Stefan Wolpe: The Man from Midian / Violin Sonata

The Group for Contemporary Music


Stefan Wolpe: Dr. Einstein’s Address About Peace in the Atomic Era, Songs: 1920-1954

Patrick Mason, baritone; Robert Shannon, piano; Leah Summers, mezzo-soprano; Jacob Greenberg, piano; Leah Summers, mezzo-soprano; Jacob Greenberg, piano; Ashraf Sewailam, bass-baritone; Susan Grace, piano; Tony Arnold, soprano

Bridge Records

I’ve always been pretty fond of the music of Stefan Wolpe. His music is perhaps best known for his later serial works such as Piece in Two Parts, Form, Form IV, String Quartet, etc. This is music that focuses on rows that often have more than 12 tones, and while highly chromatic, is often quite melodic. In any case, Wolpe’s serial music is very different from the music of other serial composers, and fit in particularly well with other NYC composers like Ralph Shapey and Morton Feldman (both of whom studied with Wolpe).

The music on these two albums represents earlier efforts. In the case of The Man from Midian, this is ballet music for two pianos based on the story of Moses and was written a few years after he left British Mandate Palestine for the US. The music reveals Wolpe’s nascent style, which incorporates various elements from Palestinian music. Wolpe never approached Palestinian music in a way reminiscent of chinoiserie; rather, he found ways to incorporate Middle Eastern scales with his European-based approach. In other words, Wolpe melded several traditions together in a way that created something new, rather than something false. The Man from Midian is a very compelling piece, and quite distinct from Enactments, for three pianos. It is an easily approachable work, less dense than some of Wolpe’s later music, yet still complex in its use of various folk melodies and scales. The Violin Sonata, on the same Naxos disc, is quite a find. It was inspired to a large extent by his future wife, and is a very pleasant work that, at the same time, portends a lot of Wolpe’s more complex works that were yet to come. I would think of the Violin Sonata as a significant step in the composer’s evolution. The performances on this album are first-rate and clearly enthusiastic.

The Bridge album of various songs by Wolpe includes 18 world premieres. The languages span German, English, Hebrew and Yiddish. While Wolpe spent many years in Palestine after leaving his native Germany, his approach to Hebrew and Yiddish settings is secular rather than religious. In other words, he was interested in the Yiddish poetry from a cultural perspective, no different from that of any other language other than the fact that it represented his own heritage.

The most noteworthy piece on this very diverse album is the title track, Dr. Einstein’s Address About Peace in the Atomic Era. Written shortly after Truman announced plans to pursue the H-bomb (aka “The Super” in Edward Teller-speak) and Einstein spoke out against the bomb, this represents Wolpe’s outrage against nuclear proliferation and is a very moving work for baritone and piano.

The other song cycles are interesting for their variety. The Arrangements of Yiddish Folk Songs (1925) are exactly that, and are interesting in that they represent an earlier Wolpe style, but are also amazing for the time in which they were written. This is not “safe” or bland music, but clearly indicates a composer attuned to the music of his time. The songs struck me as reminiscent of some of Wolpe’s early piano music.

The remainder of this excellent album consists of Ten Early Songs (1920), Songs from the Hebrew (1938-54), Der faule Bauer mit seinen Hunden. Fabel von Hans Sachs (1926), and Epitaph (1938). All of these are of interest, and while my personal tastes perhaps run more to Wolpe’s later works, this is a very nice album to listen to. The performances appear definitive, which is good since with the exception of the Songs from the Hebrew, none of these have been previously recorded.

5 Responses to “Two Albums by Stefan Wolpe”
  1. Evan Johnson says:

    A niggling correction, David: Enactments (my favorite Wolpe piece) is for three pianos.

    I’ve got my own Naxos Wolpe disc sitting here waiting to be written up. I’ll get to it, Jerry, I promise…

  2. David Toub says:

    You’re correct, Evan—Enactments is indeed for three pianos, but for some reason, it has never sounded as dense as other works for multiple pianos so I keep thinking it’s really only two pianos. Thanks for reminding me!

    I went ahead and revised the post to reflect this correction—don’t want too many people reminded of my impending senility.

  3. Mark Berry says:

    Thanks for the attention paid to this Naxos Wolpe disc. You probably are aware of the other Group for Contemporary Music re-releases that Naxos has put out over the last year or so, but I thought I’d mention it.

  4. Evan Johnson says:

    The GCM rereleases on Naxos are a fantastic project. I do wish that the label had better – much better – taste in what contemporary music it chose to record fresh, however. Much of that stuff is truly awful.

  5. Mark Berry says:

    It’s funny, it looks as if there’s a similar discussion of aesthetic value going on in relation to the Huang Ruo review on Sequenza21 as well. I posted my own thoughts on this at The Naxos Blog: http://www.sequenza21.com/naxos

    Evan, I’d like to know what releases you think are good from Naxos and which are particularly bad. I have my own opinions but I’m always interested to hear from others.

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