Wolpe was born in Berlin and attended the Berlin Conservatory.
He enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule fur Musik but only stayed
a year, because he found the progressive attitudes to art and
education at the Bauhaus far more to his liking. He studied
composition under Franz Schreker and was also a pupil of Ferruccio
Busoni. In some ways his earlier career and attitudes had parallels
with such figures as Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.
did write twelve-tone music but he was a committed socialist
and attracted to Hindemith's concept of gebrauchsmusik so wrote
pieces for workers unions and communist theatre groups.
a Jew and a communist, he fled Germany in 1933. For a period
he stayed in Austria where he studied with Anton Webern and
later moved to Palestine. His time there was limited because
he continued to mix writing simple songs for the kibbutzim with
more complex, atonal music for concert performance. He moved
to the USA in 1938 and remained there until his death.
became associated with the abstract expressionists in New York
and this led to a reduction of text-based pieces in his output.
The majority of his vocal works pre-date the Second World War.
The loss of his native tongue and the lively Berlin cultural
milieu probably contributed to this.
disc of his vocal works starts with his 1950 piece, Excerpts
from Dr. Einstein's Address about Peace in the Atomic Era.
In January 1950 President Truman had announced that the USA
would build the hydrogen bomb and Albert Einstein had responded
by speaking out against the bomb. Einstein's speech was printed
and Wolpe set around half of it. There is no doubt about his
commitment and outrage; the work is a passionate piece of didacticism.
Baritone Patrick Mason gives a finely committed performance
with superb diction; it is possible to hear every word. What
Mason cannot disguise is the rather hectoring tone of the opening.
It is only with the words 'Is there any way out of this impasse'
that Wolpe relaxes and allows himself a little lyricism.
to the piece I do not doubt Wolpe's commitment nor his musicality.
Unfortunately I found the vocal part rather uninvolving. At
times the piano part, well realised by Robert Shannon, seemed
to have the greater interest.
destroyed much of his early output, saving only some piano pieces
and the ten early songs which were all written in 1920. The
group are stylistically disparate. There is no unifying tone
and no unifying theme. They are given fine performances by Tony
Arnold (soprano) and Jacob Greenberg (piano). Arnold has a lovely
focused lyric voice, quite bright in tone and she sings Wolpe's
expressionist vocal lines with a fine line. There were moments
when, not surprisingly, the pieces recall early Berg songs.
made his Berlin debut as composer and pianist in April 1925
with a programme which included a group of Yiddish folksongs,
arranged for Rahel Ermolnikoff. Ermolnikoff was a singer who
specialised in modern settings of Jewish folksongs. The decision
to include the Yiddish songs, rather than the settings of German
poets, may have had an element of defiance in the wake of anti-semitic
pieces are a world away from the early Songs and the Einstein
piece. Here Wolpe produced songs which are heavily word-based
and inevitably melodic. You can hear hints of other types of
Berlin cabaret songs in both the vocal lines and the accompaniment.
Baritone Patrick Mason shows his versatility by giving the songs
in fine, idiomatic performances modifying his vocal tone to
suit the cabaret nature of the pieces.
The Songs from the Hebrew are
another disparate group of pieces written between 1938 and 1954.
Wolpe learned Hebrew and was sufficiently versed in the language
to read and write it. But in 1949, when a group of the songs
were performed in the USA, some of them were translated into
English by the poet Hilda Auerbach Morley, who became Wolpe's
wife. Here three songs are done in English and three in Hebrew.
The songs are shared between two singers. Leah Summers sings
passionately but has rather poor diction, rather noticeable
as her songs are in English. Ashraf Swailam has an attractive,
grainy dark bass-baritone voice. But again, Wolpe's tone seems
to turn rather hectoring and I could not always love the songs.
Wolpe's piano parts are often significant. In a piece like Isaiah
the piano part seems to be more important and more expressive
than the vocal line.
Mason returns for Wolpe's 1926 setting of Hans Sachs (1494–1576)
– the original of Wagner's character. Der faule Bauer
mit seinen Hunden is a fable, The Idle Peasant
and His Dog. It is a long piece - essentially a cantata.
There is an unrelenting element to the piece and again, I found
the vocal writing tended towards the hectoring. I found it rather
hard work and I think the fault was Wolpe's rather than that
of the dedicated Patrick Mason.
disc finishes with a short Epitaph, setting an unknown poet.
It is nicely sung by Leah Summers.
is still an underrated composer and this disc makes available
some of his striking vocal music. That the pieces require work
on our part would probably be regarded as no bad thing by the
composer. They receive fine committed performances. Ultimately
I found some of the works fascinating but uninvolving.