Notes on a Revolution
The music, in words, of the late George Rochberg.


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The World of My Music
By George Rochberg G’49
University of Illinois Press, 2009. $40.00.

By Karen Rile | Around Locust Walk, the name George Rochberg is virtually synonymous with Penn’s Department of Music, where he famously taught for a quarter-century, leaving his imprint on a generation of emerging composers. In the 1960s, following a stint as publications director at the Theodore Presser Company in Bryn Mawr, Rochberg served as department chair, revamping the curriculum and recruiting eminent colleagues such as composer George Crumb and theorist Leonard Meyer. It was largely as a result of Rochberg’s efforts that Penn’s music department blossomed into an internationally prominent institution capable of attracting and nurturing first-rate talent. Following his retirement from active teaching in 1983, Rochberg, who lived in nearby Newtown Square, stayed on as a professor emeritus, mentoring young composers from home while devoting his energies to writing music, and, in his final years, writing about music.

But his achievements in academe were only a small part of his legacy. One of the leading composers of the 20th century, Rochberg left behind a significant body of work, including six symphonies, seven string quartets, various other chamber and solo works, and an opera. Rochberg was also an essayist—his collected writing, The Aesthetics of Survival, won a posthumous award from the American Society of Composers in 2006.

His last big project, the memoir Five Lines, Four Spaces, was completed only weeks before his death in 2005, and is now available from the University of Illinois Press after three years of editorial preparation by his widow and life-long partner, the writer and former actress Gene Rochberg and Richard Griscom, head of the University’s Otto E. Albrecht Music Library. Anyone interested in the history of 20th-century music should value the book’s candid insight into the career of this major American composer, whose most profound and controversial accomplishment was to instigate a revolution in the world of contemporary classical music.

The son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, Rochberg was trained in composition by Leopold Mannes and George Szell at the Mannes School in Manhattan before being drafted into the army during World War II and suffering serious wounds during the Normandy invasion. After his discharge from the army, Rochberg studied at Curtis and Penn. On a Fulbright fellowship in Italy, he met the anti-fascist avant-garde composer Luigi Dallapiccola, who introduced him to the musical style known as serialism.

In the early 1950s Rochberg began producing 12-tone compositions, and soon became the darling of the avant-garde movement in the U.S. As a serialist composer he garnered every major prize on the horizon, including awards from the Guggenheim and Koussevitsky foundations. His works were championed by the musical establishment and performed regularly by top soloists and ensembles, as well as by conductors such as Szell, now the leader of the Cleveland Orchestra, and the irascible Eugene Ormandy.

Then, in the early 1960s personal tragedy struck when Rochberg’s teenage son, Paul, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Within four years, Paul, a promising young poet, was dead, and the composer found himself at a loss to express the complex emotions of his grief through the narrow syntax of 12-tone music—which, as he wrote, “gave off the cold breath of a passionless scientism.”

Looking backwards from the vantage of 40 years, it now seems inevitable that Western art music would have to break loose from its state of airless abstraction. But it takes an extraordinary level of integrity and courage for an artist to risk a flourishing, lucrative career by challenging the artistic and academic powers-that-be. During the decade following the death of his son, Rochberg proceeded to forge a new body of work, inventing a system of composition that incorporated both tonal and atonal composition. He revisited masterpieces of former centuries, looking to create a more diverse and emotionally resonant body of contemporary music—in his words, “join[ing] together in a single larger context the antipodes that most musicians and composers still automatically assume are logically antithetic to each other.”

To achieve this new style, he braved the derision of critics, academicians, and fellow composers who labeled him a traitor, a forger, a composer of pastiche. Uncowed, Rochberg focused on the “hard work of hammering myself into an artist in music.” He succeeded; although dogged by controversy, his music continued to be performed for the rest of his life, and his legacy continues.

This memoir is not a narrative or a straightforward biography; Rochberg’s intent was to set forth a rich contextual background for each of the musical works discussed. Still, Five Lines, Four Spaces has plenty of drama, both human and theoretical. On nearly every page glistens an encounter with some major or minor figure in the 20th-century classical-music world, and there are gemlike little cameos of various luminaries—avuncular George Szell in his fur collar and homburg hat; Eugene Ormandy pitching a full-throttle backstage tantrum; Vartan Gregorian delivering a comforting aphorism. But the center of the memoir is the music itself, and Rochberg’s earnest quest to forge a meaningful body of work, without concern for the costs to him, personal or otherwise.

Five Lines, Four Spaces is organized into 21 self-contained chapters and “interludes,” each focusing on the genesis and context for a particular musical work or group of works in the Rochberg oeuvre. While individual sections can be pulled out and read separately on their own, the book as a whole presents a pleasing unity and cohesion often absent from memoirs that have been cobbled together from a series of essays. Rochberg is a sympathetic narrator and a keen observer, not given to self-aggrandizement or self-pity. He writes in an intimate, direct style that is accessible to the non-specialist in all but the most technical passages. The book would be best read while listening to recordings of the works being described (some can be downloaded from iTunes, or ordered from a library, but some are not recorded, and other recordings are difficult to obtain) but Rochberg’s evocative prose carries the discussion as well as mere words can manage.

Karen Rile C’80, a frequent contributor to the Gazette, teaches writing at Penn.
  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/28/09