Books about Rochberg and Hagen

I recently re-read Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s George Rochberg, American Composer: Personal Trauma and Artistic Creativity, and I highly recommend it. Perhaps it was of special interest to me because Rochberg is part of my own history – I took two courses with him when I was a student at Penn, and have played his music on several occasions. (I am briefly quoted in the book, having spoken with Dr. Wlodarski as she was working on it.) But I think the volume is of interest to anyone involved with American music and recent music in general. The book is not the thoroughgoing life and works (like Howard Pollack’s book on Copland) that Rochberg deserves and I wish existed, though there is plenty of biographical information and insightful discussion of several of his pieces. Rather, it is a series of essays on various aspects of his life, with his traumatic experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II as an overarching theme. Dr. Wlodarski has dug deeply into the Rochberg archives at the Sacher Foundation and discovered the facts about Rochberg’s wartime experience that he rarely, if ever, talked about. Rochberg served approximately 250 days in active combat duty, was wounded twice, and was even jailed briefly for insubordination when he refused an order to lead his men into what he felt would have been certain death. The book’s chapters deal with Rochberg’s wartime experience, his creative path to what he called Ars Combinatoria (his use of wide-ranging styles and materials in his work, encompassing both pre-20th century and modernist idioms), his identity as a secular Jew, and his work as a teacher. Much of the book is taken up with Rochberg’s own prose writings, and Dr. Wlodarski is helpful in elucidating and providing perspective on that aspect of his work. I mean no criticism of the book when I point this out, but I have to say I value a piece like the Symphony Nr. 2 or Serenata d’Estate more than all his essays put together. Bravo to Amy Wlodarski for an elegantly written book that provides vital information about an important American artist.

Daron Hagen’s memoir, Duet with the Past, was fascinating to me, partly because – like the Rochberg book – his history and my history overlap a bit; for example, we were both in New York in the 1980’s. (I think it was maybe at Daron’s apartment that Christine Schadeberg and I tried out a performance of Book of the Hanging Gardens that we were preparing). But apart from this egocentric reason for enjoying the book, I was intrigued by it because of Daron’s experience with what feels like an earlier part of American musical history. Daron studied at Curtis and Juilliard. His mentors and musical touchstones include Rorem, Diamond, and Bernstein. Though Rorem is still alive and was not particularly connected with Copland, I don’t know another composer roughly of my generation (Daron is a bit younger than myself) of comparable prominence who has those connections with important figures who in turn connect with Copland; this contrasts with my own connections with teachers of a later era like Crumb and Davidovsky (though now that I think of it, Mario himself had a thread of connection with Copland, as it was through Copland that he came to Tanglewood and thence to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.) Also, Daron worked as a music copyist in New York, which again feels like an experience from an earlier era, after decades of composers relying on computer engraving software.

The book reveals that Daron has survived more than his share of trauma as well, though it sprang from his family experience, not wartime service. There is material here about productions of his operas and performances of his concert works, his affectionate relationship with the artist colony Yaddo, and his redeeming second marriage and fatherhood. The book is a brave, revealing, and touching enterprise.

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