MUSIC / Cry Wolpe: Bayan Northcott surveys the career of Stefan Wolpe in the light of a new CD and forthcoming recital of his music

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The Independent Culture
THE NAME, at least, seems to turn up with increasing frequency these days - in books on modern music, Radio 3 programmes, and articles by enthusiasts such as this one. Nor is a representative selection of his output so difficult to assemble as of old. There have been a number of festival explorations in recent years, and a steady trickle of recordings - the latest, a most illuminating new CD anthology on the Koch International label. And next Sunday, 18 October, his daughter will be performing a substantial retrospective of his piano music at the ICA.

Indeed, if random soundings in America, at home and on the Continent are anything to go by, it would seem that among many younger and not-so-young contemporary musicians, Stefan Wolpe has come to rank high in the unofficial history of 20th-century music. Why, then, has he been so little acknowledged in the official view - as encapsulated in oh so many IRCAM and South Bank concert series - which tends to run: And Mahler begat Schoenberg, who begat Webern, who begat Boulez, who begat . . . ? Was Wolpe only a Modern Movement also-ran, as such cold-shouldering might imply? Worse still, was he merely a not-quite-together maverick, such as less than proficient performances of his more fiendishly tricky scores can sometimes suggest? Or is the failure of the concert promoters and the historians to process and pigeon-hole him, as they have managed with even such a maverick as Cage, a kind of tribute to his genuine and still bemusing radicalism?

The life itself touched on so many 20th-century trends and traumas, one feels that if Wolpe had never existed it would have been necessary to invent him. Born into a wealthy but philistine Jewish business family in Berlin in 1902, he had walked out for good by the age of 17 as part of the mass rebellion of German youth at the catastrophic end of the First World War. Soon, he found his way to Busoni, who advised him on his early pieces, and to the Bauhaus, where Paul Klee was teaching - and both masters were to remain lifelong inspirations. For the next dozen years Wolpe was to live the manic existence of an archetypal Weimar Republic radical, participating in Dadaistic, ultra-modern and left-wing movements while partly supporting himself and the first of his three wives by playing jazz piano in cabarets and cinemas. By the late 1920s, he was involved like Eisler and Weill in political theatre and had joined the Communists.

The triumph of Hitler in 1933 put a stop to all that, and Wolpe was more or less forced to flee for his life, pausing for a few months in Vienna to study with Webern and fetching up in Jerusalem, where for the next four years he taught at the Conservatory. At least this interlude in a relatively placid retreat enabled him to begin sorting out the teeming influences of his Berlin years, to enrich his resources through the study of the ethnic musics of the Middle East, and to indulge his lifelong commitment to communal ideals in writing simple choruses for the Kibbutzim. But, by 1939, the darkening Old World situation and his longing for a metropolitan culture had lured him to New York which, despite the endless burden of teaching it was to let him in for simply to survive, was to remain his base for the rest of his life.

Here, he duly found fresh excitement in the new worlds of the bop jazzmen, the Abstract Expressionist painters and, a little later, the literati of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he succeeded Cage as director of music from 1952 to 1956. After the war, his pupils included Morton Feldman, David Tudor and a number of jazz musicians, and he began to re-establish contact with Europe in a series of visits to that mecca of the 1950s avant-garde, the Darmstadt Summer School. Then, in 1963, at the height of his powers, he was struck down by Parkinson's Disease, which rapidly reduced his activities to an agonising slowness - little though one might guess this from the luminous spirit of the last pieces he managed to set down before his death in April 1972.

Such a disrupted life, such an evident openness to all manner of artistic stimuli, might easily have issued in a mere shifting eclecticism. Certainly, the surviving scores of his earlier decades are bewilderingly diverse. From the Berlin years date pieces of a Busoniesque sobriety and an Expressionist fury; Stravinskian stylisations of popular idioms alternate with Futurist tirades, Dadaistic capers with Socialist marching songs - while the Palestine years ran to a vernacular lyricism on the one hand and a quasi-serial constructivism on the other. Katharina Wolpe will be playing a substantial sample of the latter development in the grandly clangorous Passacaglia of 1936, while Anthony Korf's CD collection with his New York-based Parnassus Ensemble includes the tensely expressionist Music for Hamlet (1929), the skirlingly folkloristic To The Dancemaster (1938), the Berlin-echoing Three Lieder of Bertholt Brecht (1943), and the pugnacious Quartet for trumpet, saxophone, piano and percussion (1950), which sounds like a sparring session between Bartok and Charlie Parker.

But by this date, Wolpe was well advanced on a longer-term strategy to draw the most varied kinds of musical material - serious and popular, primitive and advanced, strict and free - into a single focus, a new synchronicity he categorically distinguished from the antithesis-synthesis procedures of traditional structure, and which was to culminate in the awesome complexities of Enactments for Three Pianos (1950-53) and the Symphony of 1956. The ICA recital will not only include a selection from the dozens of spontaneous little studies he scribbled in preparation for these masterpieces, but also the crystalline Form for piano (1959), with which he evolved beyond them into the essentialised, streamlined idiom of his final period. Korf's collection is especially valuable here, including the brightly faceted Piece in Two Parts for Six Players and the Piece for Two Instrumental Units, both of 1962, and the touching, final Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments (1971) in proficient readings missing only the last degree of visionary intensity and playfulness.

Yet, ultimately, it is the intensity and playfulness that transmute the best of Wolpe's multifarious syntheses into something precious: a unique expression of the struggles and joys of his own time and a perpetual catalyst to composers who continue to believe that the truly visionary can only be attained through effort and risk. In a typically exuberant 1959 'lecture-demonstration' on the creative process, entitled Thinking Twice, he warned his New York audience: 'Don't get backed too much into a reality that has fashioned your senses with too many realistic claims. When art promises you this sort of reliability, this sort of prognostic security, drop it . . . The form must be ripped endlessly open and self-renewed by interacting extremes of opposites.' And then, in a phrase that might be mistaken for Gertrude Stein but which should mean plenty to those who have tried to preserve their creative integrity amid the sonic onslaughts and theoretical counter-charges of 20th-century music: 'It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing.'

Wolpe recital, 8pm, Sunday 18 October: ICA Theatre, The Mall, London SW1 (box office 071-930 3647). Wolpe: Ensemble Works - Koch 3-7141-2H1

(Photograph omitted)