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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

One of the most poignant reactions was that of the German composer Stefan Wolpe (1902–72). An ardent Communist in “Weimar” Berlin, he followed the example of Hanns Eisler in renouncing his elite training for the sake of political activism, conducting choruses at demonstrations and rallies, and composing militant mass songs (Kampflieder) and revolutionary cantatas and oratorios. He first became famous in 1931 as the composer of the incidental score for Die Mausefalle (“The mousetrap”), the maiden production of Die Truppe 31, a workers’ theater collective led by the director Gustav von Wangenheim. It was scored for a shoestring cabaret “jazz” ensemble of trumpet, saxophone, piano, and percussion. Wolpe was actively promoted as an activist composer by the Comintern. His Kampflied “Ours Is the Future” (also known as Rote Soldaten or “Red Soldiers”) appeared in the New York Composers Collective's Workers Song Book No. 2 and many other Communist publications of the 1930s.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wolpe fled to Vienna, where he took some lessons in orchestration from Webern. In 1934 he went to Jerusalem to head the theory and composition faculty at the newly founded Palestine Conservatory. But Wolpe's continued, flamboyant commitment to leftist politics (flaunting red bandanas and preaching revolution to his pupils) cost him his job there and helped precipitate his move, in 1938, to the United States, where he was no longer in demand as a revolutionary. Instead, he carried on as a much sought-after private composition teacher. His works, too, grew more “private” and abstract (although they still often embodied tacit political programs).

After the war, Wolpe's retreat into abstraction continued, now in response to the suspicion with which left-leaning artists were held in America with the coming of the Cold War, but also in response to something else. Wolpe was painfully disillusioned by the postwar political crackdown in the Soviet Union and horrified by the persecution and humiliation of Prokofieff. In a sense his disillusion only confirmed and intensified his commitment to political and artistic avant-gardism; but the status quo he now opposed encompassed all entrenched power, which, he now saw, was by definition reactionary and intolerant of difference.

And so when he went back on a visit to his native Berlin, now the capital of “East Germany,” in 1957, Wolpe found himself unable to comply with an invitation from his old collaborator Wangenheim (now a decorated state-subsidized artist) to play over his old Kampflieder. In the postwar context such music no longer seemed to represent protest, but instead political hegemony and repression. And so, feigning forgetfulness, he played his host instead a recording of his two-movement Quartet (1950) for trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums, and was met with incomprehension.

Although the performing ensemble was the very same as the combo that used to accompany the Truppe 31 plays, which made the Quartet to that extent nostalgic, the musical content was altogether different. The jazz it now echoed was be-bop, a postwar New York elite or “avant-garde” style that many jazz lovers found as incomprehensible as their “classical” counterparts found twelve-tone music. And sure enough, the Quartet, like most of the music Wolpe had written in America (and would continue to write until his death) was composed using a modified twelve-tone technique, formerly the bête noire of all socially committed musicians.

Whether the lively second movement of Wolpe's Quartet (Ex. 1-2) was composed with a specific program in mind is open to question. Wolpe gave it two different story lines in conversation with different interviewers. On one occasion he said that it had been inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of children playing amid the rubble of the Spanish Civil War, a famous metaphor of optimism in the face of political catastrophe. On another, he said that it celebrated the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949 over the regime of Chiang Kai-shek (and that the grim first movement memorialized Mao Tse-tung's famous Long March, an equally potent symbol of resolution in the face of privation).

Either or both stories could be true, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the composer's inspiration. But the music no longer communicates with the directness of a Kampflied. A listener would be hard pressed to paraphrase its “message,” or guess its precise motivation, with any confidence. But if it thus frustrated willing listeners, it also frustrated would-be censors, and that may well have been the point. The hermeticism of Wolpe's postwar—or rather, Cold War—music was a deliberate and demonstrative refusal to comply with the directives of the Zhdanovshchina. And yet, the question nags, how did an artist with Wolpe's social conscience feel about a decision, however honestly arrived at, to insulate his artistic integrity within a music that eventually became so abstract that its content would be a riddle, its style so advanced that few except fellow musicians could take pleasure in it, and so demanding of its performers that almost no one could play it?

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001005.xml