Stefan Wolpe, Berlin, ca. 1930
Revised Edition by Austin Clarkson (Presser)

The “Passacaglia” for Piano is Wolpe’s signature piece, a vision of dodecaphony for the socialist utopia. The conductor William Steinberg urged Wolpe to orchestrate the “Passacaglia,” but the Palestine Symphony turned down the score. It was not performed until 1983, eleven years after the composer’s death. The score and parts of the “Passacaglia for Orchestra” have been corrected on the basis of the new edition of “Four Studies on Basic Rows.”

“Passacaglia for Orchestra” 1937 (11:30)
Stefan Wolpe

The “Passacaglia” is the culmination of the “Four Studies on Basic Rows” in which Wolpe synthesized the dodecaphonic theory and practice of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern with that of Josef Matthias Hauer, the fourth Viennese pioneer of twelve-tone music. While studying with Webern in 1933, Wolpe composed a short “Pastorale in Form of a Passacaglia” a 12-note theme of thirds and tritones.

Preparing to compose the “Four Studies,” Wolpe devised source sets based on the eleven intervals from the minor second to the major seventh. He modeled the twelve-note sets on the hexachordal tropes of Hauer.

The first two Studies, “Study on Thirds” and “Presto furioso,” are based on the chromatic hexachord (Trope No. 1 of Hauer’s 44 Tropes), while “Study on Tritones”is based on a set of tritones (Hauer’s Trope No. 8). The full title of the “Passacaglia” is “Study on an All-interval Row in Conjunction with 11 Basic Rows.” The subject of 22 notes is in the form of a wedge that expands slowly from the minor second to the major seventh. A counter-theme adds 14 notes, so that the theme and counter-theme together comprise three 12-note collections. This thematic complex is treated to the Schoenbergian procedures of inversion, retrograde and transposition.

The variation design of the “Passacaglia” unfolds in five main actions:
The powerful architecture recalls the woodcut of a cathedral that Lyonel Feininger made for the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto (1919), in which Walter Gropius described the Bauhaus project as the “building of the future that will rise toward the heaven like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” For Wolpe, who had studied at the Bauhaus, the “Passacaglia” was a manifesto of his faith in dodecaphony and the emancipated interval as music for the socialist utopia.

Wolpe dedicated the “Passacaglia” to Edward Steuermann, a student of Busoni. Since no such virtuoso was then available in Palestine, he arranged the work for two pianos. When he and Irma Wolpe performed the “Passacaglia” at the Palestine Conservatoire, his colleagues let him know that twelve-tone music was neither needed nor wanted in Palestine. William Steinberg, who was conducting the Palestine Symphony, invited Wolpe to arrange the “Passacaglia” for orchestra. Working from the arrangement for two pianos, Wolpe orchestrated the piece in 1937, but the Symphony turned it down.

Ten years after Wolpe’s death in 1972, Charles Wuorinen, composer and conductor, organized the preparation of a new score and parts from the original manuscript of the “Passacaglia.” The new score was prepared with great care and performed in Carnegie Hall with Mr. Wuorinen conducting the American Composers’ Orchestra. The new edition incorporates corrections from the new edition of “Four Studies on Basic Rows” and from the two-piano arrangement of the “Passacaglia” from which Wolpe worked when he prepared the orchestration.