David Tudor, Part One: Beginnings

by Sam Weinberg

On the occasion of what would have been his 96th birthday, we take a look at the work & career of the titan of 20th century music—pianist, composer, innovator David Tudor. Definitive versions of many of Tudor’s most seminal—and also more recondite—recordings are available via New World Records, giving a representative sample of the various avenues that his storied career and life in music took.

* * *

Part One: Beginnings

Born January 20, 1926 in Philadelphia, David Tudor was, perhaps unsurprisingly, raised in a family with many musical gifts – his father George was an organist, and mother Marian a talented pianist. Growing up hearing many of his father’s performances was the inspiration for the nine-year-old Tudor to audition for H. William Hawke, the eminent organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s High Episcopal St. Mark’s Church.1 His aptitude was apparent from the onset, and Hawke not only accepted Tudor as his pupil, but mentored him free of charge for the following five years, and provided him with a “conservatory-level education in music history, theory, harmony, and counterpoint.”2  Before the age of 18, Tudor became a highly decorated organist: a member of the American Guild of Organists, the in-house organist for the Trinity Church in Swarthmore, and after a series of heralded performances there surrounding his 18th birthday, the organist for Swarthmore College. 

Despite this unassailable pedigree, Tudor’s fledgling career as an organist was soon dispensed with in favor of the piano. The literal revelation came after a performance by Irma Wolpe of her husband, composer Stefan Wolpe’s, piece “Dance in the Form of a Chaconne,” which Tudor claimed, “completely changed the course of my life. When I heard her play I immediately and spontaneously decided to become a pianist.”  This performance birthed his desire “to do something for contemporary music.”3 Under the tutelage of the Wolpes, he went on to do just that.

It is worth mentioning that, although his work ostensibly progressed into these realms of “contemporary music” upon which his storied reputation rests, the organ remained of chief importance for him throughout his life, and was indeed a wellspring of inspiration for his later work with electronic music, in the 1960s and beyond. Tudor’s close associate Gordon Mumma recounts that during tours with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company–decades after his days as a working organist–Tudor would seek out historic organs in various cities, and perform a vast repertoire (replete with special organ shoes he carted around) which showcased, “Tudor’s vivid curiosity about sound sources and their interplay in space and time. He thrived on the time delays between keyboard activation and resulting sounds, the sound-motions to separate ranks of pipes, the reverberation and cross-resonances of overlapping sounds in the unique acoustics of each venue, and the vast possibilities of timbre and attack—what all organists work with, particularly in large spaces.”4

After their meeting, the Wolpes recognized Tudor’s considerable gifts, and took the nascent pianist under their wing; welcoming him into the fold of their regular performances at their New York apartment on Cathedral Parkway (at 110th Street, east of Broadway), where Tudor became an increasingly frequent presence – even spending many evenings there, in effect becoming something of a son to the childless couple.5

A coterie of young and talented students were deeply devoted to the Wolpes, and their salons, which often featured Irma’s students performing the compositions of Stefan’s, had the feeling of some secret society. Tudor was invaluable to these gatherings as he possessed an uncanny ability to sight-read even the most daunting scores. Tudor brought along his new friend John Cage to their apartment in 1949, who observed: “[The apartment] was always filled with students who were absolutely devoted to [Stefan] so that one had the feeling, being there, that one was at the true center of New York. And it was almost an unknown center of New York. And that was what gave a very special strength to one's feeling about Stefan--that it was in a sense a privilege to be aware of him, since it was like being privy to an important secret.”6

While Irma’s pedagogy was principally pianistic–and she had a strong influence on the young Tudor’s repertoire of Alkan, Liszt and Busoni–Stefan emphasized composition, and above all a “dialectic” approach, a deep interrogation of all forgotten, uninterrogated facets that comprise existence; a Socratic love of conversation, tete-a-tete. To wit, Wolpe student Morton Feldman remarked that, “Wolpe taught me to look on the other side of the coin.”7  Despite Stefan’s encouragement, Tudor was a “reluctant” student of composition and these early attempts were compulsory at best.8 Tudor was much more concerned with the piano, and his greatest challenge came with Stefan’s grueling Battle Piece. 

At the age of 24, Tudor premiered Battle Piece on March 11, 1950 at Columbia University, from memory, and it acted as something of a culmination of his time with the Wolpes, with Stefan dedicating the piece and all of the composition notes to his protege.9 With his talents laid bare after this revelatory premiere, Tudor was almost instantly employed to premiere Cage’s friend Pierre Boulez’s Second Sonata, a work which had been considered virtually unperformable. 

A look into Tudor’s more well-documented and notable work performing the music of the “New York School” composers will be taken up in Part Two; Parts Three & Four will be about Tudor’s own compositional work, its evolution and various strains of interest.

* * *

1 Holzaepfel, John – Liner notes for Music of David Tudor and Gordon Mumma (New World, 80651)

2 ibid

3 ibid

4  Mumma,Gordon; liner notes for The Art of David Tudor (80737)

5  Clarkson, Austin “David Tudor's Apprenticeship: The Years with Irma and Stefan Wolpe” Leonardo Music Journal , 2004, Vol. 14, Composers inside Electronics: Music after David Tudor (2004), pp. 5-10

6  Clarkson ibid

7  Feldman, Morton quoted from “Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by Former Students and Friends” edited by Clarkson, Austin - https://sites.evergreen.edu/arunchandra/wp-content/uploads/sites/395/2020/08/wolpeRecollections.pdf

8 Holzaepfel ibid

9  Clarkson ibid


← Older Post Newer Post →