The Music of Stefan Wolpe – Lecture, Recital, Discussion & Webcast

Written by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Richard Bernas introduced a well structured event devoted to Stefan Wolpe (1902-72) at Tate Modern (Starr Auditorium, 30 September) and chaired a round-table discussion after Wolpe’s Violin Sonata (1949) had been played by Mieko Kanno and Nicolas Hodges; the latter also played the daunting Battle Piece for piano (1943-47). The whole event is available online as a webcast on the Tate website.

Wolpe was a pioneer of Modernism in the New York scene of the 1940s and 50s – a close friend of such painters as de Kooning, Kline, Rothko and Tworkov – and he maintained a Bauhaus-influenced belief in the interchange between the arts. Born in Berlin, Wolpe had to leave Germany – a colourful life took him to many countries.

The leading Wolpe scholar, Austin Clarkson, introduced the music and the two daunting major works Wolpe’s ’maximalist’ middle period. Battle Piece is dense and relentless with conflict; the four-movement sonata has more transparent textures. Both require “enormous determination” on the part of performers and listeners. The pianist Katarina Wolpe, his daughter from Wolpe’s first marriage, distanced herself a little from her father’s music and its “excessive demands on everybody” in the discussion, admitting she was“not genetically determined to know what he meant” – she wished he would slow down sometimes, “let me in – stop for a minute.”

The evening offered an excellent introduction to an important and prolific if ’difficult’ composer. This invigorating occasion has been made permanently available on the Internet and readers are recommended to explore the whole event on-line. The Tate webcasts are optimised for people who connect from low-bandwidth Internet connections, which requires compromise. Within the remit of Tate’s “Interpretation and Education Programme”, and to make the archive accessible to as many people as possible, some concessions in terms of quality are necessary. For concerts or music productions, the policy is to attempt to keep the audio quality as good as possible, at the cost of some concessions in video quality. This I found eminently satisfactory, and enjoyed particularly the substantial violin sonata, well recorded with good sound quality, to be found at 1’07”-1’40” of the 2¼-hour webcast.

  • Stefan Wolpe is being celebrated through to December in a series of weekend Centenary Concerts organised by Katarina Wolpe at The Warehouse, Waterloo: 8/9 November & 6/7 December, one of the most extensive surveys of this challenging composer’s instrumental and chamber music. Tickets from RFH Box Office 0207 960 4242
  • Stefan Wolpe Society
  • Tate Webcasts
  • Tate Wolpe Event
  • Real One Player

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