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1915-2009

George Perle

By Yehudi Wyner

George Perle was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1915. As a little boy of 7, he heard his cousin Esther play the first of Chopin’s Trois Nouvelles Études. He found himself, in his own words, “extraordinarily moved,” and this reaction ignited what proved to be a passionate, lifelong commitment to music.

Perle’s outstanding musical gift—allied to a penetrating intelligence, an appetite for exploring and cultivating the new—compelled him to pursue a varied and productive career, writing, teaching, and above all, composing. His several books on serial music and atonality, on the major works of Alban Berg as well as significant compositions of Schoenberg, Webern, Krenek, Babbitt, and others, are considered essential texts for the understanding of the revolutionary developments of the 20th century. In his own composition he evolved a system of 12-tone tonality, only distantly related to serial technique.

Perle’s catalogue of compositions is copious and varied. It includes works for solo instruments (especially piano), songs and choruses, chamber works for diverse ensembles, works for larger instrumental ensembles, five wind quartets, several string quartets, piano concertos and compositions of symphonic scale.

The quality of the craft is exemplary. Nothing is shoddy, nothing thrown away. The imagination, the energy, the wit, never flag. What is especially surprising is that this art, so tightly controlled, so meticulously organized, releases assaults of Dionysian passion which seem impulsively improvised and yet are immediately integrated into the governing context. We have the security, so to speak, of a rational, dependable vehicle which encourages the unexpected irruption of shapes and figures which could not be anticipated and yet which immediately earn their essential place in the discourse.

I did not know George well. My acquaintance with his music came late. I clearly recall the moment over 20 years ago when his music invaded his consciousness. It was a performance of his Etudes for Piano, splendidly played by Seymour Lipkin—wonderful music, original, elegant, powerful, convincing. Before this, where had I been? Since that epiphany, Perle’s music became very present on my radar screen, and I followed performances of his music with alert anticipation. With each new piece the conviction that this was music of the highest value was deepened and enlarged.

My impression of George was that he was shy, retiring, private, reserved. For a long time I was unaware of his puckish wit and of his rapier-like critical intelligence.

In contrast to his apparent reserve, his music presents a commanding assurance, unflagging animation and invariable coherence as well as a rich repertory of high-spirited humor. No signs of self-pity, no inflated bathos, no adolescent narcissism. The music sets forth arresting shapes, vivid articulations and exhilarating oppositions, which explode into our perception. At every moment one is aware of various kinds of order marked by symmetry, precision, clarity and transparency. The instrumental writing, while often diabolically demanding, is also brilliantly idiomatic and full of color and character. Grossness, gratuitous violence, mere theatrical shocks are unthinkable. Even at events of violent intrusion—dramatic awakenings so to speak—the musical elements—notes, voicings, and textures of the attack—are connected organically to the fabric of the composition.  Nothing vulgar, nothing small-minded, petty or cosmetically enhanced enters this world.

In his book Notes of an Apprenticeship, Boulez quotes Francois Florand speaking about the music of Bach. Florand says:

Bach’s “concert of voices”… leads to a progression that comes entirely from the melodic current itself, a little stream that one sees increasing without apparent external cause, without affluents or glaciers or storms, solely by the contribution of mysterious subterranean springs. It is a procedure which is formed of an interior accumulation of energy, of emotional force, to the point at which the composer and the listener are saturated as though intoxicated.

Florand continues his analysis by pointing out that Bach’s “delirium” is “lucid, his intoxication conscious … always contained by a will and an intelligence that never for a second sleep.”

I find this formulation relevant to the music of George Perle and the procedures by which it is achieved. Bach’s music is not about him personally, not about his life experience as an individual.  And yet the uniqueness, the individuality and the vividness of the expression, the vitality of the intelligence and the depth of human understanding transmit a communication of the most direct relevance to all of us, and, paradoxically, to each of us.

I believe that these qualities are the basic components of Perle’s art. I cannot conceive of a higher praise of Perle’s music than proposing these parallels with the music of Bach, our giant of giants.

Describing music is largely a futile exercise, a bit like shadow boxing. What we really want is “Not ideas about the Thing, but the Thing itself,  “to quote Wallace Stevens. An anecdote about Beethoven, perhaps apocryphal, is relevant. Following a performance of one of his sonatas, a person approached him and asked him what the music meant. Beethoven reacted with a gesture of disgust, then seated himself and played the sonata all over again.

And so to proceed to what is most important, let us listen to three examples of George’s music, regrettably short because of our time constraint.

The first is from Brief Encounters, his String Quartet #9, composed in 1998. We hear a clear exposition of elements, playful, animated yet elusive. Seamlessly this dissolves into an episode of warm, heartfelt lyricism. The rest is extension, development and return, always varied and modified. The conclusion surprises.

Our second example is a short excerpt from the Second Piano Concerto dated 1992. We’ve allowed ourselves two minutes, fifty seconds of a nine-minute movement.

The opening is brilliant, with clear textures, clear phrases and sharp percussion punctuations. Such an opening salvo is intended to capture our attention with images we can identify and remember. A contrasting section follows with delicate figures and sequences. The discourse is witty, affectionate. The harmony inflects. Lots of laughter, lots of mystery.

And finally, as an aubade, the Adagietto con affetto from Chansons Cachées. Chansons Cachées: might this be a suggestive subtitle for all of Perle’s music? The tender, caressing affection of this short piano piece makes it irresistible.

The pianist is Shirley Rhoades Perle.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2009.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters