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Wolpe was born in Berlin. He attended the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory from the age of fourteen, and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1920-1921. He studied composition under Franz Schreker and was also a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. He also studied at the Bauhaus and met some of the dadaists, setting Kurt Schwitters's poem 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. 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 worker's unions and communist theatre groups. For these he made his style more accessible, incorporating elements of jazz and popular music. His songs became popular, rivaling those of Hanns Eisler.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Wolpe, a Jew and a convinced 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 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 in the United States of America. There, during the fifties, he associated with the abstract expressionist painters. He was introduced to them by his 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, Matthew Greenbaum, M. William Karlins, Roger Király, Robert D. Levin, Boyd McDonald, Ralph Shapey, Netty Simons, and David Tudor.
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 organisation. His work was radical, but avoided the punctualism of composers such as Pierre Boulez (in his works of 1951–53), instead employing more conventionally expressive gestures.
Wolpe developed Parkinson's disease in 1964, and died in New York City in 1972. Elliott Carter commemorated Wolpe with the following comment: "Comet-like radiance, conviction, fervent intensity, penetrating thought on many levels of seriousness and humor, combined with breathtaking adventurousness and originality, marked the inner and outer life of Stefan Wolpe, as they do his compositions."
For a complete list of works, see Wolpe.org Works List.
- Blues, large mixed ensemble
- Chamber Piece No. 1, chamber orchestra
- Chamber Piece No. 2, chamber orchestra
- Duo fur Zwei Geigen, violin duo
- From Here On Farther, mixed quartet
- Musik zu Hamlet, flute, clarinet and violoncello
- Piece for Two Instrumental Units, large mixed ensemble
- Piece in Three Parts for Piano and Sixteen Instruments
- Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion and Piano
- Seven Pieces for Three Pianos
- String Quartet
- Three Short Canons, viola and violoncello
- Three Studies from Music for Any Instruments, large mixed ensemble
- Trio in Two Parts, flute, violoncello and piano
- Symphony No. 1
- Zwei Studien fur Grosses Orchester
- An Anna Blume von Kurt Schwitters for piano and musical clown, high voice
- Cantata, medium voice and ensemble
- Decret No. 2 'An die Armee der Kunstler' , high voice
- Drei Lieder nach Bertolt Brecht, medium voice
- Drei Lieder nach Heinrich von Kleist, high voice
- Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus
- Fünf Lieder nach Friedrich Holderlin, medium or low voice
- Fünf Vertonungen aus "Gitanjali" von Rabindranath Tagore, medium voice
- Lieder mit Klavierbegleitung, various vocal ranges in one collection
- Music for the Theater, medium voice
- Psalm 64 and Isaiah Chapter 35, high voice
- Quintet with Voice, low voice
- Songs (1955-61), medium voice
- Street Music, low voice and ensemble
- Two Chinese Epitaphs, op. 25, mixed chorus
- Yigdal Cantata, low voice/mixed chorus and ensemble
- Zwei Lieder aus Gedichte von Berthold Viertel, medium voice
- Battle Piece (1942–1943, 1947)
- Enactments for Three Pianos
- Form (1959)
- Klaviermusik 1920-1929
- Leichte Klaviermusik aus Aller Welt: Israel
- March and Variations for Two Pianos
- Music for a Dancer
- Music for Any Instruments, Vol. I
- Piano Music 1939 - 1942
- Sechs Klavierstucke (1920-1929), Vol. 1
- Sechs Marche
- Sonate Nr. 1 "Stehende Musik"
- Toccata in Three Parts for Piano
- Waltz for Merle
- Schoene Geschichten
- Zeus und Elida: A Musical Grotesque
- Stefan Wolpe: Das Ganze überdenken. Vorträge über Musik 1935-1962 Hg. v. Thomas Phleps (Quellentexte zur Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts Bd. 7.1). Saarbrücken: PFAU-Verlag 2002, 262 S.
- Thomas Phleps: "An Anna Blume" - Ein vollchromatisiertes Liebesgedicht von Kurt Schwitters und Stefan Wolpe. In: Zwischen Aufklärung & Kulturindustrie. Festschrift für Georg Knepler zum 85. Geburtstag. Band I: Musik/Geschichte. Hg. v. Hanns-Werner Heister, Karin Heister-Grech u. Gerhart Scheit. Hamburg: von Bockel 1993, S. 157-177.
- Thomas Phleps: Stefan Wolpe – Von Dada, Anna & anderem. In: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 155. 3/1994, S. 22-26.
- Thomas Phleps: Stefan Wolpes "Stehende Musik". In: Dissonanz/Dissonance Nr. 41, August 1994, S. 9-14.
- Thomas Phleps: Stefan Wolpe – Drei kleinere Canons in der Umkehrung zweier 12tönig correspondierender Hexachorde für Viola und Violoncello op. 24a. In: Klassizistische Moderne. Eine Begleitpublikation zur Konzertreihe im Rahmen der Veranstaltungen "10 Jahre Paul Sacher Stiftung". Hg. v. Felix Meyer. Winterthur: Amadeus 1996, S. 143f.
- Thomas Phleps: Wo es der Musik die Sprache verschlägt... – "Zeus und Elida" und "Schöne Geschichten" von Stefan Wolpe. In: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 158. 6/1997, S. 48-51.
- Thomas Phleps: "Outsider im besten Sinne des Wortes". Stefan Wolpes Einblicke ins Komponieren in Darmstadt und anderswo. In ders. (Hg.): Stefan Wolpe: Das Ganze überdenken. Vorträge über Musik 1935-1962. (Quellentexte zur Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts Bd. 7.1). Saarbrücken: PFAU-Verlag 2002, S. 7-19.
- Thomas Phleps: Music Contents and Speech Contents in the Political Compositions of Eisler, Wolpe, and Vladimir Vogel. In: On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections. Ed. by Austin Clarkson (= Dimension & Diversity Series 6). Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press 2003, S. 59-73.
- Jeffrey Sussman: He Taught the Birds to Sing. Jewish Currents Magazine and The East Hampton Star.
- Home page of the Stefan Wolpe Society
- Peermusic Classical: Stefan Wolpe Composer's Publisher and Bio
- Thomas Phleps: Stefan Wolpe - Eine Einführung
- Thomas Phleps: Stefan Wolpes politische Musik
- Thomas Phleps: Schöne Geschichten und Zeus und Elida - Zwei Opern von Stefan Wolpe
- Stefan Wolpe in the German National Library catalogue
- Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends, Edited by Austin Clarkson
- Carol Baron research files on Stefan Wolpe, 1933-1976, 2009 Music Division, The New York Public Library.
- Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern: The Music of Stefan Wolpe (The evening's performers were pianist Nicolas Hodges and violinist Mieko Kanno. Leading Wolpe scholar Austin Clarkson and concert pianist Katherina Wolpe, the composer's daughter, took part in the discussion)
- Art of the States: Stefan Wolpe three works by the composer