I met Stefan in about 1948, when he came to Europe for the first time after the war. I remember being terribly excited about meeting my father, and I had a very clear picture of what he was going to be. But to my eyes he was an American gentleman of middle age, and I was very disappointed. He was delighted about everything that proved that I was now a grown-up, as he didn't like children. He liked the fact that I was a pianist, and he wanted me to be more interested in contemporary music than I was at that time. This came to me much later in England. I had finished studying, and I was very much looking around for some concerts. Somebody said go and see the head of the ICA concerts, he might be able to give you something. I went to see him, and the next day he rang me up and said could I play half the Schoenberg piano works and the Webern Variations for a concert in five weeks. And I said, oh yes, of course. So I sat down and learned all this day and night and got very interested in what great composers these people in fact are.
Stefan told me that Scriabin was one of his major early influences, his first great idol. Stefan hated his formal studies at the Berliner Hochschule, and thought them tedious, boring, sterile, dead. So what did he do? He went to Busoni and to the Bauhaus to study form. Then he went to Webern. Who would have thought of studying with Webern and Busoni? You studied with Webern or Busoni, not both, because they are such diametrically opposed influences. Imagine being able to handle that as a young man! If you go into music with such fanatical depth and energy, it's going to take a long time to put all of this together. Stefan wasn't an intellectual composer, but he was a man of infinite variety, and his music shows this. Therefore, you can't at first identify a Wolpe phrase just like that. One can recognize Stravinsky through five closed doors, but it's not so easy to do this with Wolpe. Speaking as a performer, one's got to remember that although it may be difficult, and very concentrated, his music is above all beautiful.
I think the most significant contribution of the avant-garde music of the second half of the century is its rhythmical liberation, but being liberated isn't necessarily a piece of cake. Stefan has an enormously close relationship with this rhythmical liberation, where rhythm at one fraction of a second expresses exactly this and nothing else, and at the next exactly something else. The idea of things happening simultaneously that are exactly opposite is deeply interesting in Stefan's music.
He would have loved to have written music that was popular, not because he wanted particularly to be so successful, but because he so terribly wanted to communicate with workers and ordinary people. It was a terrible pain for him that he couldn't do this, that his thought processes were in fact simply of a different nature. He wrote a wonderful piece called Street Music, one of my favorite pieces of his--very funny, volatile, absolutely wonderful piece for speaker, singer, and lots of instruments. Great fun for educated musicians, but street music it isn't. So I said, what do you mean "street music"? And he said, well, when they will know more, then they will like it. He really had this idea that people will grow into it.
The Form pieces are enigmatic. Forms II and III don't exist. The scheme was that there would be two piano pieces and some chamber pieces, but his horrible illness intervened. He could no longer walk, and you would have thought he was extinguished as a person. He said to me once, very slowly, "I'm so tired of composing from memory." His writing was so slow, but his mind was still very quick, and he had to remember what he had thought and then painfully write it down. Nevertheless he wrote this absolutely marvelous piece [Form IV].
Born in Vienna and residing in London, Katharina Wolpe has performed a wide range of piano repertoire, including music of the twentieth century, especially the Second Viennese school. In 1991 she recorded the complete piano music of Schoenberg (Symposium 1107), and has issued further CDs of Beethoven, Iain Hamilton, Schubert, and Wolpe. Excerpted from the transcript of a symposium conducted in Jerusalem by David Bloch, 26 June 1983.