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Abandoned daughter of an avant-garde composer was mentored by Humphrey Bogart

The pianist Katharina Wolpe has died in Hampstead, London, aged 81.

Katharina wolpe

Her parents had parted when she was small. She fled Vienna with her mother, after the Anschluss. Her mother abandoned her on the way to London (updated and corrected).

She was spotted playing piano in the Casanova Club by Humphrey Bogart, who paid for her debut at the Wigmore Hall. She went on to specialise in the music of Schoenberg and the Second Vienna School, playing in many of the world’s great halls. Here’s her own account of her life.

And here’s what she wrote about her father and his world:

stefan wolpe

I met Stefan in about 1948, when he came to Europe for the first time after the war. I remember being terribly excited about meeting my father, and I had a very clear picture of what he was going to be. But to my eyes he was an American gentleman of middle age, and I was very disappointed. He was delighted about everything that proved that I was now a grown-up, as he didn’t like children. He liked the fact that I was a pianist, and he wanted me to be more interested in contemporary music than I was at that time. This came to me much later in England. I had finished studying, and I was very much looking around for some concerts. Somebody said go and see the head of the ICA concerts, he might be able to give you something. I went to see him, and the next day he rang me up and said could I play half the Schoenberg piano works and the Webern Variations for a concert in five weeks. And I said, oh yes, of course. So I sat down and learned all this day and night and got very interested in what great composers these people in fact are.

Stefan told me that Scriabin was one of his major early influences, his first great idol. Stefan hated his formal studies at the Berliner Hochschule, and thought them tedious, boring, sterile, dead. So what did he do? He went to Busoni and to the Bauhaus to study form. Then he went to Webern. Who would have thought of studying with Webern and Busoni? You studied with Webern or Busoni, not both, because they are such diametrically opposed influences. Imagine being able to handle that as a young man! If you go into music with such fanatical depth and energy, it’s going to take a long time to put all of this together. Stefan wasn’t an intellectual composer, but he was a man of infinite variety, and his music shows this. Therefore, you can’t at first identify a Wolpe phrase just like that. One can recognize Stravinsky through five closed doors, but it’s not so easy to do this with Wolpe. Speaking as a performer, one’s got to remember that although it may be difficult, and very concentrated, his music is above all beautiful.

I think the most significant contribution of the avant-garde music of the second half of the century is its rhythmical liberation, but being liberated isn’t necessarily a piece of cake. Stefan has an enormously close relationship with this rhythmical liberation, where rhythm at one fraction of a second expresses exactly this and nothing else, and at the next exactly something else. The idea of things happening simultaneously that are exactly opposite is deeply interesting in Stefan’s music.

Katharina on Youtube:

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  1. Kenneth Conway says:

    Wolpe should have run for the U.S. Senate.

  2. I knew something about Katharine Wolpe, as I studied piano for several years with Stefan Wolpe’s second wife, Irma (Rademacher) Wolpe. Although her marriage to Stefan Wolpe ended in divorce after they emigrated to the U.S. in the 1940′s, she always believed in Stefan’s genius, and encouraged her students to study theory/composition with him. She spoke often, and in a positive way, about Katharine Wolpe and thought she was enormously gifted. I don’t understand the comment by Kenneth Conway quoted above, which seems to have little to do with Katharine Wolpe and/or her relationship with her father.

  3. Just beautiful…..what was it about the War, that war that lasted form 1914 to 1945, that made all of civilised Mankind realize that music was so important?

    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      I think about this a lot. In the arts, the 20th century was a brutal century but there seems to be this common thread that somehow there is an antidote to the devastation. We are still working through that and probably will for God only Knows how long. The musicians and artists that worked in this time were courageous each and every one.
      The more I teach about this era, the more amazed and humbled I am by what it took to get notes on a page and paint on a surface.

  4. One sees in the intense faces of so many of the 20th Century musical masters that they were indeed courageously guarding and expanding the Western musical traditions. In the ‘brutal world’ this challenge was ever more present as the splintering of culture became more and more evident. As a pianist who is dedicated to much of this repertoire, the satisfactions of learning, performing and recording this music surely outweigh the pressures and frustrations which accompany this journey.

    One needs the warmth and support of one’s colleagues, and musically one needs to give the warmth, freedom and love to the music itself which hopefully transcends the century in which it was written and allows it to survive. Precision of rhythmic complexities and dynamics is for me only a stepping stone towards such a rare but crucial transcendence.

  5. Margaret Phillips says:

    This gives the impression of being hastily put together. Three inaccuracies: Katharina was aged 81 at her death, she was not “mentored” by Humphrey Bogart (mentoring means something completely different from paying for, or sponsoring something) – and Katharina’s mother did not abandon her in London! She abandoned her in Switzerland where they had gone for refuge after fleeing Vienna and hiding in the Austrian countryside. Katharina spent the war years in various refugee camps in Switzerland, without her mother, whom she eventually met in London, as her mother had already gone there. Katharina speaks about all this, and more, in her fascinating Radio 3 interview (‘Twenty Minutes’ with Martin Handley Radio 3,Jan 23rd 2013)

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