George Rochberg's Revolution

Michael Linton

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 18-20.

Some revolutions are noisy affairs from the start. The riot with which the Parisians greeted the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring comes immediately to mind (although it was Nijinsky’s wildly modern choreography more than Stravinsky’s music that provoked the brouhaha). But other revolutions start quietly and get noisier only with time. Twenty years after the event, the first performances of George Rochberg’s Concord Quartets appear to have been the beginnings of that second kind of revolution. At their New York premiere, Leonard Bernstein embraced the composer in his legendary bear hug and called the quartets masterpieces. But other critics weren’t so sure. Most are now. In those and other works, Rochberg boldly challenged the music world’s status quo, and his challenge has resonated through the ensuing decades, shifting the profile of modern music at the century’s close into a shape that thirty years ago would have been unthinkable.

This July Rochberg turns eighty, and his birthday is being celebrated with reissues of recordings and concerts across the country. There is much to celebrate and to honor. The son of Ukrainian Jews who came to the United States in 1912 and 1913, Rochberg is part of that remarkable generation of Eastern European emigrants and their children—including Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Berlin—who propelled American music into the forefront of international artistic sophistication and significance. Rochberg served as publications director for Theodore Presser, one of America’s most important music publishing houses. In a period when the university became the principal patron of art music, he chaired the music department at the University of Pennsylvania, propelling Penn into international importance by appointing the composer George Crumb and the theorist Leonard Meyer. He was one of his generation’s most influential essayists, writing widely and eloquently on music theory, composition, and aesthetics. But above all else, Rochberg’s importance rests upon his music. In order to understand this music, or at least to appreciate its revolutionary importance, we first have to remember the musical world in which Rochberg began to compose.

In the decades following the Second World War "progressive" composition generally was pulled in two directions: "serialism" and "chance." The former was a way of composing in which the twelve pitches of the octave are organized into melodic sets and presented forwards, backwards, upside-down, transposed, and fractured. The serialism of Anton von Webern (1883-1945) was the first to exert its dominance. Webern’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), is credited with inventing serialism, but in the decade before his death, Webern refined twelve-tone composition into a means of producing music of the highest delicacy and most astringent intellectualism. By the 1950s, Webern had replaced both Stravinsky and Schoenberg as the brightest star in twentieth-century music, and his works became the model for all "smart" composition.

There were many reasons for serial composition’s attraction to composers. One was the fact that the music and the mystique of Romanticism had been so appropriated by the Nazis that many intellectuals simply wanted it to perish in the Götterdämmerung of Nazi Berlin. Serialism, and the distance it established between cerebral composition and emotional response, was seen as a language purified of the kinds of excesses that had lead to the horrors of the mid-century.

Another reason for serialism’s attractiveness lay in the fact that, at least in America, composers were increasingly university professors and not performers. The star departments in American universities were the science departments, and the most acclaimed faculty were physicists. The language of science is mathematics, and it was only natural that composers/professors would find themselves gravitating to the lingua franca of their locale. The professors didn’t compose for audiences, but for faculty peers (and tenure and promotion committees). Serial music, with its sets, subsets, graphs, and pseudo-algebraic incantations, was a perfect artistic language for such a society—indeed, the music didn’t even have to be defended by the way it sounded at all, but rather could be justified by the numerical and graphic brilliance of its description.

Serial music also just looked modern. Webern’s works were like the buildings of the new international style, bare of ornament, sleek, and lean. Later composers would preserve that austerity, but would make the music look much more complicated, the kind of thing you might think a physicist would understand. But the most important reason for the style’s attraction lay in the fact that, at least in Webern’s hands, serialism could be used to make extraordinarily beautiful and elegant works of art. When the folksy Americanism of Copland seemed contrived, the traditional tonality of Menotti little more than kitsch, and the modal twists of Britten just Anglican obscurantism, serialism looked like an adventurous way to the music of the future. With typical bluntness (and brutality) the young French composer Pierre Boulez wrote, "Any musician who has not felt . . . the necessity of the twelve-tone language is of no use!"

At the same time as Boulez’s malediction, a second way to this music of the future was being championed by the Californian John Cage. In his 1951 Imaginary Landscape No. 4, Cage wrote for twenty-four performers "playing" twelve radios, each radio tuned to a different station. The music was whatever "chanced" to be broadcast at that moment; no two performances of the piece were alike. Just as serial music appealed to the culture of science, Cage’s "aleatoric" pieces appealed to the strong antinomianism of the beat generation and the faddish Zen Buddhism of the hippies. Music, like tie-dye t-shirts, could be anything thing you wanted it to be.

Rochberg began his career as a major figure in the serial camp. After fighting in Europe in the Second World War (he was seriously wounded in Normandy), Rochberg returned to Philadelphia, where he studied at the Curtis Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. His works quickly gained attention, and in 1950 he left for Italy, having won both the Rome Prize and a Fulbright fellowship. In Italy Rochberg became friends of the anti-Fascist composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), then the leader of the Italian serialist avant garde. Rochberg became convinced of the "inevitability" of twelve-tone composition, and began writing his first serial compositions. He later wrote of this period that he felt himself "living at the very edge of the musical frontier, of music itself."

Upon returning to America, Rochberg published the first study of twelve-tone music, received awards from the Guggenheim and Koussevitsky Foundations, and was appointed to the faculties of Curtis and Penn. His works were performed by the country’s major orchestras and chamber music ensembles, and he supported his compositions by highly regarded and influential essays. By his mid-forties, Rochberg was among the most successful artists of his generation. And he was a thoroughly "modern," i.e., serial, artist.

But in 1961 the Rochbergs’ seventeen-year-old son, Paul, fell ill with a brain tumor. He died three years later, throwing his father into despair. Confronted with his son’s death, Rochberg struggled to give that tragedy some meaning through his music, but the serialism upon which his career had been built he now found empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow.

In the next decade, Rochberg struggled to find a musical syntax suitable for that sorrow, marking his struggle in many works, but in particular with a series of remarkable pieces composed for the Concord Quartet, the string quartet then in residence at Dartmouth. First in his third (1972) and later in his fourth, fifth, and sixth quartets (from 1977 and 1978), Rochberg included movements that were thoroughly tonal. He was even audacious enough to make the third movement of the sixth quartet a variation upon Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D.

There were no riots at Rochberg premieres, but tongues did begin to click. It might have been acceptable if Rochberg, like Cage, had simply adopted aleatoric techniques, but using tonality was a gross breach of etiquette. Strict serialist composers—his old allies—began to attack Rochberg’s new tonal works. The works were cowardly and cheap. Rochberg had betrayed the "progress" of music. His tonal harmonies were "Victorian" (the period’s ultimate derision). Rochberg had betrayed his "moral vision." Some critics even suggested fraud. The consensus was that Rochberg had replaced the artistic integrity of his earlier music with a kind of delusional nostalgia. He was no longer a progressive artist but a recalcitrant crank.

The critics’ animus was justified, but not for the reasons they gave. These works were not cowardly or cheap. They were not—nor did Rochberg intend them to be—mere imitations of previous styles, as any investigation of the scores would show. The real scandal lay not in Rochberg’s rejection of doctrinaire serialism or aleatoric composition, but rather in his far more radical rejection of the whole philosophical foundation of the postwar avant garde. These works were the manifesto of a revolt.

Although ostensibly contrary styles, postwar serial music and aleatoric music were twin utterances of the same creed. They were ways to suppress, and if possible suffocate, the individuality of the artist. In the strictest serialism, the personality is incapacitated by the imposition of mechanistic devices, the individuality of the artist disappearing into the operations of the machine. The music is the way it is because this is the way the machine makes it to be. In aleatoric music, the artist loses his unique voice within the babble of random happenings. There is no difference between music and non-music, between the excellent and the tawdry, and, ultimately, between being and nothingness.

It was this descent into artistic nihilism that Rochberg rejected, and it was this kind of music that he found incapable of expressing either the depth of his despair or the hope of his vision. Unlike Stravinsky, who fundamentally viewed his music as entertainment, and Cage, for whom music was a kind of self-effacing game, Rochberg had always taken a prophetic view of his art. Like Beethoven (and Schoenberg himself), Rochberg believed that art had the noble purpose of lifting humanity beyond itself to a more exalted, and eventually metaphysical, height. Seeing firsthand the nightmare wrought by the Nazi mob (and, as a Jew, taking the struggle with fascism more personally than many Americans), Rochberg had consciously dedicated himself to a life of creation when a young man on the battlefields of Europe. Twenty years later, that decision was forcing him to reevaluate his art and to challenge the artistic establishment of which he had been so successful a part.

Part of that reevaluation lead Rochberg to re-embrace tonality and discard serialism. But while Rochberg rejected serialism, he did not reject the atonal composition out of which serialism had grown and which characterized its harmonic syntax. Instead, Rochberg began to construct his music out of both tonal and atonal languages. In so doing, he dramatically reinterpreted the notion of stylistic uniformity that had been a hallmark of the Western aesthetic since antiquity. He refused to abandon "past" musical styles, insisting that they continue to live—transformed by his individual artistry but recognizable nonetheless—in his new art. By including these diverse musics, Rochberg believed that he had expanded the emotional range that modern music was able to express. He had found a contemporary language that could both bear the weight of despair and point to transcendence. And—unlike either strict serialism or aleatoric composition—it was a language that was pointedly individualistic.

The eloquence of that musical language is well represented on CD. Although the Concord Quartets have yet to be digitally reissued (the 1982 RCA vinyl set is still worth finding: RCA ARL2-4198), CRI has released two CDs that give a synopsis of Rochberg’s remarkable career. For those wary of modern music, begin with the 1972 Ricordanza (CRI CD 769). This one-movement work for cello and piano represents Rochberg at his most tonal and elegiac. On that same CD is the 1978 Asian-influenced "Slow Fires of Autumn" for harp and flute, an impressionist and meditative piece that grows out of a Japanese lullaby. Contra Mortem et Tempus (CRI 768) is another kind of piece altogether. Written in the shadow of his son’s death, this expressionistic atonal work is a portrait of juxtaposed fury and despair in the tradition of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. As a virtual compendium of solo violin composition, Rochberg’s monumental Caprice Variations of 1970 has become one of the most important works for violin in this century. Twenty-four of the fifty variations are found on vinyl in a spellbinding performance by Gidon Kremer (Deutsche Grammophone POL 640), and Michelle Makarski has included several movements in her 1997 CD Caoine (ECM New Music Series 1587). Rochberg’s early reputation rested on his work as a serialist, and his twelve-tone 1952 Bagatelles for Piano are available in a collection of Rochberg piano music performed by Martha Thomas (ACA Digital Recording CM 20044). The 1961 serial second string quartet with soprano is available in two performances: CRI CD 769 and VoxBox CDX 5145. Both recordings are excellent, with different, yet very eloquent, performances by the sopranos Janice Harsanyi (on CRI) and Phyllis Bryn-Julson (on Vox).

As recently as ten years ago, most performances of new music were predictably dreary affairs. Each new piece would be introduced by an extended essay discussing its genesis, the cleverness of its pitch material permutations, or the method by which the music was randomly arrived at. But it never seemed to make much difference, since, aleatoric or completely serialized, it all sounded pretty much alike. If the emperor of new music wasn’t quite naked, he at least had a very limited wardrobe.

But all that has changed now. Composition at the century’s close is a celebration of distinctly individual visions: Tan Dun’s combination of Peking Opera and bel canto, Michael Torke’s pop-inspired ballets, John Tavener’s Anglo-Byzantinisms, Paul Lansky’s neo-Renaissance computer music, Christopher Rouse’s expressionism, and the list goes on. While we may not appreciate a particular vision, and while all visions may not be realized with the same high artistry, it is heartening to see the view of artistic individuality, traditional in the West since at least the Middle Ages, again championed and valued. This renewed appreciation of artistic integrity and the prophetic role of the artist is very much the legacy of George Rochberg’s revolt, and one for which we owe him our thanks.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.