In the 1960s, classical composers in the United States and Europe were in the grip of a system known as serialism or 12-tone music, so called because a piece written according to the system would be built strictly from a certain ordering of the 12 tones of the octave in Western tuning. Even major American orchestras programmed 12-tone music, which by and large baffled and alienated audiences. By the end of the twentieth century, however, composers once again had a vast range of stylistic choices from which they could choose. Of the composers who broke the dominance of 12-tone music, none was more important than Philadelphia's George Rochberg. Rochberg's String Quartet No. 3 of 1972 was controversial when it appeared, for defenders of serialism denounced it as a throwback to earlier styles. But Rochberg turned out to be a strong inspiration to younger composers, and audiences voted a resounding "yes" to his music—his compositions were widely performed in the 1970s and 1980s.
George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg), one of three children, was born on July 5, 1918, in Paterson, New Jersey. The son of Ukrainian immigrants (his father worked as an upholsterer), he grew up in nearby Passaic. Rochberg took up the piano at age ten and quickly started writing music of his own. His first efforts were popular songs with lyrics written by a friend, Bob Russell, who later collaborated with bandleader Duke Ellington. Rochberg, like Leonard Bernstein, continued to write popular songs under a pseudonym after immersing himself in classical studies.
Played in Jazz Combos
That immersion resulted in a young composer with promising talents. After earning a bachelor's degree at Montclair State Teachers' College in New Jersey, Rochberg won a scholarship to New York's prestigious Mannes School of Music in 1939. Studying under Hungarian immigrant composer and conductor George Szell, Rochberg impressed that fearsome figure enough that Szell began programming Rochberg's music after he became the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1950s. Rochberg played in jazz groups around New York while studying at the Mannes School between 1939 and 1942.
Before going off to war, Rochberg married Gene Rosenfeld in 1941; the marriage lasted for the remaining 63 years of his life. As a second lieutenant in the army during World War II, he saw action in France and was seriously wounded during the Normandy campaign. Rochberg returned to the United States in 1945 and enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One of his teachers there was Amahl and the Night Visitors' composer Gian Carlo Menotti. After earning a B.Mus. degree from Curtis, Rochberg was invited back to teach there on Menotti's recommendation in 1948. He continued his studies, earning an M.A. from the University of Philadelphia in 1949.
In 1950 Rochberg traveled to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship and met 12-tone composer Luigi Dallapiccola. He took to the serialist system, which, he was quoted as saying in London's Independent newspaper, made him feel as though he was "living at the very edge of the musical frontier, of music itself." The 12-tone system, devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, was elaborated in complex ways in American universities after World War II, and was hailed as the music of the future within the classical tradition. By 1952 Rochberg was writing serialist works of his own, such as the 12 Bagatelles for piano (1952). He contributed to the large body of written music theory that underlay the new system, and he began to win major composition prizes, including the Society for the Publication of American Music (SPAM) award for his String Quartet No. 1 in 1956.
Worked for Music Publisher
After teaching at Curtis for six years, Rochberg was hired at Philadelphia's Theodore Presser Company, a commercial classical music publisher. Starting as an editor, he advanced to the position of director of publications. Even before the tragedy that was about to change his life and music, Rochberg was frustrated by the gulf that existed between serialist composers and classical audiences, and was working on ways to make his compositions more accessible.
In 1960 Rochberg returned to the academic world, taking a teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania. He remained there until 1983, taking time away only for a succession of prestigious guest professorships. Rochberg's early years at Penn, however, were painful ones: his 17-year-old son, Paul, already showing promise as a poet, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1961. Paul Rochberg died three years later and, after a serialist piano trio in 1963, George Rochberg stopped composing. He couldn't find a way to make 12-tone music express the grief he felt.
For several years Rochberg wrote nothing at all. When he resumed composing, he had decided that "there is no greater provincialism than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past," according to an article later quoted in the New York Times. He began to experiment with quotation and collage techniques—what today would be called sampling, but with pen and music paper, not an electronic device. Rochberg compositions such as Music for the Magic Theater (1965) quoted music of earlier eras within the classical tradition.
Outraged Orthodox Composers
Finally, in 1972, Rochberg wrote his String Quartet No. 3. It was what classical musicians call "tonal"; that is, it employed the traditional system of keys and key relationships. And it was openly emotional, in stark contrast to the intellectual aesthetic favored by the serialists. Those who defended serialism as the next stage of music were outraged. "I was accused of betraying, in the following order, the church and the state," Rochberg wryly told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I was a traitor, a renegade." But Rochberg took the criticism in stride. "If you're going to be a composer," he pointed out to the Inquirer, "you have to have an iron stomach, fire in the belly, and fire in the brain."
Indeed, Rochberg composed music under the grip of strong creative impulses. "I always threw myself heedlessly into a work and didn't care how it made me feel," he told the Inquirer. "And by the end of it, my stomach was shot to hell." Philadelphia antacid vendors must have notched healthy sales in the 1970s and 1980s, for Rochberg wrote music prolifically. His list of works filled 22 pages, and if academic composers disparaged his work, professional performers, who relied on audiences, picked up the slack. One of Rochberg's most successful works was his Violin Concerto, which legendary violinist Isaac Stern—after asking and getting cuts of about 14 minutes from the concerto's original 52-minute length—performed 47 times in the mid-1970s. The String Quartet No. 3 was followed by four more string quartets, often performed by the Concord Quartet.
In addition to his musical impact, Rochberg was influential as a writer. His 1984 book of essays, The Aesthetics of Survival, brought him a host of honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. Some of the most successful composers of the late 20th century, including David Del Tredici and John Corigliano, looked to Rochberg as an inspiration. His music was sometimes called Neo-Romantic, but those who looked on his music as just a feel-good throwback to the era of Romantic melody and harmony missed important aspects of his music. It was often dark, stormy, and rapidly shifting in mood and style—very typical of modern times in its sensibilities. When he died after complications from surgery on May 29, 2005, Rochberg was remembered, not as an apostle of Romanticism or conservatism, but as an advocate for freedom. "I've tried very hard to rid myself of that stultifying conception of historical line, and if I want to contrast dissonant chromaticism cheek by jowl with a more accessibly tonal style, I will do so," he was quoted as saying, according to the New York Times article. "All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time."
For the Record . . .
Born on July 5, 1918, in Paterson, NJ; died on May 2, 2005, in Philadelphia, PA; married Gene Rosenfeld, 1941; two children: one son (deceased) and one daughter. Education: Music degrees from Mannes School of Music, New York, and Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia; University of Philadelphia, M.A., 1949; further compositional studies in Europe, 1950-51.
Taught at Curtis Institute of Music, 1948-54; Theodore Presser Company, editor and director of publications, 1954-60; composed music using serialist method, 1950s and early 1960s; University of Pennsylvania, professor of music, 1960-83.
Awards: Numerous awards, including Fulbright Fellowship, 1950-51; Society of the Publication of American Music Award, for String Quartet No. 1, 1956; Guggen heim Fellowship, 1966-67; Naumburg Chamber Composition Award, for String Quartet No. 3, 1972; Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, first prize, for String Quartet No. 4, 1979; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, inducted as fellow, 1986.
David the Psalmist, for tenor and orchestra, 1952.
12 Bagatelles, for piano, 1952.
String Quartet No. 1, 1956.
Symphony No. 2, 1956.
Music for the Magic Theater, 1965.
String Quartet No. 3, 1972.
Violin Concerto, 1974.
Symphony No. 5, 1984.
The Aesthetics of Survival (collection of essays), 1984.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), June 2, 2005, p. 29.
Independent (London, England), July 1, 2005, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2005, p. B10.
New York Sun, June 1, 2005, p. 6.
New York Times, June 1, 2005, p. B9.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 2005.
Washington Post, June 2, 2005, p. B6.
"George Rochberg," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 6, 2005).
"George Rochberg," Theodore Presser Company, http://www.presser.com (July 6, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a National Public Radio Weekend Edition broadcast, June 4, 2005.
—James M. Manheim
"Rochberg, George." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rochberg-george
"Rochberg, George." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rochberg-george
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The American composer George Rochberg (born 1918) produced important works in several distinct styles, both tonal and atonal.
George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on July 5, 1918. He began studies in composition and counterpoint with Weisse, Szell, and Mannes at the Mannes School in 1939, after receiving a B.A. from Montclair State Teachers College. For a time in the 1930s he wrote popular songs under a pseudonym. In 1942 he interrupted his studies at Mannes for three years of military duty as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He was wounded in action. Resuming his education upon his return, he received degrees from the Curtis Institute (B.M., 1947), where he studied with Scalero and Menotti, and from the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., 1948).
Rochberg taught harmony, counterpoint, and form and analysis at Curtis from 1948 to 1954 and served first as editor and then as director of publications for the Theodore Presser Company from 1951 to 1960. In 1960 he accepted a post as chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania. He resigned the chairmanship in 1968 to remain in the department in the 1980s as Annenberg Professor of Humanities. He also held several guest appointments, including those at the Temple Institute of Music (1969), the Oberlin Festival of Contemporary Music (1970), Testimonium, Jerusalem (1970-1971), and the Aspen Conference on Contemporary Music (1972). He retired from his position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.
Three Style Periods of Rochberg's Music
Rochberg's music falls into three distinct style periods, each major stylistic change being a response to a personal or social issue, rather than to a purely musical one. His first mature works reflect the influence of Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky, but several of these works have either been considerably revised or withdrawn. Perhaps the best-known composition remaining in its original form is the Bartókian First String Quartet (1952).
The first major change in Rochberg's style resulted from his conversion to the principles of serialism after the war. Of this event, he wrote: "The war years were much more than an interruption of my musical studies… . The war shaped
my psyche and precipitated my internal development. I came to grips with my own time. I came to the necessity of the twelve-tone method independently of the few other American composers who turned to it after the war." A meeting with Dallapiccola while in Italy on Fulbright and American Academy fellowships in 1950 strongly reinforced Rochberg's decision to pursue the serial method. He produced his first works in that idiom, the Twelve Bagatelles for piano, in 1952. These pieces, with their Schoenberg-like concentration and intensity, have remained among his most frequently played. He orchestrated them in 1964 and retitled the set Zodiac. Rochberg continued in this Schoenbergian vein until 1956 and produced other major works, including the Chamber Symphony (1953), David the Psalmist for tenor and orchestra (1954), the Duo Concertante for violin and cello (1955), the Second Symphony (1955-1956), and the Sonata-fantasia for piano (1956).
In adapting the serial method to suit his own compositional needs, Rochberg arrived at a means of organizing the harmonic material by hexachords. His important theoretical treatise, The Hexachord and Its Relation to the Twelve-Tone Row, codifies these principles. The serial works of the later 1950s and early 1960s, including the Cheltenham Concerto for small orchestra (1958), the Second String Quartet (with soprano, on a text by Rilke, 1959-1961), Time Span for orchestra (1962), and the Blake Songs for soprano and eight instruments (1961), all display the finely-detailed expressivity of Webern.
A fundamental change in the significance of musical duration also marked this phase of serial writing. What Rochberg referred to as "spatial music" replaced the concept of "becoming," achieved through development and final arrival at some musical objective in metered time, with that of "being," achieved through the initial statement of a completed idea in superimposed and changing meters and tempos. His extra-musical objective in this period was "to project the permanence of the world as cosmos, the cosmos as the eternal present."
Tragedy Altered His Music
The untimely death of his son in 1964 due to a brain tumor, marked the end of serial composition, which had proven "hollow … meaningless" for the expression of his grief. He grew increasingly discontent with modern music's self-conscious attempts to break from the past and with the idea of originality, in which the "personal style of the artist and his ego are the supreme values." As a means of realigning himself with what he felt to be the historical continuum, Rochberg resumed experiments with quotation. When he first borrowed this device from Charles Ives to quote a short segment of Schoenberg's Op. 23 No. 1 piano piece in his own Sonata-fantasia he was unaware that other composers were moving in similar directions. His first major effort in quotation, Contra Mortem et Tempus for flute, clarinet, piano, and violin (1965), utilizes material from Boulez, Berio, Vare‧se, Berg, Ives, and Rochberg himself. However, most of these excerpts are not readily identifiable because, except for the Ives, they are divested of their original rhythms and because they are all modern pieces and well-integrated by Rochberg into his own style. Later compositions would include quotations from earlier composers in more recognizable statements; Music for the Magic Theater for 15 instruments (1965) incorporates the music of Mozart and the third symphony, J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schütz.
In carrying this return to tonality to its logical conclusion, Rochberg has written several pastiche works, often in styles of 19th-century Austrian or German masters. His Third String Quartet (1972) contains stylistic references to Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Bartók. The three Concord Quartets (1978) contain similar references plus quotations. Later still, his opera The Confidence Man (based on the Melville novel, 1982), Between Two Worlds for flute and piano (1983), and the Oboe Concerto (1983) rely less on other composers and are increasingly chromatic and angular.
Although he embraced a wide range of current means of expression, Rochberg resisted several others, again for humanistic reasons. He rejected the post-Webern aesthetic of total-serialism, saying that "music is not engineering, and I stick fast to my conviction that music retains a deep connection with existence as we feel, rather than think it." He responded to aleatoricism with "an unshakable aversion to any type of art that ignores the human situation by avoiding responsible choice." He remained committed to acoustically produced sound, as he found electronic music lacking in passion. And he relied little on the new sounds being extracted from traditional instruments, with the exception of now-common devices such as flutter-tonguing or playing directly on the strings of a piano.
Awards and Recognition
Recognition of his work came early and continued without interruption, resulting in many prestigious awards, grants, and commissions. Among these were: The George Gershwin Memorial Award (1952) for Night Music; the Society for the Publication of American Music Award for the Bartókian First String Quartet (1952); a Koussevitzky Foundation commission (1956) for Dialogues; Guggenheim fellowships (1957, 1966); the Naumberg Recording Award (1961) for the second symphony; a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1962); a Lincoln Center Performing Arts commission (1966) for Black Sounds; a National Endowment for the Arts commission (1974) for the violin concerto; the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award (1979) for the fourth string quartet; a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commission (1980) for the Octet; and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1985). Rochberg was elected into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985. A television documentary was filmed of Rochberg in 1983 entitled "George Rochberg and His Music."
There is one biography on Rochberg titled, George Rochberg: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to his Life and Works by Joan DeVee Dixon (1992). Another source is "Change and Continuity in the Music of George Rochberg," a doctorate thesis by Daniel P. Horn, Julliard School of Music (1987). Throughout his career Rochberg was quite verbal in matters both theoretical and aesthetic. Seventeen of his most important articles, written over 30 years and sometimes somewhat contradictory in statement, have been gathered into a volume, The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth Century Music (1984). Theoretical writings in addition to this book include an important article, "The Harmonic Tendency of the Hexachord," in the Journal of Music Theory 3 (1959). Alexander Ringer has written articles on Rochberg for The Musical Quarterly 45 (1959), 47 (1961), and 52 (1966), of which the last contains especially thorough coverage to the end of his serial period. A dissertation entitled "The String Quartets of George Rochberg" was written by J. J. Smith (1976, Eastman School of Music). □
"George Rochberg." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-rochberg
"George Rochberg." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-rochberg
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"Rochberg, George." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rochberg-george
"Rochberg, George." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved April 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rochberg-george