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Ralph Shapey

I met Stefan in 1939, shortly after he came to America, at the Queen Street Settlement School in Philadelphia. I was about sixteen-and-a-half and was studying violin with Emanuel Zetlin. Well, the first meeting with Stefan was a harmony, theory class, and he gave us some kind of an examination, an ear training test. I had already had harmony, theory, counterpoint, and things of that sort, and I guess, as I tell my students, the young have a right to be arrogant. At one point I said, "Why don't you tune that piano, it's out of tune." He turns and says "Ach, ach, write, write, come write!" And he laughed and hovered over my shoulder. After the examination he asked me to stay after class, and he asked if I knew what it was all about. I had brought along a piece that I had already written, as I was already composing on my own. He looked over it, looked at it, and said, "Oh, this is very interesting. All right you want to study composition? I accept you as a composition student." So we arranged the first lesson. In the course of the lesson, I remember, he did not speak English very well. He had a dictionary with him, and he constantly interrupted to ask if he is using a word correctly, or the pronunciation. Perhaps the key to our relationship was grounded in that first lesson. At about halfway through he asked me to get him a glass of water. "Ach, slave, get me a glass of water." I got up, went to the door, stopped, turned around and said "Mr. Wolpe, I will be glad to get you a glass of water, but I am not your nor anyone's slave." He bent over backwards making apologies. When I was in Israel a few summers ago they asked me "What did you really learn from Wolpe?" and I said, "I don't know, I haven't the slightest idea. I can't say what I really learned from him, because I was very sure of what I wanted to do." Well, there were these studies, and then I wrote a piece called A Dream Within a Dream. That, combined with the fact that I became the assistant conductor of the National Youth Symphony Orchestra, got me thrown out of the Settlement School.

I went into the army when I was twenty-one then I came back in 1945, went to New York and contacted Stefan. Even in the army I had done some work, tried to write some things. I showed it to him and he said, "Ach, yes, yes, I remember, talent, yes of course I take you as a student." I remember he made an arrangement, because I had no money. I paid seven dollars a week for my room at West 122nd Street, right across the street from Juilliard, and a dollar a day for food. "So," he says, "Okay, we make an arrangement, you pay so much per week." I said, "So what does that mean?" "Well, what it means is that I give you a lesson and you pay for that lesson, and then if I want to see you two days later or three days later, two or three times during the week, no charge. That's my business." However, after a week or so, he demanded that I pay him for the extra lessons. I reminded him of his agreement, which he denied. I then borrowed money from a friend to pay him. It was a very distasteful moment between us. It was before we were able to get with him under a G.I. Bill in an accredited school of some sort. After I had written my Second String Quartet, which was finished in either '48 or '49, it was right around that period, I would say that from that point on I was not formally studying with him any longer. Even though I didn't study with him, I wrote the Quartet as a so-called friend and colleague. There were no longer formal week-by-week studies. He would call me, "Ach, come over, I just finished this work. I want you to see it." Or I would call him up and say, "Ah, I just finished this work. I want you to see it."

It's like his marriage. He and Irma probably loved each other very much, but they couldn't live together. It was the same thing between he and I. I was the only one who in all those years did any of his music, but the next day after a concert in which I had standing ovations and bravos, or maybe that same night, he called everybody and said that I killed his music. At a certain point our relationship was broken completely. There was no longer friendship of any kind, not real friendship. I continued that relationship on the basis of mutual need. My need was to establish what I can do, and this was the route to do it, because I was the only one that could do certain things. That's what Wolpe was to me, his music was a challenge. Despite everything, I was his real friend. He didn't believe me or trust me. I did not give him adoration. I gave him something else, I gave him honesty and truth, while everyone else gave him adoration, which he needed and demanded.

Some of our big fights occurred over notation, lining up and things. There was one rehearsal I remember that I took the score and threw it on the floor. I said, "If you ever hand me a score like that again, I'll never conduct it." When he wrote the [Violin] Sonata for [Frances] Magnes he borrowed a violin some place and got a sound that makes scratching in the throat, and said, "Ach, that's marvelous, I'm gonna use it." I said, "Stefan, what are you talking about? The violinist spends a lifetime to learn how to draw a beautiful tone and you're going to want them to break the violin? What's the matter with you?"

Cage he liked actually. I don't know if he liked him or because Cage gave him a certain adoration, or exactly what it was. There was also in his later works certain Cageian influences there's no question about that. He was very much in his last years with the Cage gang because he wanted to be avant garde. He couldn't stand not to be part of whatever is going on. He always had to incorporate that far-out type stuff because he couldn't stand it that they were doing something that he wasn't doing. Instead of being what he was really in his early days, like the Passacaglia for piano, which is a damn good piece of music, he always had to get involved in all kinds of shit, like with the Oboe Quartet, in which there were nails in glass jars, the percussionist rattled nails. They laughed their heads off and said, "What kind of shit is this?" And as the conductor I constantly had to battle the musicians. I had to say to the percussionist, "Okay, I'll agree with you it's silly, but once upon a time a composer demanded an anvil. Today you have a little steel bar which is the percussion instrument called the anvil. Isn't that so." This is how I got them past their own hatred against Wolpe in many of the things which he constantly demanded, which were ridiculous.

The first movement, "Early Morning Music," has a blank measure at the beginning and a blank measure at the end. I said, "But Stefan, I mean, exactly what do you want?" He said, "Well, it's like a parenthesis." "Okay, what do you mean by 'parenthesis'? The piece starts on the second measure." "No, the piece starts on the first measure. You have to conduct the first measure as if people were playing. Measure for nothing." "Well, all right and what about the end?" "Oh, you have to conduct that last measure as though people were playing but a silence." "Okay, if that's what you want, that's what you're going to get." From my knowledge of conducting, it should not have been done the way he wanted it. My argument here is not that he wanted this pause of silence as a kind of active pause. My contention is his demand, which made no sense. And he refused to let me do it the way it should be done. I think in this case the gesture meant the moment of pregnant silence, and then it starts, and then it ended on the pregnant silence. It makes no sense to me for the simple reason that any good conductor makes a pregnant silence before he starts the piece anyhow. To me it really had no special meaning. In the last movement the conductor suddenly had to go like that [hits foot on floor], a dance gig. I'll do anything that the composer wants, if I believe that it's really valid. So we had a big argument about it. Joe [Marx] was dead set against it because there was an oboe in it. Stefan wanted a kind of a dance-like impetus to suddenly start it off after a pause. So all right I'll give it to him. Well, they insisted that he had to take it out. I said, "I'll do it, I don't give a shit." They said, "No, that's ridiculous and it's stupid. Out with it. We won't play unless you take it out." They insisted. Leonard Bernstein was at the concert and we talked about it because he thought it was ridiculous. I showed him the score and explained it at the reception and at the gallery and said to talk to Wolpe, not to me. He is the composer and we had a big fight about it and he refused to listen and insisted that it be done that way. As a composer myself, despite knowing it was stupid, I did it because the composer felt it was important to him and the piece. We both shrugged our shoulders and laughed.

He was personality-wise filled with life, there's no question of that. One of the important things was he had a gesture, and he was interested in composing this gesture. There's that kind of virility in the music, there's no question of that. He knew what he was doing. He was not a good musician, though, is where the failure comes in. He gives me this score which you can't read and is all lined up incorrectly, everything is absolute chaos. How can I take this here and make sense out it? There were many fights about that, because I would do it a certain way, and then Wolpe, of course, instead of backing me up would back the musicians. The fact that they were wrong had nothing to do with it. He always backed them up. But I was the one who had to bring it to life. His music was a challenge.

I think the first and foremost thing that a composer or any artist has to do is to make an immediate impact. If there is complete understanding, then there's nothing else in there. You hear it a second and a third time and you're bored to tears because there's nothing else in there. But the fact is it should be complicated or abstruse enough so that upon repeated hearings you hear more and get more out of the work. A Beethoven work or a Brahms work, as an example, hits you with an immediacy. There's an immediate reaction, and I'm not talking about like or dislike now, I'm just talking about getting an emotional reaction immediately. Then based on your like or dislike, you might say, I want to hear it again and again, or I don't want to hear it again and again. But the so-called, pardon the expression, "modern" composers, with their big magazines, articles, and lectures in which they have to convince the audience ahead of time, or after the playing of a work, how great the work is, is nonsense, because the music has to speak for itself. It has to have an immediacy. Varèse had that, there's no question. I think on a certain level Wolpe had a certain immediacy of that generation. Actually even Sessions has somewhat that kind of immediacy.

I've always said Wolpe is my father in music, and Schoenberg is my grandfather. I say Schoenberg is my grandfather because many times I will use a row, but not in a pedantic way, I refuse to be pedantic about it. And that's true of Wolpe. It's a free kind of twelve-tone music, for me, and I think for Wolpe too. Of that I'm not completely sure because he did make graphs at times, and he did try to have all these intellectual things going on. He used to keep a notebook, and he would write all kinds of things in it, random thoughts. He would write them all down in these books as they occurred while he was working. He never let me look at it.

When I met Scherchen in Europe, his only question about Stefan Wolpe was: "How is he making out politically?" You know he was a communist, although I must admit we never got into any political discussions that I can recall. I had some of Wolpe's scores and tapes, but Scherchen didn't want to hear it, he didn't want to know his music. In London I had to twist arms desperately to get people to hear anything of his music. They weren't the least bit interested.

Ralph Shapey (1921-2002), studied violin with Emanuel Zetlin ad composition with Stefan Wolpe. He conducted the premieres of many Wolpe pieces. In 1954 he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago. From 1965 to 1985 he was professor of composition at that University, after which he joined the faculty of Queens College, New York. Interview: CB, New York City, July 1975.


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up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
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