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Leonard B. Meyer

I was a fiddle player, and I started to compose just out of hearing. I'd never had a lesson in harmony and didn't know beans about harmony. I started to study with Karl Weigl, and he gave me counterpoint lessons till they came out of my ears. It wasn't what I needed. My brother had studied with a pianist named Henriette Michelson, and she said, "Why don't you study with Stefan Wolpe?" It was one of those odd things, because I'm sure that, while she appreciated Wolpe's personality, I can't believe that she appreciated his music. But I went to see Wolpe, it must have been in about 1939, and I started to study with him. We got along well. I was very young and very naive. I had been at Bard College and had taken harmony and counterpoint there. I started working with Stefan when I transferred to Columbia [College]. At Columbia I had shown some of the quasi-romantic stuff I had written to Seth Bingham, who I guess was in charge then, and he said piano music should be percussive, and I said under my breath, [expletive] and decided that was not for me. I majored in philosophy at Columbia sort of by default. I studied with Stefan during the last two years at Columbia and after that.

What one learned with Stefan is hard for me to say after all these years. One learned to find out what the implications of one's own gestures were. You would go to him with what you had written and he would say, "Well, this is quatsch." That was a favorite word of his. Then he would say you could do this, or you could do that, and then he would send you home. But he was always encouraging. Basically, I was not exactly the most talented composer who ever lived. But I feel I learned a hell of a lot about music and how it worked from Stefan. I still teach my students things I learned from him. He used to talk about what he called dead intervals and the notion of making them live again. A dead interval being, as I remember and as I use it now (I may have sort of changed that), where you didn't hear the interval actively. To take an example of a dead interval from the literature, at the beginning of the Opus 130 [Beethoven, String Quartet], you don't hear the interval between the end of the first phrase and the beginning of the second as an active relationship. He had a theory that if you had such an interval that was not active, that you didn't really hear as a seventh, for example, that you would later make it into an active interval. Another concept which I think I got from him, also from gestalt psychology, was the notion of gap-fill, that if you made a skip, you then filled in what you had skipped over. There were all kinds of things like that where there were sort of informal concepts which were really aspects of technique, of seeing what the possibilities of your tunes were, or your melodies, or harmonies. There was the business of the linearization of harmony and the harmonization of linear structures. I don't think I ever wrote a twelve-tone piece with Stefan. He didn't explicitly teach twelve-tone music. I was in my radical phase. I wrote a worker's march, and he was very good at that, since he'd written some himself. He was both enthusiastic and helpful. [...]

I feel deeply indebted to Stefan, but I couldn't put my finger on it, except that he taught me a lot about what made music work. He was always concerned with really important issues about motivic structure. He would talk less about harmony and somewhat about form, but more in a synthetic, dialectic sense, the relationship of things to one another. He was not at all doctrinaire in his teaching of composition. He knew what was going on in twelve-tone music, but we never talked about that really. He talked about Busoni a lot, much more than anyone else. He felt that Busoni somehow was the beginning of an alternative way of making music. Some of the neo-classical aspects of Busoni meant something to Stefan in terms of the structuring of music. I know that he spoke very fondly about Busoni.

Born in 1918, musicologist Leonard B. Meyer is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Chicago. In 1946 he joined the department of music at the University of Chicago and in 1975 was appointed professor of music and the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include Emotion and Meaning in Music, (1956), Music, the Arts, and Ideas (1967), Explaining Music (1973), Style and Music: Theory, History and Ideology (1989). Interview: AC, New York City, 12 December 1982.


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