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Irma Wolpe Rademacher

I met Stefan in 1923. I was just freshly come to Berlin and I went to a concert at the Hochschule. A strange person came close to me and to everyone looked them deeply in the eyes and walked away. It was Stefan. I asked him why he did that, and he said, "Because I want to find out who will be my friends." He was such a strange animal and I was a strange animal too. I was overawed by what I saw. He was so sophisticated, he knew it all, and I was just a baby from Romania who didn't know a thing.

I was born with a certain sense for value. When I see someone, especially when there is value, I have a feeling, I have them in the palm of my hands. I know the weight and the value of a person. I don't know how, I have instant grasp of that, and I knew with Stefan right away that he was very poetical, writing letters no one could understand with most beautiful language. He had a poetic command of German. He was born with this kind of abundance of images, which actually is his own. I don't know of any German who writes like this. Well, let's say, Hölderlin might come close to that. It's more musical than Rilke. It has a sense of its own. The word and the image were purely verbal, well of course musical too. But Stefan was not necessarily a poet in the sense of concepts. It was music.

All I heard about Busoni was that he adored him. He just had no words when he thought about Busoni, about the greatness of Busoni as a pianist. As a composer he asked Busoni for advice, and Busoni said, take the Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni and try to reorchestrate a few measures, and then you learn from it.

I met the father a few times, but never met the mother. His father was from some eastern Prussian place, originally from Kovno, because that's where the family was. There is a place called Volpa, and that's where they all come from. His father was very successful before and during the war. But then at the end of the war his business broke down. He was a manufacturer, even had a factory in America. They had a beautiful life, but when Germany broke down, this broke down too, and he had a very hard time afterwards. He even for a time had a movie house, or rented or managed it, and Stefan used to play for silent films. Even this went bankrupt. We supported him for a number of years from Israel. Stefan broke his father's domination. His father always gave him his hand and expected Stefan to kiss it. After the revolution of 1918 he hit his father's hand and did not kiss it. He was sixteen and he ran away from home. Stefan was walking barefoot down the Potsdamer Platz and ran into his father. His father was scandalized. Stefan scorned his father.

Stefan had a genius for the piano, but no talent. In a strange house he would rush to a piano and was lost to the world. He couldn't learn fingering. He'd play five notes and then begin to improvise. His piano playing could have been extraordinary, but for his intensity and joy in destroying. He wrecked every piano he played on. He had an infallible way of making strings snap. The strings were hanging out like guts. The same for conducting. He was too subjective.

The Bauhaus was a revolution, an aesthetic revolution, turning their back to all this pompous and empty overgrowth of a mixture of eclecticism. [Stefan] went to the Bauhaus in search of his ideal. They were searching there for the essence, for the pure form, and at the same time the perfectly functional. He was a great young friend of Klee, and he accompanied Klee when he played violin.

Schoenberg was at the same time in Berlin. This group was so closely knit and so attuned to Schoenberg that you learned everything from Schoenberg, even how to light a cigarette. They had to be completely devoted to him, to his ideas, to his way of thinking. They were having an open house for students, and they used to come every week, and had analysis classes. [Schoenberg] exerted a very powerful influence, but [Stefan] said it was too confining for him, the twelve-tone. He needed to develop, and the twelve-tone in the beginning didn't develop for him until he found his own way of developing. He had such an oblique relationship to Schoenberg. Schoenberg was not concrete enough for him. It was too, not diluted, but it was not what Stefan understood under concreteness of shape. He needed more concrete shapes. I understand this very well. Except I love in Schoenberg not the twelve-tone so much as the in-between time, the pre-atonality.

After Dalcroze I had turned away from piano playing, but I learned to improvise. I learned theory and harmony and those things, and I started to see what I needed. I could play, I could even concertize, and I could start to teach. I started teaching in the Dalcroze seminar in Berlin, which was affiliated to the Hochschule für Musik. There was a very progressive administration after the revolution, which was actually a cultural revolution. I went in summer time to do courses of the Dalcroze school in Laxemburg, which is a castle near Vienna, and it was very interesting and beautiful, one of the great schools of moden dance there. Stefan came and visited me there.

Stefan asked me to play. [The Novembergruppe] were trying to branch out and attract another kind of public. There were some very brilliant people among them who tried to interpret what was happening to a literate, middle class public. There was an inauguration of some building, and some music of Stefan's was going to be played. He asked me to accompany something of his, some songs or a piano solo. I played, and we started to be very good friends. He lived in the vicinity and asked me to drop by, and so we got acquainted. That was in 1927-8, in the earlier years before he entered the Party. He turned away from the poetic and idealistic "l'art pour l'art" atmosphere, which was actually his element and his inner life. The Hölderlin Lieder are the lyrical essence of his creative personality, but he was forced by the times to discover the social commitment and to say, "I'd rather compose a Lenin text than a love song." I can still hear him say that.

In the beginning we started playing endless organ Bach fugues four hands. This was still when he was up to here in the Communist Party, playing only his own stuff for the performances. I took him back to music even later. We met at Philharmonic concerts and heard again Brahms. He had never given it up. It was inside him, only the moment demanded political action, committed action. He felt like a soldier. He not only joined the Communist Party but also a kind of free university in dialectical materialism. You should have seen Stefan struggle with Hegel, trying to understand the philosophy behind it. Stefan went to school and studied and on his bicycle raced through Berlin and put posters wherever the Party wanted him to put them. Spent his time training workers' choruses in back rooms of some dirty café in in proletarian parts of Berlin.

In 1933 they were performing night after night Da Liegt der Hund begraben at the Theater Unter Den Linden, the most prestigious spot of Berlin, and the Nazis sending already trucks to get everyone, all the cream of the cream, in the concentration camps. A big policeman was standing in front of that little theater where they played. So I said to Stefan, this is out, you are not going to stay. [He said,] "Ah, this is Berlin, this is my home town." I had made Stefan move into another part of the city where I stayed, out of [his] apartment where the rowdies, the gangs of the Nazis were roving. [He and his brother] were very much observed by the Nazis. They caught his brother, took him to a cellar, beat him up and tortured him, and he lost an eye. By some way he escaped the cellar and was brought to his parents, and there Stefan saw him. [Stefan] admitted he was ready to leave Berlin. I got him a new suit, I inspected his pockets and burned all the Communist books. Stefan left late in March, and he went to a Czechoslovak town nearest the frontier, Brno, where a sister [Bobbi] of his was married. His passport was valid only for another half year.

The Gestapo had come to his studio in the basement of Mrs. Schlomann's house and had taken all his manuscripts. They took whatever they wanted, but brought back the rest. They were orderly Germans. Whatever the Gestapo brought back I took with me. I cut off the political texts and brought him whatever I found in that cellar to Zurich, where we met in April, after the boycott of the Jews, which was April 1, 1933. He went to Leningrad, and he stayed in Russia till August. [He said] everything was so beautiful. He thought there is a chance that he might get a job as a conductor in Kiev and that he would write an opera with [Sergei] Tretiakov. Something in him saved him from staying there. All of a sudden there was a letter from him that his passport was expiring and that he was coming back. He came back on the day before the passport was still valid. He to the German consulate in Geneva to have his passport extended. They looked his passport over, found Russian visas in it, and they said we don't do things for Germans like you, a refugee Jew. He put in a telephone call to [Georg] Schünemann, the director of the Academy [Berlin Hochschule], a remnant of the old regime, a very decent man. Schünemann had great sympathies for Wolpe, and he managed that he had his passport extended for another year. This is what happened within a crucial week of his life. He saved himself from being caught in Russia in the nick of time, and he could still slip over the border of Switzerland and get an extension of the passport and come back to Austria.

He went to Webern to study for a while. He tried to learn orchestration from Webern. Webern said if you have a real idea, it doesn't matter whether it is performed on a little mouth organ or a Furzhobel [fart-machine]. He wrote me beautiful letters about this Passacaglia [Pastorale in Form einer Passacaglia], because I was not in Vienna any more. The voices of the woods were in it. I called Stefan the unicorn, coming out of the depths of the woods and absolutely ignorant of everything. He has a truth of his own, and a knowledge of his own in everything. All of a sudden he wrote to me that the Austrian Government wants to deport him because he is lodging in an apartment of a woman known for hiding Yugoslav Communists. He said he had protested. With his sense of right and wrong he didn't see again it was mounting, the sense of complete lawlessness taking over Europe. So I went to Vienna in December and I took him to Romania. The day we arrived in Bucharest [29 Dec 1933] the premier [Ion Duca], a very liberal man, was shot by the Black Guards. It was a country in which anti-semitism had been invented as a slogan. We stayed there till April-May and he finished the March and Variations. There are several streams meeting there in this March and Variations. There is the march idea from his proletarian phase, and there is the Great Fugue, Beethoven last period. This was an obsession with him, the energy, this ten thousand volt intensity, or a hundred thousand. And Mahler, maybe, the last movement. Stefan is a grandson of Mahler, absolutely directly. Not grandson, actually son, as generations go, but there came that big revolution.

Then I decided the only place to go was Israel. At that time it was mandate country, British-controlled, you still could get a certificate. So I took him to Israel, and it was the most happy time of his life. We took a boat and landed in Jaffa. Jaffa did not have piers, it was not a harbor, and our luggage had to be put in a little boat and then taken to the sandy shore. This man talked Arabic with all sorts of gestures, that guttural kind of talk, and Stefan was fascinated by this. He said, "This is my sound!" He was a Mediterranean. This side of him was at home. He loved it from the very first minute, not the Jewishness, but the native atmosphere, the beautiful vegetation, and the sun. Four weeks after he arrived in Israel some kibbutz was celebrating some big thing, and of course Stefan went right away to there and started writing music for them, teaching them songs for a performance. A whole culture of the way of life of kibbutz had developed there, and they needed that for their celebrations, for their big days. It was still a very militant time of socialism. Then Stefan broke down, because his whole world had broken down. All of a sudden he was in a state of anxiety that he couldn't cross a street. He was absolutely lost for a few months. By some wonderful chance we found an analyst [Erwin Hirsch], very understanding. After three or four months with this man, maybe a winter, he started to compose. During his analysis all of a sudden he couldn't sit down any more. He was like this, frozen. It is amazing, because it was a feeling of what was going to happen, this tragic situation [Parkinson's]. The immobilization was something that fascinated him in his creative work, how to stop the flow. He said whenever he had an idea there were already a dozen voices encroaching on the idea and stopping it. This was the curse of his talent, or maybe the creative situation with this wealth of antagonistic forces always fighting each other and blocking each other. He created that extraordinary density of struggling in his music.

On an empty lot there was a little Arab shepherd playing a little homemade flute with a flock of sheep around, and Stefan standing there transfixed. When he came back with three Hebrew songs, oh, the utter playfulness and gracefulness, a playful tinkling, charming, erotic, it was a revelation. The spirit of the country was revealed to him. He said he was inspired on a Saturday afternoon, the little Yemenite girls were parading there on the main street of Jerusalem, with the bracelets tinkling.

After a few months something happened to him, a return. He told me a series of extraordinary visions. Stefan was a person who when he closed his eyes had hallucinations. Somehow the deeps woke up. He told me some of his fantasies--some genie came back and took him--and it was amazing to watch. It didn't happen right away, but gradually he started to work with the utmost intensity on his way of handling twelve tones. He brought the Passacaglia to me page by page. He was involved in every fibre, physically in agony. He always said he felt like a child-bearing woman. You know the material he was using in these four pieces [Four Pieces on Basic Rows], and they are deeply involved. In Jerusalem Wolpe and I played it on two pianos. We played it on various occasions in our home. Here I played the first performance as a solo piece.

He actually was very happy there, unbelievably happy. Nature, and sounds, the friendships, and the whole atmosphere. What he needed was this Israeli nature. Actually his best work he did in Black Mountain because he was in the woods. A natural being he is. There is something in him of the utmost naivete, in a sense of primordial feeling for natural growth. Everything else was on the surface. He didn't have any kind of need to read a newspaper or a novel. He never did, he couldn't, he didn't know what for. Only poetry or music and painting he understood very deeply. These he knew. There he heard the grass grow. Everything else was on a superficial level. Stefan was a utopian character. He was sure everything would end in a utopia, in a beautiful world in which nothing could go wrong. He found in the Prophets these prophecies of a world in which there would be only joy, and where the lamb would graze with the lion. He didn't really belong to this world of politics. For him only situations in which the utopian world, poetry, these were real to him. He didn't have a sense of reality, of Jewishness, or not-Jewishness. The Prophets appealed to him, and they were his flesh and blood.

We stepped on the soil of this country in Ellis Island in some waiting room. We looked around for Josef [Marx], and he wasn't there. We went through those hours of investigation, and finally we were released, and Josef was on the street waiting for us because he had forgotten to get himself a pass. The moment [Stefan] left Israel he fell in love with Israel and he couldn't get over the fact that he had left it. He was in mourning for Israel, for the people, the sun, every single student, every single aroma. He met Sara Halevy, a little Yemenite girl who had made a name for herself as a performer of folksongs. She was for him Israel, and he fell in love with her madly, and four weeks later he simply left me alone, not looking for a job or anything, just trying to find something of Israel, or life with her, and not coming home for days. He started to lose his days in some absolutely hopeless plans of having a cabaret with her, a nightclub, European style, a little theater. From then on it was one infatuation after another.

We saw Aaron Copland quite often. He felt very close to Copland's early compositions. When Stefan took the Passacaglia to Steuermann, he handed it to him on his knees. Steuermann looked at it and said, "But Stefan this is a score not a piano piece. Write it as a piano piece and then I can read it." Then Stefan was mad, and he took a whole year to redo it. Then he gave one copy to me and one to Steuermann. I played it to him two weeks later and he changed the dedication. I learned it in ten days on a wretched piano in Fort Clyde, Maine, at the private summer school run by Henriette Michelson, a piano teacher at Juilliard.

A year later [1941] Stefan had a tremendous experience of the tide. The Toccata was conceived to give back to nature its shudder--Der Natur ihr eigene Schauder entgegenhalten [to counter Nature with its own shudder]. He had to break the model of the serial music he wrote in the Passacaglia. The Toccata was a new way of going on. When I left him, he stopped writing for the piano. His last piano piece was Enactments for David Tudor, Jack Maxin, and me, but we never played it.

He loved Scriabin. I played it for him. He melted away when I played this music, any kind of music, great music. I have some Satie of his. You know he was a dada. He had a fine sense for Satie. He adored Debussy. We analyzed with him Les pas sur la neige. He was crazy about the Etudes and the Preludes. He admired Brecht very much, and in his heart he was still with the Communists, because at this time he didn't know what to make of the trials. We suspected, there was much to be seen, but he was much too naive to see. Only when they started to restrict their own composers, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich, he was indignant. At this time Zhdanov tried to teach Prokofiev how to compose. [Stefan] was furious when it came to light what Zhdanov had done. He said, "I hope that Prokofiev is going to give him a piece of his mind." I said, "You are not going to see that." It was the other way around. Then he was silent about the whole thing. He just ignored it.

This time I started having my two boys, Jack Maxin and David Tudor. They were my constant companions and my great love. I had two boys to raise, and they saw in Stefan the father figure. They needed Stefan very much, and they came every week to New York. I couldn't deprive them of Stefan. It was my feeling of responsibility for these boys which kept me together [with him] for a few more years.

I played the [Studies on Basic Rows] again in Boston at a recital in 1975, where I played only Wolpe, the first all-Wolpe program of piano music in history. I've had such a vivid sense of Stefan these last few days. It comes over me in waves. Like Monday, something woke me very early, and I couldn't get the heat on here, and I got very depressed. I had such feeling of his presence, which I've really had the last two or three days, terribly intensely again. A kind of violence sort of comes over me like that. I feel I can't survive without him. It's only half true. I will survive, but in one sense it is sort of true. You don't know what it was like to live with, what a fortifying presence, in spite of everything around. I knew I'd be despairing if he were alive, as ill as he would be now. I would be in misery. But in another way even at the edge of that misery there was something, some marvellous thing that's so irreplaceable. The basic optimism of the man is what I miss in everybody around me. Nobody has it. The shining view of man, of his possibility. It's so tremendous, and so lacking everywhere. It was so unbroken in him actually. And to live with it, it really helped you live in spite of everything. I miss the loving quality of his nature, that constant kind of warmth.

Irma Schoenberg (1902-84) was born in Romania. She studied the piano and Dalcroze eurythmics in Berlin. In 1934 she immigrated to Palestine with Wolpe and they were married in Jerusalem. She concertized actively and taught at the Palestine Conservatoire. From 1939 to 1942 she taught at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and became active as a concert artist. She was on the faculty of Swarthmore College from 1943 and then in the 1970s at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1949 she married the mathematician Hans Rademacher. Her gifts as a performer and as a teacher brought her many outstanding students, including Jacob Maxin, David Tudor, and Garrick Ohlsson. Interview: AC, New York City, 22 November 1979.


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up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
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