Irma Wolpe, Jerusalem, 1935
Revised Edition by Austin Clarkson and David Holzman

The sources of Wolpe’s “Four Studies on Basic Rows” lie in the pianism of Busoni and Scriabin, the dodecaphony of the Viennese Trinity, the color-interval theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Matthias Hauer, and the modernism of the Leningrad School of the 1920s and early 1930s. “Four Studies” was first published by Theodore Presser in 1974, but Wolpe died two years before and was unable to supervise the final proofs. The new edition, co-edited by Austin Clarkson and David Holzman, is based on a thorough review of all the sources. In the “Preface” Clarkson traces the sources of the Studies and Wolpe’s successive revisions, and in “Notes to the Performer” Holzman discusses form, passagework, rhythm, texture, touch, pedaling and expression. (See Interview with Austin Clarkson)

Wolpe escaped from Nazi-ruled Berlin in March of 1933 with the help of the Romanian pianist Irma Schoenberg. In May and June Wolpe visited Leningrad and was greatly impressed by the music that Shostakovich and other Leningrad modernists were writing for the socialist cause. He spent the fall in Vienna to study with Anton Webern, but was expelled from Austria at the end of the year. In 1934 he and Irma immigrated to British Mandate Palestine, where they were married. They lived in Jerusalem and taught at the Palestine Conservatoire.

In the fall of 1935 Wolpe began a set of interval studies based on the color-interval theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Matthias Hauer. Wolpe was greatly impressed by Hauer, who wrote that, “Everything purely musical resides in the interval. The essence of the interval is motion. The interval is a gesture.” Wolpe derived twelve-note rows based on all eleven intervals from the minor second to the major seventh on the model of Hauer’s twelve-note Tropes. He called them “basic” or “neutral” rows as distinct from the more characteristic rows of Schoenberg and Berg. Study No. 1, is a “Study on Tritones,” No. 2, “Study on Thirds,” is based on the chromatic hexachord, and No. 3, “Presto furioso,” is based on chromatic hexachords in contrary motion. The open form of the first three Studies is complemented by the closed form of the “Passacaglia.”

The subject of the “Passsacaglia” is a magnified version of the traditional “wedge”. The intervals from minor second to major seventh are expressed as pairs of notes that rise through two octaves. To that collection of 22 notes Wolpe added a collection of 14 notes to make a subject of 36 notes, that is, three sets of twelve-notes. Wolpe treated this massive subject to inversion, retrograde and transposition. The eleven interval rows orbit around the subject like planets. It was a bold synthesis of the ideas of Schoenberg and Hauer.

Irma Wolpe gave the first public performance of the “Passacaglia” in 1947. The reviewer for The New York Times wrote that “Mrs. Wolpe played the difficult work so that it sounded clear and expressive, and often oddly charming.” The next year, when her student David Tudor performed the “Passacaglia,” Olin Downes wrote of “a vast and striking design, with finely interrelated parts and a powerful summing up as a climax” (New York Times, April 21, 1948). When Tudor played the “Passacaglia” at Darmstadt in 1956, one critic noted that the piece was “a very important way of organizing freedom by means of structuring the intervals.”

The “Four Studies” were performed as a cycle by Irma Wolpe’s student Jacob Maxin, and more recently by Nicolas Hodges. This revised and corrected edition is based on an examination of all the sources and on David Holzman’s preparation of the Studies for the first integral recording on Bridge Records (2011).
Austin Clarkson

Wolpe, Berlin 1925
New Edition by Austin Clarkson (Presser)
Wolpe arranged the “Passacaglia” and “Presto Furioso” from the “Four Studies on Basic Rows” for two pianos so that he and Irma Wolpe could perform them. Further info here
Stefan Wolpe, Berlin, ca. 1920
New Edition by Sherri Jones
(Stefan Wolpe Society)

A pencil sketch for a Sonatina movement was found among the papers of the pianist Katharina Wolpe, the composer’s daughter. The date 1918 marks it as the lone survival of music from Wolpe’s teen years, as he destroyed most of the scores he composed before 1923. The pianist Sherri Jones, who specializes in music of the early 20th century, edited the score, which has many notational ambiguities. The piece gives an indication of Wolpe’s originality along with his love for Scriabin.