[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Buffalo [1983]

by Morton Feldman

To have known Stefan Wolpe well would have benefitted greatly in equating the music to the man. His vitality alone was exceptional. After 35 years I still feel the sparks of his personal electricity when remembering my first lesson with him.

Along with his incredible vitality - it never seemed to subside - was a delicacy of manner which is also very much in his music - those abbreviated benign shapes of his that suddenly appear and leave off with a smile. There is nothing contradictory in all this. Wolpe was the kind of man who used all 88 notes of his personality.

He loved what was on the opposite side of the coin. He always talked about opposites, in fact, the Hegelian dialectic of unified opposites was essentially his compositional philosophy throughout his life.

Would a composition student guess that an understanding of both Hegel and Karl Marx could result in a very valid compositional concept? Listen carefully to the piano accompaniment of his Palestinian Songs for a glimpse of what I mean.

In pre-Hitler Germany Wolpe wrote militant songs for the real working class that sang them and loved them. He studied with Webern - he knew the painter Paul Klee - he utilized twelve-tone techniques. Though in disagreement, he was very friendly to John Cage. His intellectual appetite was boundless.

When I first went to study with Wolpe soon after finishing high school, I was just another smart kid who thought that writing music was some clever way of pushing notes around. I soon learned differently. The rules of the game were clear enough, but how to jump the hurdles were not. I learned it was a lie, that old dictum, "Rules are made to be broken." They were, in fact, obstacles to be jumped - that our musical history and the realities of note pushing into shapes and forms was a treacherous steeplechase.

You get a clear sense of this in his own music. It never settles, though organically its initial assumptions have nothing to worry about. Logic is more than walking a straight line, especially if there is an obstacle in front of you. Wolpe used these obstacles as part and parcel of his musical language. Though, as I have just remarked, they were referred to as opposites.

I took this overall concept with me in to my own music soon after finishing my studies with Wolpe. It was the basis of my graph music. For example: the time is given but not the pitch. Or, the pitch is given and not the rhythm. Or, in earlier notated pieces of mine the appearance of octaves and tonal intervals out of context to the overall harmonic language. I didn't exactly think of this as opposites - but Wolpe taught me to look on the other side of the coin.

Soon after beginning my studies with Wolpe he took a studio on New York's big proletarian promenade - 14 St. on the corner of 6th Ave. "Street Music" he would call what he was writing. He loved it down there - a beautiful balance between those faces out the window and all his artist friends a block or two away. Varèse was not too far from his window view. Both these men admired each other - and there are great similarities in both their personalities and music. With both Wolpe and Varèse you feel the idiom can barely contain the granite-like substance of its musical thought.

The String Quartet we heard last week and the two Forms for piano are of recent years, and the Hexachord, Oboe Sonata, and the Palestinian Songs date the period of his exile from Nazi Germany to Israel and finally settling in New York.2


  1. The undated holograph is written on two sheets of paper. Morton Feldman Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel. The remarks were prepared for a concert of Wolpe's music given at Buffalo in 1983.
  2. String Quartet (1969), Form (1959), Form IV: Broken Sequences (1969), Suite im Hexachord (1936), Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1941), Palestinian Songs (1936-38).
[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]