Stefan Wolpe was a composer of atonal works notable for providing one alternative mode of atonal writing to that developed by Schoenberg. Despite excursions into popular, folk, and jazz idioms at different periods, Wolpe continued to compose in atonal styles throughout times when he wrote other types of pieces. His works are often characterized by cross cutting and discontinuity between different musical gestures and textures, probably an influence of the artistic movement Dadaism, which relies on extremely sudden changes and incongruous juxtapositions. Wolpe was an influential teacher in the United States, where his pupils included Morton Feldman, George Shapey, and Charles Wuorinen.
Wolpe spent the early part of his life in Berlin, a stimulating artistic milieu in the 1920s and '30s. He associated there with the Bauhaus group, and was also influenced by Dadaism, from which he said he learned a lot. Whilst in Berlin, he studied composition with the expressionist composer Schreker, and became a devotee of Busoni. He supported himself as a jazz pianist in cabaret and cinemas.
Wolpe's early compositions use the 12-note serialist techniques of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Right from the outset, he seems to have used irregular rhythms and contrapuntal textures, and his music is notable for avoiding the texture of isolated points of sound (pointillism), which is associated with those original serialist composers. He was also influenced by jazz and popular dance music, in such pieces as Tango (1927), and his socialist convictions led him to reflect on the function of music in society. He believed at this point that music should be socially useful, and wrote worker's songs and pieces that satirized society. He also simplified his dense, atonal writing, to make it more accessible and readily understood by people without musical training.
When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Wolpe fled from the country, traveling through Russia and Rumania before staying in Vienna in 1933-1934 and studying there with Webern. From Vienna he moved on to Palestine, where he became more interested in his Jewish musical heritage, and absorbed certain traits of the local music, using them in such works as "Songs from the Hebrew" (1938) for soprano and piano, and the ballet suite "Man from Midian" (1942). He also wrote songs and choruses for the Kibbutz movement, several of which have become folk songs in Israel.
In 1938 Wolpe moved on to New York, where his mature style crystallized. He retained atonal writing, generally without serialism, but developed a technique of intense variation. In this a collection of pitches were displaced to become much higher or lower in pitch (or both), the rhythms through which they were expressed would change radically, as would instrumental color. Additionally, pitches not originally found in the group may be attracted towards it, changing its character. The forms of the pieces did not operate on the principle of contrasts between different sections, but rather evolved cumulatively. Important works from this period are "Enactments" (1950-1953) for three pianos, "Battle Piece" (1947) for solo piano, and the notorious "Symphony" (1956) which had to be renotated because the score was so difficult.
Wolpe's association with influential artists and musicians continued in America, where he had connections with New York jazz musicians and Abstract Expressionist painters. From 1952-1956 he taught at Black Mountain College whilst John Cage, David Tudor and Lou Harrison were also on the faculty. In the '50s and early '60s he regularly lectured at the Darmstadt Summer School. He contracted Parkinson's Disease in 1964, which proved fatal. ~ Rachel Campbell, Rovi