Remembering Rochberg

I recently finished reading George Rochberg’s memoir, Five Lines and Four Spaces. I wrote a brief comment about the book in an earlier post, and although I am trying to make progress on my piece for the Albany Symphony, I hope to be writing again about the book in the next few days. For now, here is an essay I wrote in connection with a performance of George’s music by Orchestra 2001 a few years ago. I am indebted to John Harbison for the Milosz quote.


Composer, pianist, publisher, writer, administrator, teacher – there were many vehicles for George Rochberg’s formidable impact on musical life. The University of Pennsylvania benefited from George’s efforts in the last two of these categories, for he served as chair of the music department and as professor of composition. I had the privilege of experiencing his presence at Penn myself when, in the fall of 1978, I took two classes with George as part of my graduate studies in composition at the University of Pennsylvania. There was a composition seminar, which was to focus on writing for orchestra; and a course in 19th century chromatic harmony, where George would expound on “circular harmonic sets” (his way of describing certain symmetrical harmonic relationships) and “the harmonic envelope” (his term for the surface details through which a composer projects the harmonies of a piece.) George’s manner in both courses was discursive. He would circle around a topic slowly, offering oracular pronouncements, generalizations, proverbs. Some of his comments were wry. In speaking of the material state of the composer in today’s world, George pointed out to us “if money corrupts, you are incorruptible.” But most of his comments were more serious. “The problem with composers today is that they don’t know how to write accompaniments for melodies” was one statement I remember hearing from George early on. And, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, he told us that the “11th commandment” for us as composers was “Thou Shalt Make Shapes.” With comments like these, George was inviting us toward the ideal he held out as his own: to create music that fulfilled its spiritual responsibilities with the utmost clarity, richness, and vividness, with harmonies clearly projected, with melodic shapes of distinctive profile.

There were no technical means, no style that could be rejected – anything was fair game if it could serve the expressive task at hand. Well, not quite anything. George made perfectly clear his rejection of the mid-century avant-garde, which he saw as artistically bankrupt, its myriad compositional strategies having little to offer us as aspiring composers. He even had little good to say about the modernist masters from the first part of the 20th century, particularly the Second Viennese School whose languages he had shown himself to be a master of in his works of the 1950s. It is a curious fact that despite George’s acid comments on Schoenberg, he never abandoned atonal and expressionist gestures, which continue to appear in his music long after he started employing tonal idioms. What George set aside was the systematic side of serialism, preferring that the rigor of the music reside in its tenacious adherence to an intuitive path, rather than in patterns of structure that George came to see as extrinsic to the matter at hand – the problem of “making shapes” with a maximum of expressive power.

Instead of modernism, George held before us the canon of tonal music from Bach to Mahler. The notion that this canon had something to tell young composers was, in 1978, still startling. The idea was so conservative that it was radically progressive. Having come from an undergraduate experience that emphasized whatever was the latest thing, it took time to get my mind around the idea that the plan for George’s composition seminar included studying Pictures at an Exhibition and two Mahler symphonies. Mind you, this was for composition seminar, not orchestration class. When the shock wore off, I did experience the course as nourishing. The issues George pointed out to us in a tonal context – for example, “writing accompaniments for melodies” – became for me the need to project harmonies transparently, with character and melodic interest, even if the chords involved were post-tonal.

In George’s harmony class I worked on a piano piece in a 19th century romantic style based on idioms from Chopin and Liszt. What I remember most about George’s comments is how he urged me to extend a cadenza late in the piece: “spin it out, let it speak, let it take the time it needs.” He was inviting me toward a greater generosity of compositional voice. There is a generosity of this sort in George’s inclusive approach to musical style. His music since the 1970s was not just tonal, but polystylistic. Like Mahler, he wanted to embrace universes of expression in his music. While there are pieces from this period that are quite tonal throughout, embracing a 19th century idiom, most often he mixed idioms in a wide-ranging stylistic array. He by no means gave up writing non-tonal music. The so-called Concord Quartets, the 4th, 5th and 6th quartets, written, like the 3rd Quartet, in response to a request from the Concord String Quartet, were created as a group, in imitation of the sets of pieces that comprise a single opus, like the quartet sets by Haydn and Mozart.  I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of this set at Penn’s University Museum. Hearing all three pieces in a row was an exhausting and astonishing experience, the fertility of the man’s imagination being the chief source of the astonishment. Here was an extraordinarily wide range of expressive types, in marked contrast to the modernist tendency toward cultivating a narrow range of such types, even a single such type – think of the powerful but limited expressive range of Varese, or of the expressionist painters who created many canvases that were variants on a signature gesture or form. Instead, George engaged a different part of the modernist tradition, one represented better by Ives and Mahler than Webern and Varese. Consider the range covered in the Sixth Quartet. The work begins with an atonal fantasia, presenting vivid gestures, both dramatic and evocative, strung together in an improvisational manner. The scherzo that follows uses a Viennese classical gestural language, but with a harmonic idiom that partakes of much later practice. Then we come to the central set of variations. This was perhaps the most striking movement in the piece at the premiere, for the basis of the movement is the famous, or infamous, Pachelbel canon. Yes, the hit of classical radio in the 70s, thereafter heard in myriad arrangements, and as accompaniment to more than a few bridal processions. The reaction in the hall when the basis of the movement became apparent was one of amusement and disbelief – George was going to do something with this beautiful little piece that had been made so banal through repetition? He certainly was. At George’s hands, the little piece –  really, the bass line and harmonic progression of the piece – are transfigured. The movement follows a rough expressive arc, beginning with the simplest of statements of the underlying structure, and moving through a variety of tonal idioms, finally reaching a Mahler-esque version, and eventually retracing its steps to a simple outline. The movement’s journey covers much more territory than one would think possible given the vehicle at hand. After the variations, Rochberg offers a brief serenade that again is in a post-tonal idiom, and a finale that recalls the finales of the Viennese classical period, but from a nostalgic point of view, with moments of repose interrupting the onrushing motion.

In his polystylistic works like the 6th Quartet, George offered an uncommonly inclusive vision of what a piece of music could contain. The example this music set before us as students was a challenge to openness, to generosity, to breadth – but always at the service of an intensely focused spiritual impulse.

Sometimes George’s classroom remarks were expressed in a more poetic manner: “All we are doing as composers is drawing in the air, coloring the air”.  The poignant evanescence of music is one of the secret sources of its gentle and devastating power over us. George’s own “drawings in the air” continue to carry a spiritual charge for us, not least because of particular cultural moment in which they appeared. A poem of Czelaw Milosz speaks to this point. Milosz wrote “A Task” in 1970, just before the Rochberg 3rd quartet appeared:

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dare to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

George Rochberg had the courage to speak to us in his music with pure and generous words, and yet, he is no lost man. In the presence of the gift of his music, for as long as the drawing in the air lingers, we too are no longer lost.

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