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Plunging From Ecstasy to Ecstasy

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.”

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