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ClassicsOnline Home » WOLPE: The Man from Midian / Violin Sonata
In his early career as a composer, Berlin-born Stefan Wolpe espoused social causes and wrote songs on revolutionary themes. With the rise of Nazism he moved to Palestine, where he taught musical theory at the Jerusalem Conservatory. His music of this period was the result ofan encounter between European cultural and historical ideas and Middle Eastern melodies and structures, as can be heard in his score for the ballet The Man from Midian. Wolpe described his Sonata for Violin and Piano, written after he had taken American citizenship, as ‘one of the first pieces which show my personal liberation’.
By David Denton
Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972)
The Man from Midian • Sonata for Violin and Piano
Born in Berlin, Stefan Wolpe studied at the Berlin Musikhochschule, had encouragement from Busoni and was associated with various left-wing groups in Germany, before the accession to power of the National Socialists. Taking refuge for the moment in Vienna, he studied with Anton Webern, but soon moved to Palestine, where he taught at the Conservatory in Jerusalem. In 1938 he moved to New York, his career in the United States involving him with a number of important musical institutions as an influential teacher.
The dancer and choreographer Eugene Loring commissioned Wolpe to compose the score for The Man from Midian for his company. The music was composed in January and February 1942, and the ballet was performed in April at the National Theater in New York, sharing the bill with Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid. Loring danced the title rôle in both ballets, with Walter Hendl and Arthur Gold providing the music at two pianos. The cast included the characters of Aaron, the brother of Moses, Miriam, his sister, Jocheved, his mother, Pharaoh, Pharaoh's daughter, Magicians, Israelites (Scene 1), Ladies in Waiting (Scene 2), and Taskmasters (Scene 4).
Loring was an innovative choreographer who stripped down plot and character to thematic essentials. His scenario for Billy the Kid packs the life of the protagonist into a half-hour span, and Winthrop Palmer's scenario for Moses does likewise. Loring provided Copland with a detailed breakdown of timings and suggestions for musical topics and probably did the same for Wolpe, which would explain why the music seems spare for scenes that are so eventful. Whereas Copland portrayed the American outlaw in episodes based on a series of cowboy ballads, Wolpe conceived of The Man from Midian as a set of developing variations. While in Palestine (1934-1938) he had opposed the practice of decking out folk melodies with the trappings of European concert music (the so-called 'Mediterranean style'). Wolpe incorporated diatonicism and dodecaphony in a continuous spectrum of resources, and The Man from Midian employs scales that range from seven-tone (diatonic), to eight-tone (octatonic), to twelve-tone (dodecaphonic). For the most part the harmonies derive from the octatonic scale of alternating half and whole steps that Wolpe adapted from an Arabic mode (or maqam). Wolpe said that his music of this period was the result of an encounter between historically bound European ideas and Middle Eastern melodies and structures. Wolpe's "faith" was far different from Schoenberg's, whose Moses bore the burden of wordless devotion to the Deity. Wolpe the Marxist had no use for religion as such. His Moses was not the philosopher-priest, but rather the political agent who strove to liberate his people from oppression.
The suite is basically a double theme and variations. The Overture presents the "Moses" theme of augmented triads, wide-spanned, striding gestures, and eruptive polyrhythms, while No. 2, Serfdom lamentation, introduces the "People" theme of stepwise melody within a narrow compass and simpler chords and rhythms. Nos. 3 and 4 develop the material of No. 2. The theme of No. 5 is a folk-like melody derived from D natural minor. The five pitches that complete the chromatic octave enter towards the end of the movement and link the diatonic and chromatic materials in an inclusive palette. No. 6 depicts Pharaoh's court with an energetic double fugue. The first theme is a crooked twelve-note figure in quarter notes and eighths, while the second theme, which scurries about in sixteenths, is based on the octatonic scale. No. 7, Moses among the Workers, combines slowly striding octaves in the bass with a stepwise, mournful melody in thirds. The struggle between Moses and the Taskmaster in No. 8 develops the material of No. 7 in a scene of intense conflict. One supposes that the violent chords at the slaying of the Taskmaster were provided at Loring's request. A coda slows down the action to end the first part.
No. 9 finds Moses in the wilderness communing with the Lord. Moses questions the Lord with material drawn from the Overture, while the Lord responds with quiet A flat major triads. Moses' protestations agitate the Lord until they come to a shared resolve on G minor. In No. 10 Aaron exhorts the People to accept Moses as their leader, and Moses parts the waters. The March through the Red Sea, No. 11, is the most extensive number of the work. The plodding, modal theme accumulates material at each iteration until it becomes fully chromatic and the movement reaches its powerful culmination. No. 12 Restlessness pits octatonic figures in eighth notes against chromatic figures in quarter notes. The same material fuels No. 13 Aaron's Desperation, No. 14 Joshua's Pleading, and No. 15 Bacchanal, which follow each other without pause. Moses appears with the tablets (No. 16) to the opening theme of the Overture laid out as a twelve-note series of rising thirds. This material is developed in No. 17, when Moses breaks the tablets. Moses commands the ringleaders to be killed to the same music as when he broke the tablets. The people depart for the Promised Land, No. 18, and leave Moses to his tragic fate. A noble melody sounds forth in enhanced B flat minor. The reprise of the melody is accompanied by rhythms that recall the marching-songs that Wolpe wrote in Berlin ten years before. The great liberator does not go gentle into the night.
Wolpe's orchestral version of the First Suite of The Man from Midian was first performed by Dmitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic in November 1951.
Wolpe took out United States citizenship in 1945. As he became acculturated to life in America he let go the need to reconcile his European background with his Jewish heritage. As Wolpe said to Eric Salzman, "It took me a long, long time to discover and rediscover my unity". The Violin Sonata was "one of the first pieces which show my personal liberation, or my personal restoration". Wolpe wrote a note on the Sonata in his idiosyncratic English:
I very much like to maintain the flexibility of sound structures (as one would try to draw into water). That leads me to the promotion of a very mobile polyphony in which the partials of the sound behave like river currents and a greater orbit spread-out is guaranteed to the sound, a greater circulatory agility (a greater momentum too). The sound gets the plasticity of figures of waves and the magneticism and the fluid elasticity of river currents, or the fire of gestures and the generative liveliness of all what is life (and Apollo and Dionysos, and the seasons of the heart, and the articulate fevers).
The first movement begins with two thematic constellations, the first, assertive and directed, the second, wide-ranging and zig-zag. The initial engagement extends for some fifty seconds and the movement continues in a mercurial dialectic. The action of the second movement is of warm, long-breathed, lyrical musings. The piano for the most part underlines the violin's variegated moods, only occasionally taking the lead or interposing a contrasting image. For the slow third movement the violin has languorous repeated notes, while the piano is more actively solicitous. A lively scherzo-like passage intervenes, followed by an abbreviated reprise of the opening material. After completing the Violin Sonata Wolpe noted in his diary that he had learned a lot from composing the piece, namely, how to incorporate older models so that they sound brand new, as in the manner of Picasso, where overlapping historical perspectives lead to "astounding, affecting, radiant things from olden times." The fourth movement begins in the playful spirit of the first movement, but with a more purposeful intent, almost a wide-striding march. The action slows for a romanza, a "radiant thing from olden times." A vigorous dance breaks in then broadens into a long-breathed song and cadenza. The piano and violin take off on a spirited chase and a dance that recalls the Middle Eastern hora. The violin soars free in a state of ecstasy that evokes the Hasidic niggun. At the time of writing the sonata Wolpe had fallen in love with the young poet Hilda Auerbach Morley, whom he married in 1952. It is tempting to view the sonata as a double portrait that celebrated their relationship, a pledge to the Beloved. Frances Magnes and David Tudor gave the first performance in Carnegie Recital Hall in November 1949.
Clarkson, Austin, ed. On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections. Hillsdale NY: Pendragon Press.
Recollections of Stefan Wolpe. http://www.wolpe.org. An oral history collection of interviews.
Stefan Wolpe, Das Ganze Überdenken: Vorträge über Musik 1935-1962. Edited by Thomas Phleps. Saarbrücken: Pfau Verlag.
"In conversation with Eric Salzman", The Musical Quarterly 83/3: 378-412 (1999).
For more information, see http://www.wolpe.org.
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WOLPE: The Man from Midian / Violin Sonata