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Claus Adam

I studied with Wolpe for the first time in the summer of '42, and in '43 I came back to New York and was drafted into the Army. I was back in New York within two weeks, because I got into an Air Force show by Moss Hart called Winged Victory. I was very lucky, because then I was in New York for six months, and during those six months I studied a great deal with Wolpe. We began right from the very beginning. I said I only knew some harmony and a little counterpoint but had never learned systematically. I asked Stefan to start me off completely from scratch. And he did with basic harmony. I remember very well the relationship of fifths within the basic key. I would also have to do keyboard harmony with him. He would ask me to go from, let's say, D minor to F-sharp major; then he would show me how many extra steps you can take in order to solidify the new key. You can sometimes do it in three steps, and sometimes in forty steps, if you know how, which is what Bruckner and Mahler did over a long period of time. He knew this system very well. Then I said, look, I've never really had thorough counterpoint, so we went through Palestrina counterpoint right from scratch. We used the Jeppesen book.

At a certain point he said, "That's enough of that. If you want to go on and on and on with that and understand it to its fullest, you can become a professor of counterpoint, but let's go on to Bach--to free counterpoint and to linear and harmonic counterpoint." That was a revelation. I remember one session when he looked for a fugue, and said, "Well, that's a very usual kind of fugue, and that's sort of standard, and, ah, here's one. Now that's an exception." And then he would show me why it was an exception, and the ingenious devices of a man like Bach. Stefan was never interested in the ordinary, the obvious, he always was interested in why did the composer turn to that or another idea, and what was the germ, and how did it develop in his mind. He would even project. He'd say, "Well, he could have gone in this direction." He would make some sketches and say, "Now that's another possibility." And this is where he was the greatest teacher, because he opened up your process of thinking how to develop what possibilities you had. That was the great thing.

I went from that step to chromatic harmony, then to whole-tone harmony, and then to completely free harmony. But he always helped to put you in focus. You had to have a certain harmony that would be structural in the piece, not just anything. The piece had to have a shape added to some kind of conviction. Then he also took me for a little while through serial technique. I must say, I turned off on serial technique. It didn't interest me. Atonal was what I was talking about.

Later on he had all these analysis classes, where you take a work of Bartók or a Beethoven sonata and analyze it. It was a revelation that one could see music that way. One could project possibilities from the material. They were really very exciting. I remember later on, when I joined the Juilliard Quartet in '55, I went up to the president of the Juilliard School and asked why a man like Wolpe isn't at a school like Juilliard, because he doesn't just give the ordinary kind of analysis--sixteen bars and eight bars and four bars transition, and this was that key, and this is this key. He wasn't interested in that kind of analysis. He was interested in what made a piece work, what was the germinal idea and how did it develop. And the president said to me, "I would never have a man like Wolpe teach here, because I once attended a rehearsal in which the ensemble played a couple of wrong notes and he didn't know the difference." That is why he wouldn't have him at the Juilliard School. That was his answer. Other people tried, but it was hopeless.

Then I had to go away for a couple of years. As soon as I was out of the Army, I settled in New York and really went to work with him again for a couple of years and began to write some pieces, not just shorter pieces. The first thing I wrote was a string quartet, and the second piece was a piano sonata. It's being played again this year. I didn't study orchestration with him extensively. I had to orchestrate a number of things with him, but orchestration was not a big problem for me, because I played in an orchestra. I had studied a lot of scores. However, he opened my eyes to certain kinds of sonorities, certain types of doublings, or overlaid sounds I'd never thought of.

I haven't been around a lot of other teachers, so I can't tell, but it's hard for me to imagine any other teacher having the kind of vision, the kind of insight that he had. He almost detected what the composer was trying to do before it was happening, and there was something very special about that.

Born in Indonesia, Claus Adam (1917-1983) moved to New York in 1929, where he later studied cello with Emanuel Feuermann, conducting with Leon Barzin, and eventually composition with Wolpe. In 1948 he formed the New Music Quartet and then joined the Juilliard String Quartet, which he left after twenty years to devote his attention to composition. Adam was also active as a teacher and held positions at the Juilliard School and Mannes College. Interview: AC, New York, 19 November 1980.


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