Ralph Shapey and Stefan Wolpe

I came across this dissertation while doing some research on my train ride home. It struck a little bit close to home because:

(a) it was very close to my dissertation topic.
(b) it analyzes a musical repertoire that was also very close to my dissertation topic.

Just going back over my research, it is very interesting in how Wolpe talked about musical composition, especially in regards to the aggregate. Words like “zone, constellation…” are all terms that describe the use of a particular pitch-class set for a given twelve-tone row used in a piece.

In their two Forms for piano, Shapey and Wolpe use the same twelve-tone row. However, Shapey uses it differently. Wolpe uses the entirety of the piece to present all twelve pitches of the row; Shapey gives you all twelve pitches of the row within the confines of a phrase.

I’m not sure how I feel about the use of the word “stasis” to describe Shapey’s music. in Shapey’s music, I always feel like the music is moving forward. You get that sense even more in his late music. His “static blocks” have an assigned harmonic function to them in the Mother Lode Worksheet.

When I was completing my analysis of String Quartet #9, I was particularly interested in how Shapey and Wolpe chose to work with the same twelve-tone row. Young Shapey was very confined to a particular pitch register. Wolpe, on the other hand, is all over the place.

One thing that I get when I listen to Shapey’s Form for piano is a very deliberate sense of pacing. Changes happen when you would expect them. On the other hand, you have a sense of what is going to happen throughout his Form because each Variation is strikingly similar to the one that came before it.

Anyways, I am not ranting because someone came so close to having the same idea that I did. Please keep in mind that I have not yet read the dissertation, just the abstract. It’s this sentence that kind of bothers me.

“I show how Shapey formulated his compositional techniques, influenced by his teacher, Stefan Wolpe, and his friend, Edgard Varèse.”

Do we know how a composer really composes? I suppose you can look at a composer’s sketches to understand their working methods. The above sentence, to me, is a little bit weird because we are assuming that we know Shapey’s entire musical thought process, know what went on at Shapey’s lessons with Wolpe, and know what Shapey was thinking at the very moment he was composing.

Here is what I learned about Shapey’s music while writing my dissertation:

  • We know that Shapey and Wolpe used the same row for their two Forms for piano.
  • We know that Shapey uses “modular blocks” in both his early and late styles and that this is different from Wolpe.
  • We know that this piece, Form, represents Shapey’s professional and stylistic departures from his teacher.

When I listen to both Forms, here is what I think:

  • I can look at Wolpe’s use of form and say “This reminds me of Brahams.”
  • Wolpe’s use of register and rhythm are more similar to Webern.
  • Wolpe’s deployment of the entire twelve-tone row is similar to Webern. Both composers give you the entire aggregate by the end of the piece.

When you listen to both Forms for piano, you get two very different pieces that just happen to use the same twelve-tone row. What do I hear when I listen to both pieces side by side? I hear similar rhythms, but that’s about it.


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