Recollections About Composer Stefan Wolpe,
from an interview with his student,
M. William Karlins

By Bruce Duffie


Stefan Wolpe was born in Berlin on August 25, 1902. He attended the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory from the age of fourteen, and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1920–21. He studied composition under Franz Schreker, and was also a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. He also studied at the Bauhaus circa 1923, and met some of the dadaists, setting Kurt Schwitters's poem An Anna Blume to music.

In 1928, Wolpe's first opera, Zeus und Elida, premiered in Berlin. This soon was followed by two more operas in 1929, Schöne Geschichten and Anna Blume. In 1927, he married the artist Ola Okuniewska from Czechoslovakia. Their daughter, Katharina Wolpe was born in 1931, but the couple had separated. His wife escaped to London in 1938, but his daughter was a de facto orphan in Berne during the war.

The music Wolpe was writing between 1929 and 1933 was dissonant, using Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. However, possibly influenced by Paul Hindemith's concept of Gebrauchsmusik (music that serves a social function), and as an avid socialist, he wrote a number of pieces for workers' unions and communist theater groups. For these, he made his style more accessible, incorporating elements of jazz and popular music.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Wolpe, a Jew and a communist, fled the country, passing through Romania and Russia en route to Austria in 1933–34, where he met and studied with Anton Webern. He had left Germany with a Romanian pianist, and he married Irma Schoenberg in Vienna. He later moved to Palestine in 1934–38, where he wrote simple songs for the kibbutzim. The music he was writing for concert performance, however, remained complex and atonal. Partly because of this, his teaching contract with the Palestine Conservatoire was not renewed for the 1938–39 school year.


In 1938, Wolpe moved to New York City. He briefly met his daughter in London in 1946. There, during the fifties, he associated with the abstract expressionist painters. He was introduced to them by his third wife, the poet Hilda Morley. From 1952 to 1956 he was director of music at Black Mountain College. On January 24, 1956, he was appointed to the faculty at the C.W. Post College of Long Island University in Brookville, New York. He also lectured at the summer schools in Darmstadt in Germany. His pupils included Jack Behrens, Herbert Brün, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Matthew Greenbaum, John Carisi, M. William Karlins, Gil Evans, George Russell, Robert D. Levin, Boyd McDonald, Ralph Shapey, and Netty Simons.

His works from this time sometimes used the twelve-tone technique, were sometimes diatonic, were sometimes based on the Arabic scales (such as maqam saba) he had heard in Palestine, and sometimes employed some other method of tonal organization. Elliott Carter has said of Wolpe's music that, "he does everything wrong and it comes out right."

Wolpe developed Parkinson's disease in 1964, and died in New York City on April 4, 1972.

wolpe I had known composer M. William Karlins (1932-2005) since the early 1970s, when I was a Graduate Student in the School of Music at Northwestern University, where he had taught since 1967.  We did an interview early in 1992, in preparation for a program on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago celebrating his 60th birthday.  To read that interview, click HERE.

Later that year, we met again for the express purpose of discussing one of his teachers, Stefan Wolpe.  That was something unique in my experience.  Whichever guest I interviewed, it was my practice NOT to ask about other musicians.  When they brought up someone else, I allowed the guest to say what he or she wanted, but then quickly returned to the discussion of their own works and ideas.  However, in this one instance, I asked Karlins if he would be willing to speak about Wolpe, and he responded with enthusiasm.

Before I arrived, Karlins had jotted down some notes about details he wished to discuss, and in the end he was pleased that we spoke about each of those topics . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How long did you work with Wolpe?

M. William Karlins:   Actually, no more than three or four months, but this was a very interesting moment.  I studied with him when he had a seminar.  I did very little private instruction with him.  Very few of us did in this group, although I did show him my music.  I remember sitting with him alone, and talking to him.  He was discussing things with me, but we studied.  This was early in 1960 for about three months, and he had us get the Webern Opus 27, which is the Piano Variations.  We spent all three months without ever getting to page two of the score!  [Laughs]  Every note and every dynamic interested him so much, although I don’t recall that he was really a fan of Webern’s music, but a fan of Webern’s conception of composition and the way he wrote.

BD:   Could he have done that same kind of work with any other piece, or was it just that piece?

Karlins:   This piece was very special, because of the way Webern was heading towards serializing dynamics and other things.  Wolpe was such an interesting man in his own composition.  You can’t just say he serialized things like dynamics and articulations.  He did in a way in his later works, but he didn’t do them in the same way as Webern or Babbitt did.  It was his very own personal idea, and he loved to talk about Beethoven.  He was a pianist, and he loved the late Beethoven piano sonatas.  There were five of us at these sessions, which were one-hour sessions.  We paid five dollars each to come and have this one-hour session that lasted from 7 PM to 10 PM.  That was the one-hour!  [Both laugh]  His wife would come in with cognac if we wanted it.  It was just wonderful, and there were paintings all over.  He knew all of the great painters, and we would study the paintings.  They were up on his wall, and they were on his desk.  They were being studied by him.  Sometimes there were little miniature paintings that he was studying.

BD:   [Actually, with full seriousness]  Did he study the whole painting, or just little bits of the painting?

Karlins:   It’s very hard to know.  He just studied them because he was interested in the lines of the painting.  He was interested in the way painters worked, and he used that in his own composition.  But let’s go back to Beethoven.  He played, I believe, from the Hammerklavier, Opus 106.  There were times when he used other late Beethoven sonatas, so it was one these where there’s some rather abstract-sounding music, and the dynamics go from bursts of louds to very soft.  He played several for us.  He could play reasonably well, and it wasn’t a bad performance.  He just played some, and then he stopped.  He looked at us and asked,
“Well, what happens there?  We just couldn’t understand what he meant.  I’m sure that this was coming from one or two of the notes from the Webern Opus 27 piano piece that we were looking at, which reminded him to do this for us.  We were guessing around at certain things, and he said, “No, no, no!  I switched some of the dynamics.  Where Beethoven put piano, or pianissimo, I played forte and fortissimo.  You didn’t know the difference, did you?  We were all sitting there quite embarrassed, because he was trying to prove to us that it’s not so important that the dynamics are exactly what they are in the piecealthough it is important to the composer that he put them in these special placesbut that it is really very possible that Beethoven sat in front of this music and wondered if this should be loud, or should it be soft, and then made the decision.  It could have gone either way, and it still would have been that same piece.

BD:   But there must be the contrast between the loud and the soft.

wolpe Karlins:   That’s right.  Yes, the contrast is understood, but Wolpe taught us that it doesn’t have to be exactly where the master put it.  You can switch, just as you can switch notes.  We see this in many of the editions of the Bach fugues, for example.  In The Well-Tempered Clavier Fugues, you find that in certain spots there are editions with different notes.  They all fit into the harmony, but they are different notes.  Evidently one copyist copied one note, or one son copied a different one at a different time.  It’s still a great masterpiece.  There can be an E in that one spot, or it might be a G, but it’s still a great masterpiece, and this was his point.

BD:   Then should composers be so very exacting about how they want their scores performed?

Karlins:   Trying to recall what he said, he was type of person who believed that, in the long run, you should make your own decisions.  He was not all that sympathetic to his student, Morton Feldman.  He really did like him very much, but he couldn’t understand what he was doing.  I remember one conversation that I just sat in on.  It was right after a performance of one of Morty’s very quiet pieces.  In those days, it was considered rather a long piece, but by today’s five- and six-hour standards, it was not a long piece.  But nonetheless, it seemed like a very long piece, and it was all very quiet, and very little was happening.  He said,
Morty, you leave out so many of the parameters of the art!  Why do you do that?  He couldn’t understand that.

BD:   Who was right
the teacher or the student?

Karlins:   I think that they were both right.  Morty has his own aesthetic, and I think that Wolpe realized that this was a very gifted young man that he was talking to.  But I really think that Wolpe thought that this was not the way to write music.  This was not an aesthetic which was interesting, because he said to him
that it’s very boring.  That’s what he said.

BD:   Was he saying that this is not the way to do it, or was he making sure that Feldman, the student, knew that there were these other things that were possible?

Karlins:   Oh, Feldman knew it, and he was no longer Wolpe
s student, but a former student by then.  Feldman was mature enough to make the decisions.  If Wolpe was a little bit more dogmatic, he might have gone over to him and said, “You’re on the wrong road, but he wouldn’t say that.

BD:   Did Wolpe want other little Wolpes around, or did he want lots of different kinds of composers to come from his teaching?

Karlins:   That’s a terribly difficult question.  I wouldn’t go into names of any of my colleagues, but I know some little Wolpes, and I think that he was very delighted to have them.  I don’t know inside what he thought, and he was interested in people who seemed to be immediately influenced by what he did.  Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t matter, but I know there was a time when he didn’t like my music.  I think it was because he didn’t understand just how influenced I was by his music, because it was really going differently than some of the other people that were influenced by him.  But in the long run, especially after I left New York, he wrote me some very kind letters about pieces I sent to him.  There’s a very interesting story I can tell also about those days.  This was one of the few times I did have an actual private lesson with him.  When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, I was studying with Vittorio Giannini.  He was a good teacher, no doubt about it, but a very conservative man, and a very nice man, a sweet man to work with.  But he was a bit intolerant of what, in those days, you would just simply call
atonal music.

BD:   He wanted others to write in his style?

Karlins:   No, he wanted there to be a tonality in music.  He didn’t care whether it was sort of Straussian, or a combination of Strauss and Italian-type of music.  No, he really didn’t ask you to write in any style, but he just didn’t believe that music should be atonal, and especially twelve-tone.  What happened was that at that same time, Gunther Schuller was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, but he was not allowed to teach composition!

BD:   Why not???

Karlins:   I don’t know the politics of it, but I don’t think that Giannini and Schuller were on the same wavelength.  So I decided that I was going to take some lessons with Schuller.  I approached him, and he said he’d enjoy doing that.  I went up to Schuller’s house, and he looked at my First Concerto Grosso, which is a piece I still like very much, and it’s played now and then.  It works, and it keeps working after all of these years.  It was written around 1959/60, and he also looked at a piece that I wrote at the time for flute, violin, and cello.  A lot of groups were playing that at different places, and I was very happy about that.  While Schuller was critical of the Concerto Grosso, he liked this piece.  His criticisms had to do with things that I still don’t agree with.  [Laughs]  Then I went to Wolpe with these same pieces, and Wolpe was entirely uninterested in the Concerto Grosso because it had obvious attachments to late Stravinsky and early Stravinsky, and some other composers, but it is really out of that neo-classical mold you might say.  It does have some of the music of Symphony in Three Movements in it, of Threni, and things like that.  I was very influenced by that music at that time, which was 1959, but I still think it’s a strong piece today.  I like it, and it has some very personal things.  Wolpe was very interested in the Trio, which is a piece that I wouldn’t allow to be played anymore.  But when I look at the piece, I can see his interest because each one of the individual lines was more individual, in the way Carter talks about his music
each line having its own personality, and the lines would move through one another with some grace.  I’m not sure about that, and I’d have to go back and look at it.  But Wolpe thought so anyway, and he kept talking about the Trio.  So, when we were talking about the Concerto Grosso, he would say, Yes, it’s all right, but he wanted to get back to the Trio.  He kept telling me I should keep this, and he wanted to encourage me in that way.  In that sense, I was influenced by what he said about my Trio, even though I don’t like the piece anymore.  So it’s interesting that those two composers were both interested in different pieces because of their own views.

wolpe BD:   Does that influence you when you’re dealing with audiencesthat one piece will grab some of the audience, and another piece would grab a different part of that same audience?

Karlins:   Oh sure, and with critics, of course.

BD:   What about the historian?  Where does he fit into that?

Karlins:   You have to tell me!  [Both burst out laughing]  It’s a story that an historian would have to get into focus sometime a little later.

BD:   Let some time elapse?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Leon Stein, Gerard Schwarz, and Jorge Mester.]

Karlins:   Yes.

BD:   [At the time we were speaking (1992)...] This is now twenty years after Wolpe’s death.  Have we had enough time to really assess his music?

Karlins:   I think we really have had enough time.  The problem is that not enough people know of his music.

BD:   Why not?

Karlins:   He was not an organized man.  He really and truly didn’t remember everything that he wrote.  He wrote music and it would be lying around...

BD:   Finished or unfinished?

Karlins:   Finished and unfinished.  He didn’t remember a lot of music.  He wrote a lot of music, and he went through a lot of styles.  I knew Wolpe in his late stage, and I went to study with him because of this later stage.  It wasn’t until years after I’d left New York that I started to understand that he had written this kind of Gebrauchsmusik when he was in Palestine.  Even when he was in Berlin and he had joined the Communist Party, which was simply a kind of party where, from a musical point of view, you would write music for the people.  The people would find it easier to understand, and he got very into that.  He was also part of the Bauhaus movement.  He was a man who didn’t stand still.  There are some people who take great deal of pleasure in saying that from when I, Bill Karlins, was a young composer, until now, when I’m an old man, I’ve had one direction.  My music has become more or less complex as I’ve gotten older, but essentially I have moved from here to there.  Wolpe was even more of a style changer than Stravinsky, much more.

BD:   Is this to say that he was adopting the fad of the week?

Karlins:   There might have been something of that in his personality.  This doesn’t diminish the music, but there might have been something in him himself that enjoyed, or felt that he had to keep up; that it was important to do what was in the air, what was right on the edge of time.  But this real vitality went with this vital mind.

BD:   Was he trying to keep up because that’s where he wanted to go, or was he just afraid of being left behind?

Karlins:   That I really don’t know.  I was young, and he was older, and by the time I left New York, we were first starting to be equals.  So, I really don’t know exactly how to answer that question, but I do think there was a little bit of both.  I don’t think he liked the idea of being left behind.  He was a very dear friend of Edgard Varèse.  When you look at Varèse’s music, it is a singular kind of music.  I don’t mean to insult those who love Varèse, because I do.  Obviously, each piece is different, but when you hear a piece of Varèse, you almost always know this is a piece of Varèse.  When you hear Wolpe, and if you know what’s in the late music, as I did, I was amazed to hear the early music.  I didn’t know that he had written music like this.  I knew that he was influenced by Busoni and that he was influenced by Scriabin, and Webern for a while, and Schoenberg of course, but I didn’t know that he had written these cabaret pieces.  These are pieces that I hear in Israel now are still part of the culture.  They’re just the simple songs of the people that survived that way.


See my interviews with Alan Hovhaness, and Samuel Baron

wolpe BD:   You knew Wolpe towards the end of his life.  Was he still proud of the works that he had written ten, twenty, thirty, forty years previous?

Karlins:   I don’t know if it’s accurate, but what I recall is that I don’t remember hearing him talk about that.  He was talking about the present.  He was interested in his latest music, and he was interested in music of other composers that excited him.  He was interested in Ralph Shapey’s music.  He was interested in Howard Rovics
music, who was studying with him at the same time.  [Rovics named his son Stefan, after Wolpe.]  We were in that same class, as was Ursula Mamlok.

BD:   Was he expecting that all of his other pieces would have lives of their own, or was he disowning them as being something he didn’t want anymore?

Karlins:   Oh, no, I don’t think he was disowning them, but that is just speculation.  He was very interested in what he was doing, and he was dedicated to what he was doing.  He felt that he had to do it because it was the music of the time, of the moment, perhaps, but you have to forgive that.  If even we have to say that’s a fault, you have to forgive it in someone whose personality reflects that.  The man was so vigorous, especially if something new came along and it interested him tremendously.  It was not his mission to write music that he was writing in the
20s and the 30s.  His mission was to get excited about something new and write it, and he was uniquely himself when he did that.

BD:   He’d hear a new piece of music, or a new style, and learn about it, and then assimilate it?

Karlins:   That’s true, but it would come out to Wolpe.  You couldn’t guess who the influence was.  When I knew him, I did know right off that he was influenced by Scriabin, whether he told me or someone else.  It was obvious that this is a kind of music that could be influenced by Scriabin, but it didn’t sound like Scriabin.  He was a good musician, with good ears, and he would pick up on things.  He knew what he was listening to, and I would imagine he understood it vividly.  But when he composed, he had his own ideas.  I’ll tell you a story because this is something I remember from these lessons that I think about all the time, and this is the sign of a wonderful teacher.

BD:   Obviously it made a huge impact on you.

Karlins:   A lot of things he said made a tremendous impact.  We were in his home, which was up on West 70th Street, right off Broadway.  It was a second story of a brownstone house, and one day he trying to make his point about good counterpoint and good lines, and how a good piece works.  He was always saying that the notes don’t hit into one another, that they don’t hurt one another.  These lines were beautiful.  These lines were projectors in his music.  He was trying to discuss his music, and how he felt good music or good counterpoint could be written by us.  He went over to a big fish tank he had.  There were loads of fish, tropical fish, all kinds of fish, and they were absolutely quiet.  He walked over to it, and he flicked his finger against the side of the fish tank.  You can imagine the fish, they were all over the place.  Then he said,
“These are beautiful lines, and this is beautiful counterpoint.  You notice that the fish don’t hit into one another.  They don’t bang into one another.  They slide past one another.  They make wonderful trajectories.  Isn’t that beautiful?  Then you look at one of his scores, and it looks like that.  You see these lines moving, and you see that in much of his music he does things that other composers don’t do.  He leaves in the beams.  In his piano music, there’ll be beams going because he wants to show you the connections of the notes, so there are beams which are actually in the way.  They shouldn’t be there.  The music practically sounds the same without the beams, but he wants to show the line.

BD:   So they’re instructional rather than performing?

Karlins:   Absolutely, and they’re terribly difficult to read.  He did the same thing with another story, and it was not as effective.  He said to us,
“Have you ever been up to the Empire State Building, or any other tall building?  You go up there, and you look down.  What do you see?  You see thousands of people.  You see cars, and they don’t hit into one another.  They don’t have accidents, but when they do, it’s wrong.  But when they don’t, that’s good counterpoint.  That was not as effective as the fish tank story, but you genuinely hear that in his music.  You hear these lines, these fish moving past one another without hitting one another, but still being in the same tank, contained in the same piece.

BD:   Was he showing you certain fish, or was he making sure that you watch just the fish that are coming into your view?

wolpe Karlins:   No, he wasn’t specific that way.  He just said to look at that tank which was beautiful, and at these fish.  The important thing was that they were not hitting into one another.  That would have been bad.

BD:   His parameters were the edges of the tank and you could look at any part of the tank.  Is that the way it is with his music
can you listen to any part of the things he has written?

Karlins:   That’s right.  This is a bit speculative, but I do think what he was talking about was not a whole piece, but a moment in the piece.  But even if it was a whole piece, it really doesn’t matter.  It was a beautiful image, it really was.  He was always questioning values, and at the end of these one-hour lessons (that lasted a minimum of three hours), we would go across Broadway around 72nd Street where there was then a cafeteria.  It’s definitely not there anymore, but we used to go in and get a cup of coffee and something else, and we would sit down around at 10.30 PM, and be there until at least Midnight trying to figure out what just went on for the last three hours!  [Much laughter].  We were very fine thinkers, and we had many stimulating conversations because of that.

BD:   To use a very
70s phrase, it opened your minds?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Arthur Weisberg.]

Karlins:   Oh, indeed.  He did use the word
speculate often.  I remember he asked, “What does this mean in this Webern?  That’s why we never got past the first page or two.  We would talk about two or three notes, and how they were associated, and then he would speculate, What did he do?  What could he have done?  What could have happened?  He liked to speculate.

BD:   Okay, then let me to get you to speculate about him just a little bit more.  Suppose he had lived another five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years.  Where do you think his music would have gone?

Karlins:   I left New York in 1963...

BD:   So he essentially had another decade?

Karlins:   Yes, and I got some letters from him, and I saw him again.  It was really very touching when I saw him.  Ralph Shapey did an all-Wolpe concert very close to the time of Wolpe’s death.  He came to Chicago, and there was a concert at Mandel Hall of his music.  I remember Joseph Marx, from McGuinness & Marx publishing company, was a great oboe player that Varèse always used in his pieces.  Varèse thought that Joseph Marx was the most wonderful oboe player for his music, and Joseph came to take care of Wolpe because he was very sick at that time with Parkinson’s Disease.  His music wasn’t out there, and people didn’t get it.  I didn’t even get it.  He was such a disorganized man, and evidently Ralph got ahold of some of the new pieces, and I did hear some pieces at this concert that I had not heard before.  But it’s hard to speculate about what he would have done had he lived a little bit longer.  I think his last piece was in
71, and I didn’t know the later works until after he had died.  I was very close to the music that he wrote around middle-to-late 1950s to 1962 and 1963.  I was at the premieres of those pieces.

BD:   Were they well received?

Karlins:   Yes, because it was the
good audience, if you forgive my saying that, but you understand what I mean.  I’m trying not to be snobbish.

BD:   This was an audience which was interested in hearing the latest works?

Karlins:   Yes, it was the audience who wanted to come and hear this music.  That was at Columbia University.  It wasn’t at some of the fancy halls.  These were at the halls where the audience was interested, what you would call the
good audience for a composer.  I like it when the good audience comes, not the audience that doesn’t want to hear my music.

BD:   Did he write for the
good audience, or did he write for the general audience?

Karlins:   There’s this dichotomy with Wolpe for years and years.  For example, during those Palestine years and the Berlin years, he was writing for the worker, and some of the music is available on CD.  Some of the early piano pieces and songs are lovely.  Theyre good, and they’re strong.  Now who was he writing for?  They’re not for somebody who wants something really passive, even though they’re direct.  He did want people to like his music, but when you get old enoughand we all dowe realize that not everybody will like every new piece.  Now, when you say that you want everybody to like your music, you don’t really mean everybody, you mean all of the good people, meaning the people that want to share in this.  Those are the people that you want to be with.

wolpe BD:   Did he shake off the ideological view that Communism was good?

Karlins:   I don’t know.  We didn’t talk politics.  If we did, I don’t remember talking politics.  I got the feeling that he was just so interested in ideas that, like many people who think a good deal, if he felt Communism was not as good as he once thought it was, that he thought it was not all bad.  I think he saw what was good in it, and what was bad in it.  He seemed to be that type of person, but you would have to talk to his wives and other people that knew him more closely.

BD:   How many wives did he have?

Karlins:   He had three.  There was one that he married when he was in his twenties [Ola Okuniewska], and then he married Irma, who was a pianist.  I remember Irma from New York because she was there.  She was a pianist and an eminent piano teacher, and then when I knew him, he was married to Hilda.  Hilda was a poet, and she lived with him in the New York City apartment.  But Irma was around, and she and Hilda were friends.  Wolpe was one of those types of people, if you just simply understand that, that these women could still adore.  Maybe they were friends because of Stefan.  I was not too young, but I was a relatively young composer.  I heard Stefan’s music, and we went up to the master.  It was 1960, and it was still The Master, and that was wonderful.  I wish our students had that today.  There are no Stravinskys and there are no Stefan Wolpes living anymore.  It’s unfortunate, but then you went up to the master, and his wife was there, but you were the student.

BD:   You don’t feel that Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt are like that?

Karlins:   Elliott Carter, yes, I do feel that way to some extent.  But think of the way people think about masters today.  When I was young, in 1960, Hindemith was alive.  He was a master from before the Second World War, so that has something to do with it.  The master that was still perhaps the early wild Twentieth Century composer, but they were communicating, and they were well known by an awful lot of the population.  Stravinsky was alive, and was widely known as the man who had written The Rite of Spring.  I met Stravinsky, and I understand a lot of from Stravinsky.  There was Messiaen, who just died, but he was one of the younger composers coming up.  There were a lot of composers who were around.  Schoenberg had died in 1952, and Bartók in 1945.  Even Rachmaninoff and Strauss had died in the

BD:   Prokofiev died in 1953.

Karlins:   Yes, but if you go up to someone and ask them to say something about Igor Stravinsky, if they are in any way informed, they’ll say
“That’s the man who wrote The Rite of Spring.  But if they’re not so informed, I have known people who have confused him with Tchaikovsky.  But they still have an idea about him.  They recognize the name even if they completely confuse them.

BD:   Are you saying that all the composers who are around today have been dismissed by just about everyone except the real aficionados?

Karlins:   Yes, and there are reasons behind that.  It’s sad, and it gets into a whole conversation on the music business, and what the business has done to this.  These people don’t sell, and so you have a whole bunch of minor league composers that are writing simplistic music nowadays.

BD:   Because that
s what sells?

Karlins:   I don’t mean to be too cruel, and I don’t want to name any names, but it is not entirely their fault, especially the young ones, because they’re just emulating some teachers who are now making names for themselves because their music communicates so quickly.  Their music is so simplistic.

BD:   Did Wolpe ever talk to his students about the influences on him?

Karlins:   He did.  He spoke several times about going to study with Webern.  He enjoyed Webern.  He studied with Webern about as long as I studied with him
for about three months.  That was mostly because of Hitler.  He just had to get out of there.  I think he would have stayed longer because he enjoyed that.  He told us that he wanted to study with Webern because he wanted to study orchestration with him.  He said that, but I always got the feeling that there was more to it than that, especially studying the Webern Opus 27 with him.  He was really involved in the dynamics, and in the articulation, and the register, and then where a pitch was.  I’d heard of Wolpe, and I’m sure I’d heard of the music, but there was a flautist who was playing his Piece in Two Parts for Flute and Piano, which was a brand-new piece (1960).  I heard it at Carnegie Recital Hall, as it was called in those days.  It was the hall right next to Carnegie Hall.  It was dedicated to Severino Gazzelloni.  I heard the piece several times.  Harvey Sollberger and Charlie Wuorinen would do a wonderful job with it.  They really nailed it.  Anyway, Howard Rovics and I were at that concert together, and we were both walking down Sixth Avenue, and we said we had to go and find this man, and study with him.  And indeed, we did.

wolpe BD:   You’re saying that doesn’t happen todaythat youngsters, or even middle-agers, don’t hear a piece and decide they’ve got to study with the guy who wrote that?

Karlins:   No, I believe that happens.  What I’m saying is that reason or not, there are no living composers who’ve written a piece of music of the magnitude of Pierrot Lunaire, The Rite of Spring, or Mathis der Maler.  There just isn’t anyone like that, who has a piece that just crops up in orchestra programs or in chamber music programs the way those pieces crop up.  There isn’t anybody like that, and so no matter what piece you fall in love with, and decide that you’re going to study with that composer for, there’s still not that feeling that you’re either studying with a master, or someone who has studied with a master.  You could go to Yale and study with Hindemith in the
40s.  Easley Blackwood would go and study with him, and several other people went to study with him.  You studied with the master.

BD:   And you knew he was the master at that time?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Arthur Berger, and Gilbert Kalish.]

Karlins:   Oh yes.  Sure.

BD:   So, the good old days really were the good old days?

Karlins:   Yes, that is true.  No matter what people will say about the kind of music that came out of my generation, and the generation just before
Wolpe’s and people like thatwe had the feeling that we were continuing in the great tradition, from the master to us, and that one of us might also be a master... though it didn’t happen.  It happened, maybe a little bit, in Europe.  There was still Messiaen and Stockhausen and Boulez, and Berio.  In Europe there is some of that, but it’s still doesn’t have the impact that Stravinsky had.  We used to wait for the next piece of Stravinsky to come out.   I don’t know any students who are waiting for the next piece of a composer who has already written a great milestone piece.

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate again]  There are people who are waiting for the next Philip Glass piece...

Karlins:   Oh sure, there are, yes.

BD:   But that’s different?

Karlins:   I think so, yes.

BD:   Would Boulez have been as big as he is if weren’t also a fine conductor?

Karlins:   He may not have been, but he did have a fine reputation right at the beginning.  Le Marteau sans maître was the one that really made his reputation.  It came out on a recording on Columbia Records, and on the other side was the Stockhausen Zeitmass No 5.
  That was a woodwind quintet, but there was no French horn.  He used an English horn.  It was a wonderful piece.

BD:   Do you know why he would leave out the French horn?

Karlins:   I think it was a color consideration.  It was interesting that it came out on Columbia Records.  Stravinsky
s assistant, Robert Craft was in charge of this recording, and everybody bought it.  We were all very, very influenced by this because we were already in that tradition.  They were masters, and Stravinsky was a champion of this music.  He felt very strongly about these two composers, and if Stravinsky, the great master and writer of The Rite of Spring and the Symphony of Psalms, said this, and then you listened.  But somehow it didn’t work.


BD:   Do you think it’ll ever come back, or is it gone forever?

Karlins:   I don’t know.  Things work in cycles.  Before we started this conversation, we were talking about a book I have called Twentieth Century Composers on Fugue, that asked the question ‘Is the fugue dead?’  The question essentially being is the fugue a dead form, and great composers like Varèse say yes, while some minor composers say no.  The thing is that things are cyclical.  If a composer needs a fugue, he will use it.  Look what Beethoven did with the fugue.  It’s not what Bach did with it.  When he needed the fugue, he used the fugue.

[At this point, Karlins looked over his notes and related a couple of other items . . .]

***This is an interesting thing...  He didn
t do this with me, but people who studied with him over a long period of time would tell me that he would have them compose on the right side of the page, and leave the left side of the page blank.  They’d divide their page in half, and do their composing on the right side.  Then, when he would have the piece there, he loved to doodle on the left side, showing them all the different things that they could with the pitches that they had written down.

***Regarding his conception of twelve-tone, he said to me often that he didn’t like twelve-tone rows per se.  He liked to have all twelve tones, but the row should be longer.  What he meant was that he used to isolate groups of the row.  He would take, for example, the first three or four notes of a tone row, and circulate the notes over and over again.  Then he could add the fifth note, but if you write down these notes, if they have a genuine shape, they start to create long, long rows.  Toward the end of the row you have all twelve tones, but you have them circulating.  I’m sure that I saw rows of thirty-odd notes long.  At the end, of course, all twelve were there, but there was probably no spot where we could number from one to twelve at any point, and he liked that.  All of us that studied with him were very, very influenced by that, and I went to him because he was doing that.  I didn’t know that he was doing it because he hadn’t yet explained that to me.  I went to him because I heard in his music the circulation of pitches that was unfolding slowly, and I was doing that in my own music.  I wasn’t sure exactly how I could control all of this, and so that’s one of the things that fascinated me about him.  Still in my music today, there’s probably more than fifty per cent in which the notes are being circulated, or pieces of rows are being isolated, while the rest of the row is just being saved for some other time.

BD:   Thank you for sharing so many memories, and such valuable information about Wolpe.

Karlins:   It was my pleasure.  Thank you for doing this program, and helping to remember him.



See my interviews with George Rochberg, and Richard Wernick

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the home of M. William Karlins, in Northbrook, Illinois, on August 17, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and subsequently.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.