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Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg

As I understand it, at some point [Leonard] Bernstein spoke to Wolpe and said that the Symphony clearly ought to be done, explained the inherent problem, then asked Wolpe if he would consent to have the Symphony re-notated. Now, it should be made very clear that the re-notation was supposed to be simply a facilitation. After all, the score is nothing that the listener directly hears. The score yields parts which stand in front of the orchestra players. It lies in front of the conductor who conducts it. But it is clearly possible to notate a composition in several different ways and still have it come out sounding the same. It was not to be the kind of job that Rimsky-Korsakov did on Musorgsky, straightening out clashing harmonies and things of that kind. As I understand it, and again this all predates my time with Wolpe, Wolpe was intensely suspicious of Bernstein and at first said no, he could not possibly work the piece over. But Bernstein was persistent and asked him, "Suppose we get you a collaborator?" And then Wolpe began to show certain signs of interest--again this is all hearsay from the Bernstein circle. When Bernstein mentioned the idea of a collaborator, Wolpe very cautiously said, "Well, whom do you suggest?" And then Bernstein began to think, and said, "It has to be someone who should know what is conductable, and it should also be somebody who could do the necessary calculations, to do the arithmetic transformations of note values necessary." And no sooner had these two requirements entered his head than he said, "Of course this means that it should be Stefan Mengelberg." Whereupon Wolpe said, "Who is Stefan Mengelberg?" And Bernstein said, "Supposing we send him to you and you can talk things over and see if you might wish to enter on this project." Wolpe said, "Fine." And through the Bernsteinian grapevine I was then told that there was a certain interest in getting this job done and would I be interested in doing it. It thought it was a fascinating idea, but I must report that an awful lot of people with whom I discussed it informally told me that I was completely crazy to consider it. They said, Wolpe will throw inkwells at you, and generally that he would be a terrible man to work with. He has an awful temper, and since you will be viewed as somebody who is basically tampering with or bowdlerizing his work, you will be behind the eight-ball from the beginnings. [...]

In those days the Wolpes were still living on 70th Street in a brownstone walkup. I remember going there. There was a long hallway that one walked to get to the Wolpe apartment front door. I remember being on that landing and seeing Wolpe standing there at the door, maybe twenty or thirty feet away, and I, my heart pounding. I didn't really know would I ever get out of there alive. And he was standing in the door as I came towards him, and said, "Here comes my savior." God, I was bowled over. I had expected at best being tolerated. So without another word, he leads me straight from the apartment door to the drafting table on which he worked. And there was the Symphony opened to the first page of the first movement. [...]

We went to the drafting table, and Wolpe said, "There it is." And I said, "Yes." And then, "What would you do about the first measure." No chit-chat, no small talk, straight from the bell. What would you do? So I told him what I would do about the first measure, and he said, "Go ahead." Which again seemed to me very strange, coming from the man who was going to throw inkwells at me. "And now, what would you do about the second measure?" So I told him what I would do about the second measure, and he said, "Out of the question!" I thought, now we have reached the point of resistance. However, he really objected to that specific solution, and he was not at all adamant or difficult to work with. And before I knew it, we had gone through the first, I would say, fifteen pages of that score and had come to the basic decisions about how to deal with it. So, two or three hours later we arrive at that point. and then I simply could not get myself to say, "Mr. Wolpe, I really came here to tell you that I cannot work with you until the fall." The moment for that would have been shortly after I walked in the door. So we scheduled appointment after appointment after appointment. No waiting until fall. And in that spring, to the best of my recollection, we had 22 or 23 sessions, each one of several hours, in which we discussed basically the re-notation of the Symphony. Bernstein funded this. I was paid $50 a session, and the figure of $650 sticks in my mind. So I think they paid for thirteen sessions, and I threw in the other nine.

Our agreements were memorialized in the form of instructions to a copyist. I did not actually re-bar the Symphony. I said to the copyist something such as, "Change this 5/32 bar into a 1/4 bar. Take one 32nd note into the next measure. Change certain accents. Change certain beams. perhaps make a quintuplet out of--." As I recall we wrote all of this on yellow legal-size sheets. The copyist was doing that work while we were still re-barring. It may have gone to the copyist when we were through with a movement. And the copyist then executed these instructions, in part working on the original transparencies, in part, when things got very bad, perhaps cutting out a measure and pasting another strip in, and things of that kind. And that was the spring of 1962.

My own ideas on his notation underwent a very drastic change in the first three or four afternoons that I worked with him. At first, when I saw the score, I thought this is all unnecessarily complex, not in the sense that somebody is simply writing something which is unnecessarily hard to execute, but that somebody's writing something which is more complex than his own creative processes would mandate regardless of execution difficulties. Complication which had no justification in terms of his own hearing of these things. And I could understand that somebody hears things in a very complex way but is oblivious to problems of execution difficulty. I thought it was so to speak somewhat artificially complex. And it became very clear to me within three or four sessions of working with him that this was absolutely not the case. I mean, Wolpe thought in these terms and heard these things this way. I remember once we had an argument about a sustained note, a note which was held through let us say a 7/4 measure, followed by a 5/32 measure, followed by a 9/16, followed by a 2/4 measure with a fermata on the second quarter so there was no pulse. And I simply could not understand why anybody would do that when simple a fermata with the word lunga might have done equally as well. And when I asked him, and by the way we very quickly fell into speaking German, "Ja, wer hört drt das denn?" He raised his finger and said, "Das hört Gott." And it was only semi-exaggerated and semi-facetious. What he meant is he heard it, not that he referred to himself as God, but these things were real to him. And consequently one had to be somewhat, I don't want to say deferential, but deferring to these notions of his. I think that kind of realization caused me perhaps to perform surgery which was more minimal than would have been if I had felt that much of this was simply empty artifice.

The same realization came to me when he simply spoke about his music. He had such a metaphorical way, and I'm tempted to say, metaphysical way of speaking about his music. As you probably know, I come out of a rather anti-metaphysical tradition, empiricism, logical positivism. I'm always inherently deeply suspicious of these things, and I wondered whether this was not all rather hyperinflated and empty verbiage. But it is very clear that these were the terms in which he actually thought. There was absolutely nothing phony about him. And while I would still say that this is not really my style, I felt that it had to be respected. There developed between us a very great personal fondness. He would often say, "Wie schön dass ich jemand Stefan nennen kann." [How nice that I can call someone else Stefan.] And then he would always refer to me as Stefan der Zweite [Stefan the Second], as if it were written in Roman numerals, like one emperor following another. And I think he had really very paternal feelings towards me.

The actual new score was probably all finished from the point of view of the copyist by early fall. At that point it was resubmitted to Bernstein, who, and I think this is a direct quote from him, said, it was immensely improved from the point of view of performability, and he decided then to schedule it with the Philharmonic for the '63-'64 season. He scheduled six weeks or so devoted almost principally to contemporary music. At some point in late '62 or early '63 Bernstein asked me whether now that I probably knew the Symphony and its present score more than anyone else, would I want to conduct it. And that of course is an offer which is extremely difficult to refuse. I would say in early 1963 I agreed to conduct those performances [...] Bernstein came over, and we began to have discussions, and at that point the idea was first raised that perhaps we would not try to play the whole Symphony. I think it was Bernstein, because I would not have suggested it. Quite apart from the admission of dropping the last movement, there was the question of how to allocate time to the other movements. Bernstein came to me and said, "You know, Wolpe is prepared to let the first movement be played as you have it now. So that you could spend essentially all your time on the second movement." I said, "Well, I'm not prepared to have the first movement played as it is now." Little by little these things were adjusted, and finally the decision was made. We did read through the third movement on the first day. We did it slightly under tempo, which was fiendishly difficult to conduct. All the same, there were some shouts of bravo as we got through. That last movement is a marvelous movement. Stefan used to say that it had to be played like Haydn, sort of joyous, open, bouncy.

Finally the decision was made to go for movements one and two, which of course reduced somewhat rehearsal time pressure. Bernstein's behavior in the whole things was absolutely magnificent, and he was very much maligned afterwards in an article in the Boston Globe. He not only began to take direct and immediate personal interest in the whole proceedings, but on Thursday, having had very little rehearsal time now himself, he kept giving me his rehearsal time. In fact, Thursday morning at the dress rehearsal, of which I was to have the first half and he the second, as I was going to leave, he said, "Stick around. I'm going to cut the Beethoven short, and I want you to go through the Symphony again at the end of the dress rehearsal. Just play it as if it were the concert." Leonard Bernstein can be as difficult as anybody under the sun, but in that week I really think he rose to very considerable heights.

In those days, he was still, at least on Thursday nights, speaking to the audience about the music. But during the contemporary music cycle he did that all four days, because he thought it was important. The personality of Bernstein served to defuse a certain amount of audience hostility, and his comments could be viewed essentially as a plea to the audience at least to give these pieces a fair hearing. On Wednesday morning he handed me a folder and said, "These are the remarks that I intend to make tomorrow about the Wolpe Symphony. I want you to go over them and check them with Wolpe to see if there's anything in these remarks that either you or he would tend to object to, because then I'll make the necessary adjustments." Basically he spoke simply of the difficult birth that the Symphony was having from the Rodgers and Hammerstein commission on to the present, and the crisis of the Symphony which was not rehearsable and crisis of the parts which were not playable. And then the fact that on Tuesday morning the rehearsals had turned out to be much more difficult. At the rehearsals Wolpe was not an active participant. He told me that he could not be. He said, "Please do not come and ask me about balances and so on. I simply cannot do that." He sat there debilitated by the illness. I did check with him the remarks, and we both agreed that there was nothing reprehensible.

He was one of the most intensely vibrant of human beings, really volcanic in his energy, with those wicked eyebrows always much in action. He was also given to making occasionally wicked remarks. I once asked him in general about how he saw his own music fitting into what you might call the great tradition, by which I mean basically the notions which until very recently have governed our view of art in civilization, which is to say as a way of communication from human being to human being. Essentially the question was, "Do you intend by means of your music to stir the passions of human beings?" He said, "Oh, no, for that I use something quite different." That's an absolute marvelous Wolpeism.

Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, a mathematician for IBM, also served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic (under Bernstein) and music director of the St. Louis Philharmonic. His expertise in both areas enabled him to devise a musical notation system for computers. President of Mannes College of Music from 1966-69, Bauer-Mengelberg subsequently practiced as a lawyer in New York City and Long Island. He passed away suddenly in 1996. Interview: AC, New York City, 6 December 1984.


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