Plunging From Ecstasy to Ecstasy

By Raphael Mostel

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If music is to reflect the world, believed composer Stefan Wolpe, it must grip the listener with its life-and-death struggle. As a result, Wolpe’s work is not music for light enjoyment. Far from being pretty or tuneful, his music is obstreperous and ferociously in-your-face argumentative, reflecting a bracing anger that has drawn the devotion of many major artists.

Passionately revered rather than reverentially loved, the cantankerous composer has been celebrated in this, the centenary year of his birth, with numerous concerts by devotees around the world. Just this past season the acclaimed pianist Peter Serkin (who named one of his own children Stefan) played two programs of Wolpe’s music in New York, and this year’s winner of the Indie Award for best classical piano solo recording is David Holzman’s impressive CD survey of three decades of Wolpe’s piano works, “Stefan Wolpe: Compositions for Piano (1920-1952).” On April 6, Wolpe’s centenary year came to a fitting conclusion with a daylong conference and concert at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, where Holzman is a professor.

Wolpe was a contrarian, not a compromiser. Irreconcilably conflicted, he was an avowed socialist who composed defiantly elitist music. He was perpetually an outsider, and proud of it. When pressed to choose between this or that group or principle, inevitably he would chose both –– or neither. One critic wrote that Wolpe “astonished listeners with the cyclopean power of his piano playing. He plunged from ecstasy to ecstasy, from extreme to extreme.” He himself requested that performers play his music with “vehemence, violent experiences, grimness, fury, resistance, faith, unremovable, unerring, ardently-fused, ardently argued to its very end.” His wife claimed he “wrecked every piano he played on and had an infallible way of making strings snap.”

Wolpe had good reason to be angry. Born in 1902, his adolescence coincided with World War I. He came of age in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s –– an amazing artistic period that coincided with the rise of fascism and antisemitism. He was mentored by the great pianist-composer-aesthetic theoretician Feruccio Busoni, who, while appreciating Wolpe’s intensities, pushed him to gain a greater understanding of form. Tutored at the Bauhaus, Wolpe was equally impressed by Dada and cabarets. He threw himself into the struggle against fascism, writing songs for agitprop troupes and workers’ unions, as well as communist theater and dance companies. But in the momentous year of 1933, when Hitler began to use his unchecked policing powers to set up a concentration camp at Dachau to house mass-arrested socialists and communists and to delegitimize political discussions across the board, Wolpe, a socialist and “degenerate” artist, saw the writing on the wall. He had the opportunity, means and wisdom to flee in time.

Wolpe found a new world in Palestine in 1934, where for five years he composed songs for kibbutzim and studied Arabic music as an antidote to his European training, while at the same time writing atonal concert works and teaching at the Jerusalem Conservatory. But he grew embittered, believing he was not sufficiently appreciated. The last straw came when his contract at the conservatory was not renewed. He left Palestine in 1938 and, like many fellow European Jewish refugees, moved to that other promised land, New York, where he eventually found himself in the thick of the avant-garde art explosion that was New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of its major personalities. He remained in New York until his death in 1972.

When I mentioned to Serkin that I was going to write about Wolpe for the Forward, he said, “Bless you! Thank you so much! But I bet they won’t dare print what an ardent and active anti-Zionist he was –– even though he lived and worked in Jerusalem.” Indeed, ever the contrarian, Wolpe questioned the wisdom of the establishment of the State of Israel and fought for the rights of Palestinian Arabs. But, so typically, at the very same time he also identified with his own Jewish heritage, composing a cantata, “Yigdal,” on the text by Maimonides, and other works based on the Psalms and Isaiah.

Throughout his 70 years, Wolpe remained a consistently and conscientiously confrontational composer for whom music was the ultimate form of expression. The title of the Tilles Center conference says it all: “Stefan Wolpe: Three Lands, One Language.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.