George Rochberg, (July 5, 1918, Paterson, New Jersey – May 29, 2005, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania) was an American composer of contemporary classical music.
In the post World War II, post-modern, deconstructionist era, it became fashionable to deride the music born out of the ethos of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially the propensity to express “extra-musical” ideas. This derision could be especially vituperative if those ideas had religious or spiritual underpinnings. Scientific discovery and the pursuit of empirical truth had consigned religious belief as a source of inspiration in music to the status of an anachronism—or worse. Serialism and formulaic methods of composition turned art music into disagreeable listening experiences and as a result created a condition where art music became increasingly marginal.
American composer George Rochberg offered the following critique of the dominance of formulaic compositional rationale: “Modern man may view with disdain his primitive forebears for propitiating the gods as a means of defense and protection against the unseen and unknown—but it is doubtful that he would even be here to practice this disdain had his ancestors practiced the modern variety of science. Rationally it is probably not demonstrable that man has survived through fantasy, but intuitively one knows we are still here today only because of that faculty for the fantastic, only because of our innate passion for images, symbols, myths and metaphors.”
Like many composers of his generation, Rochberg was greatly influenced by the music that was the progeny of the Second Viennese School. After his initial infatuation with atonalism, he would find great inspiration in Gustav Mahler's deeply "humane" expressions. He would eventually turn to a more ingratiating style of composing in his later years, developing a distinctly more "accessible" syntax. Rochberg’s attitudes regarding the value of music based on the syntax of tonality vis-à-vis its ability to “convey eloquently and elegantly the passions of the human heart" become a significant aspect of his legacy as an important American composer in the second half of the twentieth century.
Rochberg began his musical studies at age ten on the (piano) and by his fifteenth year was proficient enough to be playing in jazz ensembles. He attended Montclair State Teachers College and would eventually travel to New York where he continued his education at the Mannes College of Music, where one of his teachers was the eminent conductor/pianist George Szell.
He served in the armed forces and was wounded in action on the battlefields in Europe. Upon his return to private life he attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied composition with Gian Carlo Menotti and earned his bachelors degree. He then earned a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949. A Fullbright Fellowship in 1950 took him to Rome where he studied with one of the leading exponents of dodecaphonic writing, Luigi Dallapiccola. He received an honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia Music Academy in 1964.
He won the Gershwin Memorial Award for composition for his orchestral work, Night Music, which received its premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Dmitri Mitropoulos in 1953. Other works were premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, the Cincinnati Symphony under Max Rudolf and the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell's direction. His first String Quartet garnered him the Society for the Publication of American Music Award in 1956. His Concord Quartets, composed to commemorate his 60th birthday in 1978, remain among his most important works.
He was the chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania until 1968, and continued to teach there until 1983. His notable students include Vincent McDermott.
After a period of experimentation with serialism, Rochberg abandoned it after 1963 when his son died, saying that serialism was empty of expressive emotion and was inadequate to express his grief and rage. By the 1970s, he had become controversial for the use of tonal passages in his music. His use of tonality first became widely known through the String Quartet no. 3 (1972), which includes an entire set of variations that are in the style of late Beethoven. Another movement of the quartet contains passages reminiscent of the music of Gustav Mahler. This use of tonality caused critics to classify him as a neoromantic composer. He compared atonality to abstract art and tonality to concrete art and viewed his artistic evolution with Philip Guston's, saying "the tension between concreteness and abstraction" is a fundamental issue for both of them (Rochberg, 1992).
Of the works composed early in his career, the Symphony No. 2 (1955-1956) stands out as an accomplished serial composition by an American composer. Rochberg is perhaps best known for his String Quartets Nos. 4-6 (1977-78), known as the "Concord" Quartets because they were composed for the Concord String Quartet. The String Quartet No. 6 includes a set of variations on Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D.
A few of his works were musical collages of quotations from other composers. "Contra Mortem et Tempus," for example, contains passages from Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives.
His works have been recorded by notable ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Columbia Symphony, the New York Chamber Ensemble, the Concord String Quartet, the 20th Century Consort and the Beaux Arts Trio. The Saarbrucken Radio Symphony (Germany) has recently recorded a number of his major works, including his Fifth Symphony (commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), for the NAXOS label.
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