Stefan Wolpe is undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures in recent musical history. His music cannot be assigned to any one school or movement; it is replete with contradictions. The most diverse influences and trends – from jazz to highly complex serial techniques – can be detected in his works.
Born in Berlin in 1902, he studied briefly with Paul Juon and Franz Schreker. Impulses emanating from Ferruccio Busoni were of course incomparably more important; yet, above all, Wolpe was stimulated by the visual artists of the Bauhaus in Weimar where, as a young man, he attended lectures courses by Johannes Itten and Paul Klee, among others; by Dadaists such as Kurt Schwitters; and by his experiences as a member of the November Group, a radical association of artists in Berlin, for which Wolpe organized concerts and performances as a pianist.
In 1933 the Nazi regime’s takeover of power forced Wolpe to flee Berlin. First he emigrated to Jerusalem, where he taught at the conservatory from 1934 to 1938 and, simultaneously, as "musical instructor" on a kibbutz. It was also during these first years of exile that Wolpe completed short but intense courses of study with Anton Webern in Vienna and Hermann Scherchen in Brussels.
In 1938 he emigrated to America. He lived New York from that time onward and taught at various institutes. Wolpe took an interest in very diverse groups, for example, the Abstract Expressionists (i.e., Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko) as well as in jazz musicians and his colleagues Edgard Varèse and John Cage.
The years he spent at Black Mountain College, a progressive school of arts in the mountains of North Carolina, where he taught from 1952 to 1956 and composed significant works, were the most fruitful period in his artistic development. Between 1956 and 1963, he traveled to Europe several times and regularly participated as a lecturer at the Darmstadt Summer Courses.
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 1963 overshadowed Wolpe’s last years until 1972, when he died as the result of this illness.