Rochberg’s lines and spaces

Five Lines, Four Spaces: The World of My Music by George Rochberg is disappointing for those of us who were hoping for a more comprehensive memoir. There are only glimpses of a personal narrative here. I would have liked to hear more about Rochberg’s family of origin, his own family, his work at Theodore Presser Co. and at the University of Pennsylvania.  But George chose to make the book principally about his music. (I say “George chose”, but my understanding is that the published book is only a fraction of a much longer manuscript – hence the somewhat patchwork form of the book. You’ll have to visit the Sacher Foundation to read the whole thing.) The book is mostly about the origins of selected pieces of George’s, combined with praise for the best performers of those pieces, and warmed-over polemic aganist modernism in general and serialism in particular. Actually, the warming-over is more like boiling over. Rochberg in his last years remained intensely angry about what he saw as the evils of serial music. This is mostly old news, though the book includes a new attack on Joseph Straus for his article demonstrating how serial composers didn’t actually dominate the musical culture the way people think they did, Rochberg saying this is an attempt to “de-Stalinize” the era.

George’s voice does come through in the book, and not always in a flattering way. Throughout, the tone is pretentious – all rehearsals are exhaustive, all his pieces seem to be of the utmost expressive intensity at all times – as though he needs to reassure himself of his work’s importance. Although he is nice about some performers of his music, sometimes to the point of overpraising them, there is also a striking and sad lack of generosity toward his colleagues. George has nothing to say about those who worked with him at Theodore Presser Co., and nothing about his composer colleagues at Penn, except some shabby comments about George Crumb’s music. (The one mention of a Penn colleague of any kind is of how medievalist Norman Smith confirmed that the Latin for the title of Contra Mortem et Tempus was correct.) Relatively few composer colleagues are mentioned in the book and George almost never acknowledges owing any of them any musical debt. He is, in general, only influenced by dead composers. He takes pains to make clear that he was writing 12-tone music before he met Dallapiccola. He does show some collegiality when he expresses his gratitude to Ulysses Kay for helping proof the parts to his early Night Music, or to William Schuman for his positive reaction to Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia.  And he does acknowledge a few contemporary works. There are passing references to the Barber Piano Sonata – as a piece in the background of the Sonata-Fantasia – and to one of Ligeti’s woodwind quintets – mentioned in a discussion of Rochberg’s own quintet. But he seems to work in a kind of isolation. You wouldn’t know from this book that any other composer of that period was rejecting aspects of modernism as was Rochberg.

The consequence of this isolation can be some curious assertions. Like the self-deception I posted about earlier, this example has to do with Crumb. Rochberg speaks of having “invented” the piano harmonics he employed in his chamber piece Contra Mortem et Tempus. These are not the sympathetic harmonics that we know from Schoenberg’s and Berg’s piano writing, involving silently depressed keys. Rather, the ones George used require touching the piano string at the appropriate node, just like playing harmonics on a violin or guitar. I don’t have the scores at hand, but I am fairly certain George Crumb used such harmonics in his Five Pieces for Piano and Night Music I, of 1962 and 1963 respectively – before Rochberg’s 1964 Contra. Now, Crumb did not join the Penn faculty until 1965, but it still seems odd that Rochberg was not aware of his younger colleague’s use of this technique – and odd that years later he still didn’t know Crumb’s use of harmonics predated his own.

And yet, for those of us who love the Serenata d’estate, the Second Symphony, the Third Quartet, Contra Mortem et Tempus, the Sonata-Fantasia, and more; for those of us who are grateful for the insights gained by studying with George; for those of us who admire the courage and passion with which George pursued his musical visions, the book is fascinating, if sometimes sad reading.

5 thoughts on “Rochberg’s lines and spaces

  1. Hello James,
    I found this blog through your posting of the upcoming Daedalus concert, and read further with pleasure. Just wanted to share a thought about your Rochberg post. You knew him and I didn’t, which makes you eminently more qualified to judge his words, so this is more of a question than a statement. It strikes me that his lack of interest in his colleagues may have been consistent with his view that the web of collegial support was detrimental to music. In other words, is it possible he resented the fact that other composers whose work he didn’t respect were more successful (professionally speaking) because they were adept at scratching the right backs, so he responded by avoiding any whiff of trading favors to further his own career?

    Again, you knew him, so I’m curious to hear your view.


  2. Jim,

    As someone who has read the full 700-page manuscript, I can report that the complete version of “Five Lines, Four Spaces” didn’t include the content that you had hoped to find in the published book. The parts that were omitted were (mostly) music analyses, and they were omitted because the publisher asked that the length be reduced, and it was felt that complex analyses would be unappealing to nonspecialist readers. Everything Rochberg chose to write about his colleagues at Penn and his personal life was included in the published version. Personally, I wished he had written at least *something* about a few of the more difficult patches in his life (beyond the tragic loss of his son, which he does address): his experience in World War II, for example, or the critical reception of his opera, “The Confidence Man.”

    Best wishes,
    Richard Griscom

  3. “I don’t have the scores at hand, but I am fairly certain George Crumb used such harmonics in his Five Pieces for Piano and Night Music I, of 1962 and 1963 respectively – before Rochberg’s 1964 Contra.”

    I don’t have those scores either, but I do have John Cage’s “Notations” book, in which the Crumb sample is the first page of the Five Pieces. There are harmonics there.

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