolute faith in Stefan. He had a kind of brotherly relation with Varèse, an older brother whom he loved, esteemed, and admired. He had something of the same temperament, and something of the same position in the American musical world, a position which was outside the establishment for a long, long time. They shared a European background, so that their way of relating to aesthetic experiences was somewhat different from that of an American composer. They had kind of short-hand conversations, where the one person understands what the other means without having to say very much. Very brief comments on what they had heard and what was happening in contemporary music and with contemporary composers. For a while Varèse was more acrid, extremely witty and funny about composers that he thought were very mediocre. Varèse was the only compose we could rely on to respond immediately to a premiere of Stefan's. And he did this with absolute directness and spontaneity. He would come to every first performance of Stefan's. The next morning Stefan would usually be sleeping later than usual, and so I would answer the phone. I'd hear a voice say "Eelda," and I'd say, "Varèse." And he'd say, "Varèse, how are you?" "I'm fine." "Is the Herr Geheimrat there? Can I speak to him?" [...]

Occasionally he would go to hear a great performer. He adored Horowitz, and would go to hear him if he could get tickets. Or Glenn Gould. He was delighted to go to a Glenn Gould performance of Schoenberg and Beethoven. He knew about Charlie Parker and was impressed by him. Charlie Parker wanted to study with him towards the end of his life. He loved Duke Ellington and Armstrong. He gave a course in jazz at Post College, so he studied up on its historical development. Whenever a student told him that there was some new thing happening downtown in some jazz nightclub or hangout he would go to hear it. We used to go to those places, the Half-Note and the Five-Spot. He just wanted to get an idea of it. What he loved was their virtuosity, their freedom, and the fact that the ordinary orchestral musician isn't capable of it. Sometimes he wrote for that kind of virtuosity and couldn't find someone to play it. We heard Charlie Mingus. Tony Scott was a student of his, a very devoted student, who used to sometimes tell him where to go. He loved some of Tony's playing. He knew Jimmy Giuffre. He was very glad that Jimmy Giuffre came to a performance of one of his pieces, I think it was Piece for Two Instrumental Units. He was very pleased that he liked it very much. He must have met him once or twice, not very often. He loved blues, and he improvised blues himself. He loved Gershwin, for example. I mean, that's not exactly blues.

He admired Prokofiev to some extent. He admired the early Shostakovich, and then he didn't like the late works, which seemed to him an aesthetic sell-out. He was a friend of Hanns Eisler, and liked some of the music. He admired Stockhausen very much, particularly as a younger composer. He thought he was a real genius. Momente is the work by Stockhausen that he particularly liked. He was very disappointed in his recent work, the one called Hymnen, which he didn't like. [...]

In Cage he objected to the use of chance music in that he felt that it was an abnegation of something that was a deeply human necessity or function, the function of choice and decision. He deliberately molded his life, shaped himself, I would say. He tried to influence his students in that respect. He used to say to me, "One must give oneself orders, one must give oneself commands."

He had a tremendous power of mimicry. He could improvise almost any style, from early vaudeville, which he loved to act out, or the straw hat, soft-shoe routine he used to go through. Or dance to typical ballet music. Or he could improvise Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, Debussy, and Ravel. And he could also improvise in the style of Parisian café singers, café chantants. It was marvelous. It was part of his nature to be a theatrical person. He was in certain respects a ham in the best sense. He was playing a blues, what the Black Mountain kids used to call a Bauhaus blues. And everybody applauded him before dinner once, and he stood up very straight and said, "I'm not an entertainer!" But that in itself was part of the act.

Something that he loved to keep on his piano as a kind of spur to his creativity was a photograph of the Victory of Samothrace. That meant a lot to him. I would say Picasso was his favorite painter, because his temperament was close to him. He loved some of Miró, and he loved Matisse, and Mondrian meant a tremendous lot to him, though at first glance their temperaments were poles apart. He felt the compressed intensity of those Mondrian paintings, and he used to keep a print by his beside for many years. Cézanne was his greatest hero. It's through him that I learned to know Cézanne.

When I first met Stefan I felt that, like many Europeans, he was more fascinated by America than I was myself, because I was American. There were many things he liked about America--the directness and the apparent openness of things, and the accessibility of people in many ways. Also, like a number of Europeans, he saw in America the contours of a society that would ultimately take over the rest of the world in terms of modern industrialism, that is, a society in which mass culture had been pushed to an extreme. It was a mass society which one didn't yet have in Europe to that extent. He felt that that made art all the more necessary, that the dangers of a mass society were such that art became more essential rather than less so. And therefore he felt whatever he could do in this country in terms of his art was more important, more significant perhaps.

I often used to talk about possibly settling in Europe and that it would be better for him. And he thought about it once or twice when we were in Germany on a Fulbright. He was first at first very reluctant to return to Germany at all, and then finally decided he would, because modern music was at that point being supported so much by the Germans. In many ways he felt happy in Europe, but he had his doubts about Germany, because he felt that many of the elements that had made for fascism before were still alive. However, had he been offered an ideal position for himself there, he might possibly have taken it. I don't know.

We came to Black Mountain College at the time that Charles Olson was rector, so the main emphasis was on poetry of the Olson type. In many ways--materially and physically--Black Mountain was falling apart. It was in a very decrepit state, and there were very few students coming there. Those who were coming either had no money at all, or were on work scholarships of one kind of another. It stood for everything that was considered non-conformist in America, and there were all kinds of rumors about that it was a hotbed of Communism, which it was definitely not. But Stefan loved it there, because it reminded him of certain things about the Bauhaus in the early days, when the Bauhaus was very poor, and young people came from all over Germany just to look for something new, new values, and new ways of living. There were very few music students, which was in the end Stefan's main reason for looking for another job, because he felt he didn't have enough scope there. But in other ways he loved it, and he always said until he died that if it were revived, he'd go back any time. [...]

He considered that he composed slowly in that his preparations for composing a piece were rather involved. The musical thinking that went into and the musical notes that he took were rather involved. But when he was commissioned, he actually composed rather quickly and liked to do that. This was true of the Form piece. The Saxophone Quartet was composed in a few weeks. The Violin Sonata was composed in less than two months that were not completely devoted to composing. Once he got it down on paper, he did not revise very much except sometimes endings bothered him, and they would take rather long. But he sifted so much in his mind while he was composing. His capacity for choosing was so impressive and had been honed to such an indubitable kind of point that it wasn't necessary. It was because he said that there was such a need, and if you lived with him you saw that he was filled with music from morning to night, and was just pulsing with it, humming it, conducting it, singing it to himself, making sounds of various kinds with his vocal chords, making extraordinary sounds fiddling with the piano. If you were talking to him, sometimes he would go on with this and not hear what you were saying. And when you were walking down the street with him, or anywhere, standing in a store waiting in line, this would happen. But he didn't write everything down. He had this torrent of music pouring out of him, and he could have written twenty symphonies if he had written it all down. But his sense of discrimination was very developed, and he wanted to put down only what was essential to his musical thought. He used to say he'd let it run, like you'd let the water in a tap run, until he came to something really essential. And that's why he didn't revise his pieces, because there was no waste matter in his writing, and it was very economical.

I don't think he thought exactly in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. He would start with what he called a constellation of sounds--pitches, rather. One of his students said to me once that he talked about these pitches as if they were living entities. The beginning of a piece would be like the map of a country that was going to be explored more fully, or in a variety of ways, later.

He would say there is no inspiration unless one has the most intense concentration, unless one lives in terms of the most continuing and deepest concentration. Concentration was for him the source of all one's creative ideas. He used to say to me sometimes, "Mine yourself, dig farther, dig deeper. Get as far as you can into the well." Depth was a very concrete concept for him. "Opening one's pores" was an expression that he used, too. Not so much for the immediate act of writing, but for kind of refreshment in between, that is, going to look at some painting to open your pores, or a certain kind of landscape that was very meaningful to him.

Hilda Morley Wolpe (1919-1998) was born in New York (née Aue Auerbach) and educated there and in Palestine, London, and at Wellesley College. She taught at Queens College, New York University, Rutgers University, and Black Mountain College. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983-84 and the Capricorn Prize for To Hold in My Hand: Selected Poems. Her fifth collection of poems, The Turning (Moyer Bell) was published in 1998. She died in London and is buried beside Stefan Wolpe in Spring Cemetery, Long Island. Interview: Matthew Paris, New York City, November 1978.

next Thomas Nee
up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
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