Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005). An influential composition teacher and chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, Rochberg was originally an exponent of serialism and twelve-tone techniques. The turbulent Symphony No. 2, completed in 1956 and premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, is a prominent example of Rochberg’s atonal period.
In the mid 1960s, following the tragic death of his teenage son from a brain tumor, Rochberg became one of the first composers to abandon serialism, citing what he perceived as its expressive limitations. The music which followed restored connections to the past, with allusions to Beethoven’s late string quartets, the late Romanticism of Mahler, and the adventurous New England sonic collages of Ives. Regarding this stylistic shift, Rochberg wrote,
The hope of contemporary music lies in learning how to reconcile all manner of opposites, contradictions, paradoxes; the past with the present, tonality with atonality. That is why, in my most recent music, I have tried to utilize these in combinations which reassert the primal values of music… There can be no justification for music ultimately, if it does not convey eloquently and elegantly the passions of the human heart. … the insistence on ignoring the dramatic, gesture character of music, while harping on the mystique of the minutiae of abstract design for its own sake, says worlds about the failure of much new music.
Echoes of Mahler’s last symphonies, the biting sarcasm of a Prokofiev march, Berg’s Lyric Suite, and other references blur together in a dreamy collage in Rochberg’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra. The work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. It was premiered in 1984 by the Philharmonic’s principal oboist, Joseph Robinson under the baton of Zubin Mehta. The composer described the Concerto as “rhapsodic, cast in four parts played without pause.” Its long cadenzas suggest the oboe’s serene pastoral solitude.
The third movement of Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 6 is built on the familiar ostinato bass line of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. But we’re quickly pulled towards the chromaticism of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the haunting lament of late Beethoven. It’s music which finds a path forwards by looking back.
1 thought on “George Rochberg at 100”
I just came across this post honoring Rochberg’s 100th birthday. In 1960, I left the University of Texas, where they virtually forbid my fascination with 12-tone music. I contacted Rochberg, who had yet to be officially announced as head of Penn’s music dept. I traveled to a meeting with him at Theodore Presser in Bryn Mawr, played for him my first real attempt at a 12-tone orchestral work, and he immediately, and most generously opened every door to me, granting me a completely free ride through a Master’s degree. It was during this period when his son, Paul, died. And his shift to the polystylistic manner the then adopted. Also in this period, I was influential in setting up the electronic music studio at Penn, and Rochberg was greatly impressed with my first work, “Il Giuoco”. Unfortunately, this led to a hiatus in our relationship when he wanted to use sounds I made on the synthesizer in his score for “The Alchemist” at Lincoln Center, but did not want to acknowledge me as a collaborator. Many years later we reconciled when he admired my piano suite, “Museum Pieces” which Lydia Artymiw premiered at the Kennedy Center. In a private performance at his home, I was astonished when he failed to realize that the pieces which he greatly admired were, in fact, 12-tone pieces, despite their titles of Preambule, Beceuse, Novelette, Intermezzo, Etude, and Nocturne. I always enjoyed arguing polemics with him, and found myself in something of a quandary, sometimes admiring his later works (the 3rd Quartet, Ricordanza, for instance) and at other times being totally perplexed or indifferent to them (The Clarinet Concerto, Music for the Magic Theatre). Without every telling him, I continued to write (most of the time) 12-tone music. And greatly wished he’d lived long enough for me to discuss works like my concerto for Viola, Concerto for Piano, my piano trio, Circadia, and a number of other works which I believe DO what he insisted 12-tone music could not do. I was greatly gratified in 2018 (his centenary) to be honored with an award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters which described my work in their citation: “Andrew Rudin’s music unfolds complex and tightly constructed narratives that nonetheless feel rhapsodic and have an unfailing sense of lyricism and drama.” I thank you for keeping alive the music of my teacher, to whom, despite my disagreements, was a pivotal person in my life, entirely changing my direction. Thank you.