Quattro Mani Plays Stefan Wolpe


WP 2019 - 2WOLPE: March & Variations. The Man from Midian, Ballet Suite. 2 Studies on Basic Rows / Quattro Mani / Bridge 9516

My regular readers know that I tend to stay away from duo-piano acts in my reviews, but I make exceptions for those who are outstanding musicians and who play interesting music. The duo of Caroline Clemmow and the late Anthony Goldstone was one of these, and Quattro Mani is another. Here the latter tackles the duo-piano music of Stefan Wolpe, mostly written fairly early in his career.

Wolpe was sort of an anomaly among German composers of his time: involved in the new trends in music but clearly not married to the 12-tone school. His music did sometimes use 12-tone, but not often and certainly not consistently. It was, however, very modern in harmony the way Hindemith and Bartók were, but with more chromatic movement and a few more tone clusters. And, as his musical children’s fable Lazy Andy Ant shows, he could simplify his music to a point where it was quite accessible to average ears without resorting to cheap solutions.

He was, however, a Communist at heart, thus it is not surprising that the 1932-33 March & Variations were written for himself and his newfound friend, pianist Irma Schoenberg (no relation to the famous composer) to perform in support of the resistance, which by the latter year had taken on a very real and nasty reality in the form of Hitler and the Nazis. Interestingly, it was one of Arnold Schoenberg’s closest friends and disciples, Anton Webern, who objected the most strenuously to this piece, damning it for its appeal to populist tastes and defending “the autonomy of absolute music,” as the booklet informs us. Although I liked this piece very much, I like it on its own terms as music. Philosophically, I have to agree with Webern. Any art that subjugates itself to a political cause, regardless of the side it is on, is inevitably doomed to be dated and eventually marginalized. This is the lesson that Diego Rivera learned only too late after painting several Lenin- and Stalin-inspired Communist murals in Mexico, and a lesson that the very gifted composer Erwin Schulhoff apparently ignored when he wrote his musical version of the Communist Manifesto. FYI, I don’t want to hear musical treatments of right-wing propaganda any more than I want to hear the other side. You can make your points talking to like-minded individuals about your beliefs or even writing political articles. Leave music and art out of the equation, thank you.

Fortunately, as I say, we can enjoy this piece as music, for there is clearly enough in it to capture the imagination. Wolpe said in a lecture that “the theme develops its own motives and thus combines the resolute character of the hero with his drive for transformation.” The variations are brilliant and fascinating, but as mentioned earlier they are not dodecaphonic.

The ballet score The Man from Midian was written in 1942 for a work by poet, dance critic and, yes, another social activist, Winthrop Bushnell Palmer, who politicized the life of Moses. Originally Eugene Loring, who had choreographed Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, was to do the staging for the Ballet Theatre of New York and Darius Milhaud was to be the composer, but problems set in. The management refused to schedule the work for performance, possibly due to its political propagandizing, Loring founded his own ballet company, but since Ballet Theatre owned the rights to Milhaud’s music he turned to Wolpe, who wrote the music for two pianos in just two months. Doris Rosenthal was the new set and costume designer. The ballet opened at New York’s National Theater in April 1942 and received a scant six performances before disappearing. What I found interesting is that, in his score, Wolpe consciously avoided many references to Jewish or Hebraic music though the “Procession” in D minor is described as “typical of Palestinian pioneer songs from the 1920s.” It is resolutely modern, somewhat more challenging to listeners than the March but still accessible in places, yet there are many passages that one does not “hear” as dance music. Or, at least, that is how it strikes my ears. It’s good music but not what one would call “balletic,” and clearly not as accessible to lay ears as the March, which may be one reason why it only lasted six performances. The “March to the Sea” is a restless bitonal piece with very dense writing for the two pianos, while “Restlessness” has a constantly running bass line that propels it rhythmically but not, in my mind, in a dance-like rhythm. The “Bacchanal” almost sounds to me like a classical version of boogie-woogie. The accompanying booklet, however, includes seven remarkable pictures of the ballet dancers by noted photographer Fritz Henle. The costumes and poses of the dancers were very much in the modern style of that era.

Wolpe balletThe 2 Studies on Basic Rows from 1935-36 is resolutely 12-tone. Originally written for solo piano, these are its first recordings in a duo-piano version. Wolpe described it as laying the foundation for “grander, musikantisch (more musical) 12-tone music,” influenced by Josef Matthias Hauer’s theory that “the interval is the container of everything purely musical: the interval is a gesture; its essence is motion.” Wolpe wrote four studies: No. 1 was based on a row of minor seconds and thirds and No. 2 on a row of tritones and perfect fourths. These are not included in this recording. Rather, we get the last two and most complex of them. No. 3 is a “Presto furioso,” built around a series of expanding and contracting intervals, while No. 4 is a “Passacaglia” that uses all eleven basic rows of music. This latter piece is so complex that Wolpe wrote it on three and even four staves. William Steinberg invited the composer to arrange it for orchestra, which he did, but the musicians of the Palestine Symphony hated it and refused to perform it.


Four bars from Wolpe’s “Passacaglia”

Yet it is this passacaglia that is the climax of this brilliant album. The heart of the piece is a ricerare in which the theme is tossed into a web of basic tone rows and changed via repetitions. It almost takes on a moto perpetuo that drives it inexorably forward, at least until the final coda in which Wolpe suddenly pulls back the tempo, introduces several pauses, and ends on a soft, dying note, almost of hopelessness.

In all of this whirlwind of music, Quattro Mani plays with a clear style, great forward momentum and energy. It is an excellent entry in Bridge’s ongoing Stefan Wolpe series.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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