When Morty Met Stefan

I’m reading Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, edited by Chris Villars. It’s not quite as chock-packed with quotable gems as Give My Regards to Eighth Street, but there’s a wealth of details I didn’t know about Feldman’s views, enough to power a whole other blog with. 

For instance, in 1980 Austin Clarkson interviewed Morty about his teacher Stefan Wolpe, and asks him about Ernst Krenek:

MF: Well, you see, what Krenek didn’t do, what Stefan did was that he was a competitor. Krenek felt the fact that he had a success when he was young [Jonny Spielt Auf, I assume], and he was married to Schoenberg’s daughter [but see comments], that he was given a crown and he could go and fall asleep with his own ideas for the rest of his life. Wolpe was in the midst of a musical revolution in New York. He was in the midst of the rising young, fabulously talented people coming up in Europe, and he knew it. Krenek never knew it. There’s not an ounce in Krenek’s music, in things that I’ve heard of his late style… But nothing existed, nothing happened. It’s music where nothing happened. It’s the kind of music somebody might write some place in Adelaide, Australia. But Wolpe is caught up in world events, musical events, and things happened…

MF: To show you [Wolpe’s] identification with the avant-garde, he once balled me out, very strongly, for never playing him in our concerts in the early ’50s. The Cage concerts. He balled me out. He was sore. But he did identify with the younger people… which certainly most of his students didn’t. Ralph [Shapey] didn’t, none of his students around him. I don’t know what they identified with. They identified not with Wolpe so much, but the tradition which Wolpe came out of. [p. 107, itals and ellipses in the original]

And, asked about Wolpe’s early interest in Satie:

MF: …I’ll tell you what happened to Satie and the whole idea that independents couldn’t survive in Europe, just couldn’t survive the way they survive here. That some of our strongest people today are independents, where do you put them? Like George Crumb. He was a big influence, and yet he is an independent really. George Crumb couldn’t happen in Europe, essentially. With all the European cliques it couldn’t happen. And so Wolpe added to the whole category of very strong independent composers in America. I think that the best thing is to push him as an American rather than as a European. That way you’ll get a little more mileage, because if you’re going to push him as a European, they’re going to say, well, what is this in relation to… we have this over here, which is what they say. [pp. 107-8]

And how Feldman met Wolpe:

MF: I’ll tell you how I heard about Wolpe. I was just a kid out in Queens. I didn’t know anybody. A friend of mine – I’m not going to mention his name, because his name is known to some degree – thought very highly of himself and sent a score of his to [Dmitri] Mitropolous. Mitropolous saw essentially that he was still a student, even though the young man didn’t think he was still a student, and suggested that he work with Wolpe. I lost my friend, and I was very close to this friend, because he came back and he told me about a visit he had with Wolpe where they just didn’t get along at all, anything that Wolpe had to say. And I listened to this conversation very clinically, and I listened to the things that Wolpe said to my friend, and I gave it a little thought, and three days later I called up Wolpe and asked him if I could come see him. I mean, he sounded to me like a terrific teacher, and I lost a friendship of a young colleague at the time for betraying him. “How could you go to Wolpe after telling how Wolpe insulted me?” But he sounded like a good teacher to me. [laughs] And that was the smartest thing I ever did was to lose that friend and not have that sense of loyalty. [p. 109]

Fascinating and endearing stuff (apologies, though, to any composers in Adelaide). Anyone know who the friend was?


  1. Ryan Dohoney says

    I’ve not been able to track down the friend, maybe one of the people mentioned in a NY Times review for a concert of student compositions given at the High School of Music and Art in 1943.
    Also, it’s interesting to note that Feldman, in an interview with Thomas Moore in MFS, admits that he first met Cage at Wolpe’s house concerts, not at Carnegie. (I reconstruct this history in my just-completed, soon to be defended dissertation.)
    KG replies: Wow – that’s slightly earth-shaking. One piece of misinfo I address in my book, taking it from John Holzaepfel, is that Cage met Tudor not through Feldman, as is often asserted, but through dancer Jean Erdman in 1949, whom Tudor accompanied in dances. Best of luck with the defense.

  2. Ryan Howard says

    Wasn’t Krenek married to Anna Mahler? Luigi Nono married Nuria Schoenberg…
    KG replies: You’re right, though the marriage lasted less than a year. I wonder why Feldman thought that. Funny, the book is heavily footnoted with clarifying points and factual references, but they missed this one.

  3. says

    Regarding Adelaide, Australia: This was the home for many years of Richard Meale, in his prime Australia’s best expressionist. (Like so many other leading Australian composers, he turned to writing late-romantic tosh in his late middle age.) Peter Maxwell-Davies also spent some time in Adelaide in the middle 1960s (before Meale arrived, I think). South Australia is the only Australian state not originally founded as a British penal colony, and, as a consequence, Adelaide is still more English, more Protestant, and more concerned with proper etiquette than other parts of Australia. Meale was originally from Sydney, and I think his music reflects the brashness and cultural eclecticism (indeed, the left-coast-ness) of Sydney more than the stiffness of Adelaide.
    KG replies: I reviewed Meale’s opera Voss for Fanfare, many, many years ago.

  4. Julian Day says

    what’s with his weird bitch about Adelaide!
    i guess he wasn’t to know of the Adelaide Festival for a start (yep, the one in the poster behind Glass in Duckworth’s book of interviews) which within its overall international focus has more or less dedicated itself to touring prime American artists – Allen Ginsberg, Peter Sellars, Philip Glass, John Adams, Merce Cunningham, BOAC All Stars, Eleo Pomare, Chaim Potok, Alice Walker, et al. on this front he could equally have slagged off huddersfield, UK, or edinburgh or, dare i say, dallas. :-)
    mind you, i won’t disagree with peter’s comments above; god help me if i ever had to live there.
    KG replies: Hey, I got out of Dallas quick to make sure I never composed like someone in Dallas.

  5. says

    I feel I must come to the defense of Adelaide too, and also of the “late-romantic tosh” of Meale, which is actually most excellent music, as is much of the other supposedly conservative Australian music of the 80s and 90s. Style wars are so last-century.

  6. Brett Boutwell says

    I wondered if the friend may have been Seymour Shifrin, whom Feldman knew at the time.
    KG replies: Possibly. Alex Ross speculates that it might have been Meyer Kupferman.

  7. peter says

    Rob — Let’s agree to disagree about Meale’s late style. What I wonder is why so many prominent Oz composers started writing in a similar style, seemingly all at once?

  8. says

    I’m pretty sure the friend wasn’t Kupferman, because Wolpe played a movement of Kupferman’s “Chamber Symphony” as a demonstration in a lecture he gave at Darmstadt in 1956. Wolpe made generally positive comments about the piece. Thus, it seems unlikely Kupferman is the friend in Feldman’s story, since the friend clearly wasn’t going to have anything to do with Wolpe after that initial meeting.
    (The transcript of the Wolpe lecture was published in the Journal of Music Theory in 1984.)
    Besides Seymour Shifrin, another possible conjecture is Allan Blank, also a member of that same circle of young composers (with Kupferman and Feldman) who assembled a reading ensemble for their own works.
    KG replies: Ahh, this narrows it down. Alex had told me that Blank, Shifrin, and Kupferman were the three composers at Music & Arts High School that Feldman had had works performed with. Maybe Blank indeed. Now THIS is musicology.

  9. says

    Of course, Blank is the only one of those four still alive — so one could ask. But if he’s actually “the one”, hard to know what he’d say about a story like that.