About this Recording
8.559262 - WOLPE: String Quartet / Second Piece for Violin Alone / Trio in 2 Parts / Oboe Quartet
English  German 

Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972)
String Quartet • Trio • Second Piece for Violin Alone • Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano


Robert Mann, the first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, and Claus Adam, the cellist from 1955 to 1974, were students of Wolpe. Mann commissioned Wolpe to write a piece for the Quartet, and in 1950 Wolpe composed a set of twelve short studies. He began a string quartet proper, but the pencil sketch breaks off after four pages and the string quartet remained on his conscience for nearly twenty years. In 1968-69 an experimental drug treatment gave Wolpe a few months of remission from the symptoms of Parkinsonism and he composed the Quartet with the inscription, "To the magnificent Juilliard Quartet, a belated dedication". The Juilliard Quartet gave the première in Alice Tully Hall in October 1969.

The surface of Wolpe's late music is deceptive. Herbert Brün observed that if you listen from the outside, it all sounds the same, but inside "everything is exploding. You are full of stuff". Wolpe limited himself to a relatively simple palette of sounds. Other than pizzicato, harmonics, and a few glissandos he does not employ extended string techniques. The virtuosity of the music lies in the quick-silver cut and thrust of the diverse images. As he said to Eric Salzman, "If one observes what is happening in the world of forms, then the garbage can is as lucid an illustration as the ashtray, as everything around, if you have that widely open form sense which has established conscious experiences". In Wolpe's kaleidoscopic, through-the-looking-glass world there is no plot:

Opposites become complementary and allow the infinite and instant conversion of line into lines, into sounds, into varying quantities of action, from much to nothing, from nothing to little, from little to scarcely anything, from scarcely anything to a conjuring plenty of abandon … The piece feeds its own totality and brings everything into its focus. (Thinking Twice)

The Quartet and the Trio have Wolpe's trademark two-part form. In the Quartet the first part is moderate in tempo and the pitch circulation is slower, a predominantly gathering action, the shapes well-formed and the mode of thought introspective, directed, and stable. The second part is fast with a prevailing scattering action. The mode of thought is more disruptive, and the circulation of the twelve tones more rapid and disorderly. Where the material of the first part is made of segments of the chromatic scale, the second part derives its material from the octatonic scale, recalling the music of the Palestine period. The viola Fs that begin the first part and bring both parts to a close provide a point of reference for a continuous play between tonal and atonal references. The chaotic tendency intensifies until the music nearly runs off its rails. After a long pause comes the coda, which recalls the beginning of the movement. From out of the blue emerges a dance figure, a cadential move, and the viola's long-held F, as though that tonal centre has been there all along.

In his last years Wolpe was fascinated by classical modes of thought that he had at one time rejected. In this late work Wolpe reconciles the disjunct nature of moment form with the cohering tendencies of developing variation. He no longer prepared compositions with extensive charts. His colleague Raoul Pleskow said that Wolpe gave him the pages of the Quartet as he completed them so that he could darken the notes, because Wolpe's handwriting was now so faint. Wolpe composed without referring to what he had just written. The beguiling flow of the Quartet lies on the threshold between composition and improvisation.

Wolpe began his Trio in Two Parts for flute, cello and piano in 1963 while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Italy. He completed the first part in Rome and the second part after returning to New York in 1964. It was written at the invitation of Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen for the Group for Contemporary Music, and they gave the première with the cellist Joel Krosnick in November l964 in the McMillin (now the Miller) Theater at Columbia University.

During the 1960s Wolpe reduced the complexity of his music in order to clarify and intensify essential processes. While composing the first movement he wrote to a friend:

"I am working on the Trio for Wuorinen and write an amazing (that is I am amazed) piece of simple events in a less simple, syntactical environment … I have a horror of exaggerations and long-drawn-out grandeur (at this moment). I wonder about the un-weight of leaves, and letters, and facial expressions."

The first part of the Trio is the faster one. The basic material consists of various four-note shapes, each with its own harmonic coloration. The piano has the first shape, the flute and cello have the second, and the third appears after eighteen seconds with a low pizzicato in the cello. Wolpe sets these shapes in motion as if they are elements in a fantastic Calder mobile. The shapes shift and change, moving slowly or with dizzying speed to any part of the space. They dissolve into shards and coalesce to form larger shapes. The entropy changes from ordered to chaotic, as though the musicians are at times highly focused and controlled and at other times in a state of utmost freedom. The cello begins the second part with a shape that moves slowly but mutates quickly. The more relaxed ambience is underlined by the jazz-like striding bass figure that the cello begins at 1:48 and the other instruments pick up from time to time. The movement closes with the motion among the elements slowing down, as though the mobile that had been in motion finally comes to rest.

For the première of the Second Piece for Violin Alone, performed by Max Pollikoff at the 92nd Street YMHA in May 1966. Wolpe provided the following programme note:

Take these three notes G, A, and B, play them five times and then stop! Three notes found in the major scale—G, A, B—and played simply on the lowest string. Classical music, folk music, how many pieces start that way! How many pieces start that way and then take you on a musical journey, like a symphony, down the great Mississippi River from one state to another, from one region to another—levels, motion, development—how many! And then again, afterwards, how not to do it! How not to take that trip! Suppose you have a steady state in which you can elect to remain, but a state the parts of which can be rearranged endlessly, kaleidoscopically. Now let's start again! And then …

In the steady state the time flows in all directions at once, and everything is available at any given moment. As Wolpe wrote, "There is nothing to develop because everything is already there in reach of one's ears. If one has enough milk in the house, one doesn't go to the grocery store". The imagination goes where one intends it to go. "One is there where one directs oneself to be: on the back of a bird, inside of an apple, dancing on the sun's ray, speaking to Machaut, and holding the skeleton's hand of the incredible Cézanne - there is what there was and what there isn't is also" (Thinking Twice, 1959).

Wolpe began his Piece for Oboe, Cello, Piano and Percussion while residing at Black Mountain College. He had just finished the monumental Enactments for Three Pianos (1950-1953), in which he realised a musical "actionism" analogous to the "gestural realism" of the abstract expressionist painters. When he finished it, he described it as, "Compressed, 'handy,' tight, wild, fluctuous, sometimes moist and like burning air. My Enactments poured into a bottle". Wolpe was also responding to the challenge that John Cage presented with indeterminacy. Wolpe understood the message of Taoism, as he had been influenced by that philosophy in the early 1920s. He rejected chance, however, as he believed that composers should retain full responsibility for their choices. In a letter to his publisher, the oboist Josef Marx for whom he wrote the Piece, he wrote:

There are (I know, I am conscious of, I wanted it) situations which exist (as themselves) in many different ways and (always being right at a time) must be seen in their particular unstable, never crystallizable situation. Time-Schichten ohne Time-Axen (layers of time without any axis-like time-coordination of time).

The first movement, Early Morning Music, is a hushed happening of isolated figures, gestures, and sounds. The percussion includes biscuit tins, a kitchen grater, and rattles made from an aluminum pot and a glass jar containing long nails - found sounds from the College campus. Just before the end of the movement the cello has a call-like figure that spans the interval of a fifth and then sustains a hushed D. The piano reiterates a bird-like twittering in its highest register, while the oboe has a "call" and "echo" on a major third. The movement concludes in a state of suspended animation, "as if it hasn't ended yet". The second movement continues the process of the first movement while heightening the level of intensity. The third movement provides the purposeful, goal-directed, well-formed aspect of the work. Wolpe described the fourth movement as "multiple motions, quick, slow, hampered, expressive, popular, and with peopled speech". The opening is a collection of crudely dissociated elements. He inscribed the words "like chanting souls" beside a quasi-serioso duet of oboe and cello (1:03). The high-style duet is interrupted by sounds from the piano, the kitchen grater, and the biscuit tin. Wolpe's answer to Cage was to compose dada situations. The cellist sings an A. Pitched events combine with a flurry of non-pitched events: the oboist and pianist alternate singing and playing short patterns on a whole-tone scale. The pianist gets up from the bench and together with the percussionist they stamp their feet and clap their hands. The movement concludes with an outlandish parody of a Shostakovich presto that collapses in disarray. Ralph Shapey conducted the first performance of the Quartet in Philadelphia in May 1959.

Austin Clarkson


Further Reading

Clarkson, Austin, ed. On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections. Hillsdale NY: Pendragon Press, 2003.

Recollections of Stefan Wolpe. http://www.wolpe.org. An oral history collection of interviews.

Stefan Wolpe, Das Ganze Überdenken: Vorträge über Musik 1935-1962, edited by Thomas Phleps. Saarbrücken: Pfau Verlag, 2002.

"In conversation with Eric Salzman," The Musical Quarterly 83/3: 378-412 (1999).


For more information, see http://www.wolpe.org


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