In 1952, Stefan Wolpe was a middle-aged composer living in the thriving cultural cross-currents of New York's Greenwich village. He was in the process of shedding of his prewar European aesthetics and in his typically gruff manner was charging into a new and quite surly avant-garde road.
     Perhaps triggered by the theatrics of choreography as well as his own intense turmoil, Waltz for Merle became a minute and revealing self-portrait in which these experiences revealed themselves within the bizarre rhythms of waltzes and complexities of polyphony.
     The music presents the waltz as a metaphor for the hide-bound traditional-a musical conception that Wolpe had taken large doses of not only in his Proletarian and folk-inspired works but even in some of his strict serial works. Wolpe was oppressed by this formalism and with the liberation of 1945, he felt the need for  artistic freedom as well.
     Wolpe's own presence is felt in two ways. First, one feels his reactions to the music itself- at times boredom, at times, impatience, at times anger- where he can be seen rudely ignoring a dancers rhythmic affectation or engaging in canonical argument- and finally mad fury, where he simply cannot take the sheer banality and overturns the table, clears the dishes and sets a new musical menu. Second, Wolpe is painting a musical cameo of New York City, as the avant-garde sounds stem entirely from his experiences in downtown Manhattan.
     Wolpe achieves a grotesque and highly personal synthesis by means of parody-a part of his musical arsenal since his Berlin years. In Waltz, virtually all aspects of Viennese waltz come up for Wolpe's scorn and, at times violent, revenge. Indeed, the parody is so all-pervasive that one is not quite sure what is the ultimate object of Wolpe's mockery: Viennese culture, the waltz, affectation, or perhaps Wolpe himself.

     The very opening presents a Viennese curtain raiser consisting of three 4-bar phrases sounding rather like trumpet calls. These cheerful hemiola rhythms contain the three-note group and the six-pitch row that provides Wolpe with virtually all the material that he will need to both construct and destroy the waltz edifice.
     After a squashing together of the hemiola patterns leads to a half-cadence, we suddenly find ourselves, not in '90's Vienna, but in '50's New York. This is heard in the somewhat impolite and fast-paced downtown sound. One feels in a Village nightclub filled with smoke and hearing avant-garde jazz (which Wolpe was experiencing at this time). The right hand sounds like a xylophone, the left hand attacks like a snare drum. The syncopations float in mid-air.
     Even the impoliteness is somewhat impersonal. The treble starts in what is really 5/4 meter, or a graceful expansion of the opening hemiola; when it attempts to return to its 3/4 meter in ms.17 the left hand rudely continues the 5/4 sequence with a violent if impersonal slap in the face ending with an accent one beat later than the right hand's downbeat accent. Suddenly, a graceful Viennese rhythmic cliché appears out of nowhere in the treble (ms.18) which is a metamorphosis of the 3-note opening motive. This will become the mocking spirit throughout the work in this and numerous other shapes. After this motive is bandied about canonically, a new attempt at unity is initiated at bar 30.
     This quasi-A-flat Major tune, a Schubertian Valse Noble, maintains its grace for a few measures before Wolpe becomes edgy. By ms.34 and 35 the left hand will no longer end phrases with the right hand and they follow their separate paths to their next tryst at ms.38. This is the smoothest transformation of the opening yet and the dance-like grace is so ineffable that Wolpe's 16th note debates barely dampen the mood. Even this attempt dies down before the gloss of the Trio.
     The Trio provides the widest panorama of mindless ballroom pleasure as one sees couples gliding effortlessly over the floor accompanied by the clinking of champagne glasses. Wolpe conjures up a horn trio accompanied by luscious string pizzicatti and bird-like runs in the winds. The opening motive contracts and expands flirtatiously, but Wolpe's boredom and disgust are growing and nothing can prevent the music's eventual evaporation into musical emptiness. It is emotionally of a piece with tempi di minuetto from Music for a Dancer (1950) in which Wolpe's utter contempt for affectation is made evident. At a point where Strauss would cheerfully bring back his Blue Danube, Wolpe will have none of it. Rather, he appears as an avenging angel ready to purify the musical world of the decadence that it had been experiencing so shamelessly.
     After a sense of primitive groping towards the overarching leitmotive, it arrives-neither with a flourish nor with a twinkle, but with an explosion. The 3-note group initiates a violent jazz-like chaos in which Waltz is forsaken not only in spirit but even in meter. Unlike the Village café where cool jazz was heard, this is hot jazz whose coarse character and even melodic shape bring  a foretaste of the finale of the Saxophone Quartet of 1945. Here, one is finally  back in the world of Battle Piece, where the dichotomy between the hands is not merely banal, but fraught with peril. The music is utterly abstract as no attempt is made to create beats for dancer or listener. All one hears and feels are lines pulling frantically at one another in an empty void. Perhaps most violent is from bar 134 where the reintroduction of Waltz motives prepares the way for their dragging down to a kind of musical Purgatory. Bars 136 to 137 pave the way with mighty chords and then the motives is literally torn to shreds in various canons-ordinary, inverted, retrograde. In addition the duple meter of the opening Straussian hemiola holds full sway, so in the violence of the passage, the concept of waltz has been utterly demolished.
     From ms.151, Wolpe's parody is at its most surreal. In what is a barely noticeable return of the waltz, each strain is presented misshapen, as though pushed on stage by an uncaring stage manager. It is as though Wolpe were muttering "see what these pretentious Viennese gestures amount to now!" Virtually  every measure presents a wraith-like image of puppet-like dancers unaware of the state of the world around them, rather like Beckmann's Dance in Baden Baden. By ms.171 the waltz is triumphant as 3/4 reigns supreme and even the hemiola rests comfortably within its boundaries. When there is the faintest trace of itchiness by bar 193, as Wolpe sits on the opening pitches more and more stridently-even canonically- the ghost of the Trio overhead to calm any arguments and the dance dissolves, never to return.

     For the performer, Waltz presents the same pianistic challenges found in other Wolpe masterworks. Vast registral leaps, voices (often more than two) moving at metric and expressive cross-purposes, and a physicality that often requires one's whole body to take part in the performance all take place within five minutes of terse dance and make the challenges even greater. As with all of Wolpe's most challenging music, a performer's eyes must be largely free not only of the score, but also of the keyboard in order to focus upon phrase and touch.
     One specially relevant interpretative issue is that of "interpolation". In his preface to the Peer Edition of Battle Piece, David Tudor describes the concept as an interruption in the flow of the music by the sudden imposition of another musical line. This is a dramatic gesture which the performer highlights, in Battle Piece, often as a tug-of-war between two tempos. In Waltz it is especially valuable in the recapitulation where misshapen waltz lines come helter-skelter back into the picture. It needs bearing in mind that there is no precise definition for "interpolation" and, indeed, any performer uses various techniques such as agogic accents, rubato, subtle touch differences in all standard repertoire. To achieve the magical effect which Wolpe intended in the recapitulation, all of these techniques must be used to give each motive its separate personality (touch most of all). What is most challenging is that given the speed and whirling suddenness of change, only the most subtle use of rhythmic space, finger weight, crescendi, and variety of staccati have any chance of allowing this distinction to be felt. This is the challenge of Waltz and its greatest delight as well.


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