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Stanley Wolfe: Remembering a Mentor


“First and foremost, you’ve got to come up with good and memorable material!” Stanley Wolfe would say, over and over again, his heartfelt emotion clearly visible in every fiber of his body. That was only one of many invaluable pieces of advice that Stanley would dispense to his composition students. I remember it well from the time I was one. Indeed, I am a composer now thanks in large part to Stanley Wolfe, who not only taught me a great deal of nitty-gritty technical information essential for any composer but also, even more importantly, served as a truly inspiring mentor and role model to me. Sadly, I am writing these words because we have recently lost Stanley. 

Vincent Persichetti, Stanley Wolfe, Pierre Boulez, and Joseph Polisi at a master class at Juilliard on March 18, 1986.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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Stanley Wolfe was an outstanding composer and music educator. He was primarily a symphonist in the grand tradition of such 20th-century American masters as William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, David Diamond, and Howard Hanson, to name a few. Even though Stanley composed in several genres, the core of his output is, without a doubt, his six symphonies, written over a span of some 30 years. I was incredibly fortunate to become Stanley’s student just a few months after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony by the Juilliard Orchestra under Sixten Ehrling, in 1981. Although I didn’t get to hear the live performance, I vividly remember listening to the recording several times in Stanley’s presence at the time. What a thrill it was! There were powerful orchestral tuttis, beautiful rising melodies for all the horns in unison, movingly expressive passages in the strings, forward-driving rhythmic sections, and a lot more. Yes, there was good and memorable material galore, no doubt about it! Stanley clearly followed his own advice.

His Sixth Symphony was wonderful and exciting, and it certainly spoke for itself. All of us in the room were extremely impressed, emotionally moved, and definitely inspired. But in addition to the music we were hearing, there was Stanley himself. I have never seen a composer so emotionally involved and so deeply invested in his or her works, and in music in general, as Stanley Wolfe was. You could tell it was at the very center of his life. He had plainly poured his heart and soul into every musical idea, every measure, every note of the symphony. Stanley had a compelling need to express himself as an artist and communicate with his audience on the deepest possible level through his compositions, and that was his lifelong goal. Astonishingly, he was equally passionate and devoted as a music educator. As the founder and longtime director of Juilliard’s Evening Division, where he taught contemporary music and composition (among other subjects) for more than three decades, Stanley touched, inspired, helped, and enlightened countless students of all ages—and the larger community of music lovers in New York City and beyond—with his incomparable brand of excitement about and insight into music. Stanley, we miss you, love you, thank you, salute you, and will continue to celebrate your music and your legacy for many years to come!

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