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Reviewed by:
  • Ben Earle
On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections. Ed. by Austin Clarkson. pp. xii + 371; CD. Dimension & Diversity Series. (Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY, 2003, $42. ISBN 1-57647-083-0.)

Volume 18 of Adorno's Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main, 1970-86) preserves, among many other things, German scripts for two radio broadcasts from 1940 in which the philosopher introduced American audiences to performances of music by the (mainly Viennese) composers with whom his name is most closely associated. On 11 June, for example, listeners to the New York municipal station, WNYC, could have heard the Piano Sonata, Op. 1, by Berg and four songs by Mahler. But there was also music from a much less familiar source: the premiere of the central movements of a four-movement Sonata for oboe and piano (the work as a whole was still incomplete) by Stefan Wolpe (1902-72), a German Jewish composer who, like Adorno, had arrived in America two years previously. The occasion was not a success. For one thing, the programme ran over time, with the result that the Wolpe (which came at the end) was cut off in mid-flow. Worse: during the performance, Adorno was called away to take a phone call. It was the city's mayor, none other than Fiorello La Guardia. He was not happy. As Austin Clarkson takes up the story in his useful biographical introduction to this volume of essays, Adorno was told that 'if he played any more of that kind of music he [LaGuardia] would take the program off the air' (p. 16).

There is an element of farce here. But Wolpe was not amused: according to the pianist in the sonata, Trude Rittman, he 'had a fit'. Adorno returned from his encounter with authority 'looking very pale and disturbed'. Anyone sympathetic to the composer has to regard the broadcast as a minor calamity. The saddest part is that everything seemed to be going so well. Wolpe had the services of dedicated and skilled performers: the Oboe Sonata was written for his friend, the champion of contemporary music (and, during the composer's lifetime, his principal publisher) Josef Marx; Rittman was musical director for Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan. One doubts whether many were in a position to grasp the full significance of Adorno's words, but his ascription to the Oboe Sonata of the ability to reconstruct espressivo without recourse either to Romanticism or Expressionism—'not a note or chord here reveals an abyss of the soul' (GS, xviii. 582)—amounts to about as high praise as he was capable of giving. (Compare his comments on the Second Symphony of Ernst Krenek in Philosophie der neuen Musik, on which he was working at the same time (GS, xii. 121-2).) Best of all, from the perspective of an immigrant composer struggling to make his way in a new country, Wolpe had the attention of the most powerful man in New York. But it would probably have been better if the broadcast had never taken place. Empirical confirmation of Adornian theses regarding the hostility inevitably aroused in bourgeois audiences by authentically new music's refusal to [End Page 312] communicate would have been cold comfort to a man who wrote one of his major post-war avant- garde scores (the bebop-influenced Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion, and Piano (1950-4)) in celebration of the foundation of the People's Republic of China, and said of it, 'Es ist populism, and my personal human radicalism, mit offenen Armen gesungen' (p. 73). As his third wife, the poet Hilda Morley, recalled, Wolpe clung to the optimistic belief that 'art exists to help people'.

There is something unreal about Wolpe's career, as if he were less a historical figure than a character in a novel. The WNYC anecdote already gives a hint of the quality of his musical connections. Rarely was a composer in so many of what—with the benefit of hindsight—we can see as the right places at the right time, from the point of view not just of modernist and avant- garde musical composition but of the 'tradition of the new' in...


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