|Notes by David Holzman
Some of the advanced students performed early works of his such as Songs from The Hebrew or excerpts from Zemach Suite. They were beyond my ken, but even this experience of dissonance and complexity was an eye-opening glimpse of a new world which intrigued me. Mr. Wolpe left the school within a few years, and his name and music became a distant memory.
My interest and abilities in new music slowly evolved. West Side Story, Bartok and Barber quartets at Washington Irving High School, and Richter playing Prokofiev were my gentle guides. Soon, at the High School of Music and Art, I discovered the satisfactions of performing new works by student composers. My repertoire slowly broadened and, by the time I auditioned for the Mannes College of Music, I knew that the 20th Century was to be my musical life. Wolpe was still a hazy memory until my audition with Paul Jacobs. I recall his daunting presence as he ushered me in and told me brusquely "you have 15 minutes." Seeing the score I had brought, his sparkling eyes flashed and, with a sardonic smile, he commented "so you play Messiaen." That was enough to establish a teacher-student relationship. Then he asked me about my other experiences with 20th Century music. I mentioned my studies with Wolpe and suddenly the sparkle left his eyes and a dreamy and utterly unguarded expression took over his face. While the discussion about Wolpe as man and composer was brief, the dramatic change of expression stayed with me as I wondered what about Wolpe could cause such deep reverence from a man who, a moment previously, seemed so impervious to this emotion.
Despite the ripening of my interest and abilities under Jacobs, Wolpe's music was not yet part of my world. I recall seeing a few printed editions of piano works at Patelson's but the thin writing (and perhaps bland titles) never grabbed me as did Messiaen's effusions. Only upon entering New York's music scene as ensemble pianist with the Light Fantastic Players did Wolpe's music finally become a steady part of my musical diet. The rhythmic complexities and the subtle interactions between players were the central pleasures of the works. As with Paul Jacobs, there was a deep respect and love among my colleagues when playing these masterworks, a respect which was found for few other composers.
I began to look for Wolpe's scores, and was led to his widow, Irma, who gave me a tattered manuscript of Toccata. This proved the first step toward what has been a two-decade journey with Wolpe's solo keyboard works, a journey not yet completed but one which has shaped my musical personality, my pianism and my outlook on all of life.
Toccata provided me with a healthy introduction to Wolpe's demands. First and foremost was the barely legible handwriting that required a dedication of its own. Second was the clumsiness of the passagework due to the vast skips and chromatic textures. Toccata seems to have been inspired by the Busoni Toccata (the pervasive A-flat of the Wolpe seems almost a dedication to the A-flat minor of his neo-Classic mentor). While mastery came slowly and struggle was always present, I apparently did well enough in my performances to be rewarded by the even more tattered manuscript of Battle Piece.
As my black-and-blue fingers and shelf-shocked state at the end of each recording session can attest, one is dealing with an all-too-human performer facing an implacable keyboard. At times, one feels that maintaining the struggle is perhaps the truest victory. With a few ecstatic exceptions, one is faced with a brutal battle between the hands (and, at times, even the fingers of each hand). Each pursues its own path rhythmically, melodically and coloristically. Compromise is a moral impossibility.
In a purely formal sense, one is confronted with primeval rhythmic and harmonic forces which evolve over a monumental panorama. Three tonal centers with Mozartean overtones pervade the score - a demoniac D minor, a warm E-flat Major, and a desolate E minor. A Webernesque pattern of tritone-perfect fourth (A-D-G#) provides a serial cell which can expand for pages at a time. Rhythmic motives abound. There is a two-upbeat pattern present in the near chaotic triple-time movements (I and 7); a three-upbeat motive is central to the march-like movements (2 and 6); and there is an inexorable 3+3+2 which pervades the work. The conflict will at times put one element in a dominant position, but no harmonic pole or rhythmic pattern is ever vanquished and, by the end, the bleakness of the musical landscape shows perhaps most of all the mutual self-annihilation of these seemingly invincible powers.
The five years which Wolpe took to complete the work indicates that the battle was Wolpe's own. The youthful nihilism of Stehendemusik, the satire of Tango, the avant-garde serial pursuits of Passacaglia, the hunger for ethnic roots of Zemach Suite and other works of the years in Palestine, the political involvement of Good Spirit of' a Right Cause are all to be found in Battle Piece. What is unique is the effort to wrap all these disparate elements together in the creation of massive fresco in which one's human fears, hopes and (occasionally) mundane satisfactions are transcended and a vast sculpture is left, to be pondered, and feared.
The conflict is not always earthshaking. Movement 5 seems a gentle yiddish hak mir nit kain tsheinek rebuke to the almost Iberian lament of movement 2 (inspired by Picasso's Guernica) and the martial rhythms of Movement III. Wolpe himself gave the work a more personal foundation with his subtitle "battles, hopes, problems ... new battles, new hopes, no problems." Movement 7 is described as "crisis and lysis - summation" and it was difficult to comprehend precisely what the "summation" meant to Wolpe and what he wanted it to mean for the listener. In the contemporaneous Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen, the final movement is a second Louange a L'eternite de Jesus. Messiaen asks, in the preface, "pourquoi le deuxieme louange-" His answer is that it refers to Jesus the human rather than Jesus the god, and the sensuous harmonies and voluptuous melody are surely of the flesh.
For me, Wolpe's summation is not so much a "victory," as a surrender to his own mortality and a recognition of the vanity of human pretensions. The confident march rhythms and massively delineated sections of the earlier movements here grow more c6mpressed and the thrilling five-page ascent in the tenor creates a frightening chaos as frantic motives hover above. The climactic gestures in E-flat Major are surrounded by almost desperately short ghosts of past lines and patterns. The harmonic descent of the final page -- again with memories of movement 1 -- leads to a barren 'E-G'-- the only thing left of the vast sculpture, rather like Shelly's Ozymandias.
Wolpe would never again write "encouragements." All the personal and" musical ingredients would remain but would become more and more interior. He was no longer writing for the people, nor for the larger musical public, but only for his small, intact world and, ultimately, only for himself. I am reminded of Philip Roth's I Married A Communist, which focuses upon the political and social world of the 40's and beyond in America. It ends with the narrator living on a mountain and contemplating the inexorable patterns of the stars, beyond human control. He has seen people of fierce belief and moral strength cause as much damage as good, and he can no longer even pretend to hold on to firm beliefs, Wolpe, after decades of fierce ideological, ethnic and aesthetic pursuits, seems to be throwing up his hands and allowing the universe to take its own course. His only path is to cultivate the garden of his own creative genius.
Music For A Dancer led directly to another choreographed work, Waltz for Merle (1952). To my surprise, this short work pr6ved as great a challenge as Battle Piece and, to my great pleasure, provided equal satisfaction as well.
One feels almost from the opening hemiola that the battle has been fought and won, and that the losers (ie. Viennese culture) are being dragged before a court to meet their just desserts. Wolpe's avant-garde techniques provide the torture. Each waltz cliché is quickly contradicted by a viciously disruptive pattern, either rhythmic or contrapuntal. After ten measures of good-humored triple-time, the happy dancers are suddenly transplanted to a Greenwich Village nightclub where a jazz-like 5/8 takes over and various patterns seem suspended in mid-air, rather like puppets.
Wolpe presents the obligatory Straussian trio, here a fragrant line with lounging accompanying figures. Boredom quickly sets in and, after a dissipation of all direction, Wolpe yanks the bourgeois partners into the new world, where elegance is no longer tolerated. One hears an angry explosion, even disdaining triple time, as an Ellington-like fughetta provides - violent 'canon-fodder.' This climax is followed by an almost imperceptible recapitulation -- recognizable only by the pervasive six-note row that appears out of nowhere. Here, rather as in the finale of Battle Piece, all the earlier motives are hung out to dry - in viciously distorted shapes and with steady beats a mere memory. The quiet ending is not all these disparate elements, together in the creation of a massive fresco in which one's reconciliation, merely a recognition of the end of European cultural hegemony.
Within its five minutes, Waltz is at least as daunting as Battle Piece. Conflicts are here nuances, and dramatic gestures are here turned to imperceptible tonal and rhythmic transitions. The polyphonic conflicts, spacious leaps and thick chords are still present and are even more fearsome owing to the speed and grace with which they must be accomplished. Maintaining the struggle is no longer sufficient and, overcoming this challenge after years of work, I realized that it was not enough in Battle Piece either -- indeed, never enough!
Upon completion of Waltz, I gave myself a respite by perusing delicacies such as Gesang (one of five Adagios from 1920), Tango (an example of the dadaism which Wolpe always retained), Lied Anrede Hymnus Strophe (a birthday offering to Irma), Palestinian Notebook which consists largely of folk transcriptions, and The Good Spirit of a Right Cause, the proletarian prelude to Battle Piece. All are "tonal" but they exhibit vastly different aspects of tonality which make the word as nebulous as "atonality."
When Austin Clarkson suggested I look at Sonata No. 1, I was thrilled, as I had not known of its existence. It turned out to be a three-movement work whose first and second movements had been published separately by Josef Marx (the unfinished third movement had never been published). The work stems from a legendary concert by the Novembergruppe in Berlin in 1927. The title of this concert was "Stehendemusik" (music of stasis) and caused a riot among those present. It is not hard to understand why, as the violence of the Wolpe (and works by Stuckenschmidt and Dammert as well) was quite extraordinary even for those turbulent days.
The term "music of stasis" implies a stationary or motionless quality somewhat akin to the recent Minimalism. Wolpe's Sonata is in no sense minimal, but is rather maximal in its volume and rhythmic turbulence. This work was inspired less by the post-War nihilism of Berlin than by the new theories of such scientists as Einstein and Heisenberg. Time was now a fourth dimension and the sense of infinitely large and small units was palpable. This massive and impervious temporal dimension is present from the start. Harsh chords, rather like the ostinati of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, repeat themselves in seemingly random patterns and all direction is lost. Movement III is unfinished, but one would not know it, as it is a vast repetition of chordal clashes with no trace of either beginning or end. Movement 11 is, remarkably, for me the most intimate confession in all Wolpe's piano works. A clearly tonal work, this movement presents two lines, each of which is an understated lament. As the work progresses, each line goes its own way seemingly unaware of the other. Only at the end of the opening and closing sections is there a halting unity as a cadence is attempted, with less than complete success.
Zemach Suite presents a strange mirror-image to my original experience of Battle Piece. While making use of many of the same polyphonic techniques and emotional range as Battle Piece, Wolpe is here content to dwell upon the same color and mood for complete movements. The polyphonic divergences and harmonic ambiguities here seem to amplify the largely sunny terrain. Technical difficulties abound, as usual (especially in the Finale where one's feet are required to play the role of virtuosi). In Zemach Suite, however, they seem meant to be overcome by the pianist with a human amount of effort.
Zemach Suite is Wolpe at his most comfortable. All the works from the Palestinian years betray a happiness and security which was inspired by his presence in a new land, far away from Berlin, and not yet in New York, where economic and professional turmoil would return. "Mediterranean" (Wolpe's own word) elements abound. The melodic leitmotif is a traditional Jewish mode and the finale is a virtuoso hora. Busoni's neo-Classic influence is present in the Baroque structures, but an almost innocent effusion of communicative spirit is never lost. It should be noted that Complaint does not imply a petty problem, rather a spiritual illness. This is overcome by the dizzying energetic dance that follows.
It was Wolpe who taught me what a "gesture" implies. Pianism is like choreography or even athletics at its best. One cannot separate physical truth from aesthetic or emotional truth and one can only communicate this truth through one's body, after all the mental rigor of practicing. The very opening of Battle Piece provides a clear example - one which took years of thought and effort to fully understand.
The performer is faced with violent lines which lead irresistibly to single pitches, creating striking shapes and colors. One can only achieve this effect with strong arm attacks, finger articulation and a choreographed gesture which takes one directly to the climax and then continues onward without pause to take a breath. The challenge lies in the vast leaps and clumsy chords which one encounters. Any effort to mitigate the difficulty by "preparing" (a term I remember from an early teacher) the crucial note or by looking for a more comfortable hand position will create a loss in either rhythmic momentum or tonal strength, I gave myself the excuse of having thick fingers in order not to face the frightening thought of hitting wrong notes. I finally realized that, thick or not, I had no choice but to do Wolpe's bidding. Surprisingly, once I made this decision, the wrong notes ceased to appear.
Magnifying this problem is the independence of lines. While my fight hand reached its climax on a downbeat, the left hand reached its climax on a different beat and its own shape included a two-note phrase before moving forward. Thus, my left hands gesture was utterly opposed to that of my right hand. My arms would move in different directions and my choreographed gestures would create a dizzying sense of two beings in conflict -- the essence of the work. Countless hours of work on these two measures finally allowed for a fearless and utterly unself-conscious perfon-nance of this violent opening. As pianist Moritz Rosenthal said, "take chances." One cannot look in two places at once, let alone stare at the score. One must dive in bravely, only concerned with color and shape, i.e. expression.
The trio of Waltz is an even more challenging dilemma. One needs
a luscious tone for thick chordal melodies, while surrounding it with
cello pizzicati and high woodwinds. Again, one has no time to prepare
these widely spaced chords and the beauty of tone must come from a relaxed
arm and shoulder, not from close-to-the-keys finger or even wrist strokes.
The courage required consists in keeping one's ears open, one's eyes
closed and letting oneself feel that one has three hands, all independent.
This recording is dedicated with love to Agnes.