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George Rochberg

By Ned Rorem

The melancholy of these readings is always relieved by a certain elation. For, alone among us, an artist does not die when he dies. His work can last for centuries, and that work contains what is unique to him, and is communicable and healthy, though he may actually socially have been bad or a bore. George Rochberg was neither bad nor a bore, but he certainly remains alive—even to those who never knew him—through the heartbeat of his music.

Non-vocal music, unlike all the fellow arts, cannot be proved to have even general meaning, like death, or weather, or love, much less specific meaning, like bread, or Tuesday, or pencil. Mendelssohn said: “It’s not that music is too vague for words, it’s too precise for words.” Usually I skip a composer’s program notes, since his music speaks louder than words. But Rochberg contradicts at every turn my glib French generalities. He once wrote: “Making the world a better place is not a project for the artist. His project is to express the fire in the mind, to make, as Robert Browning said, beautiful things ‘that have lain burningly on the Divine Hand.’” (Of course art—at least visual art—expresses ugly violence as well, like Guernica or Goya.)

Another of my generalities is on music that falls into categories: the melodic, like Chopin and Rachmaninov; the contrapuntal, like Hindemith and Palestrina; the rhythmic, like Varèse or Bartok; and the harmonic, like Debussy or Thomson. But Rochberg blends these simultaneously into a fifth category, which could be named color. Listen to his Second Symphony of 1955, which opens like Beethoven’s Fifth, becomes unstoppably loud and fast, then dissolves into a gorgeous minute that seems apologetically wistful. Or the Imago Mundi of 1973, an utterly tonal borrowing of the traditional Japanese school of painting—or in his words: “A picturing of the external world, but only insofar as our pictures are imaginings, mental fictions, shadowed reflections of the reality of past as well as of present times.” Or the Violin Concerto of 1974, which opens like Prokofiev, and where again the fast parts are chromatic and frantic while the slow parts are diatonic and the color of tears.

His borrowings are kin to the creative process, since nothing comes from nothing. If you know you are stealing, you try to cover your traces, and this covering is you. For example, his two-clarinet riff, is right out of Petrushka, which Stravinsky in turn swiped from Rapsodie Espagnole, which Ravel had taken from Spanish folk song.

George Rochberg was born in New Jersey 87 years ago. He studied composition at Mannes School until 1943, then served in the infantry in Europe until the end of the war. “The war,” said he, “was more than an interruption in my musical life…[it] shaped my psyche…I came to grips with my own time. I came to the necessity of the twelve-tone method independent of the few other American composers who turned to it after the war.” Gravely wounded in France, he returned to Philadelphia. During the 1950s he worked at Curtis and at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Italy on a Fulbright and the Rome Prize, befriending Dallapiccola, leader of the Italian serialist avant-garde. Back in America, he published much prose on what he considered musical truths, and broadened his creative idiom to include tonal trends. He was performed throughout the globe.

Then, in 1961, his son died at the age of 20. Much has been made of Rochberg’s ensuing despair, his struggle to give sense to serialism, which now seemed shallow and arbitrary. He used his son Paul’s—as well as his wife Gene’s—texts in his work. Bit by bit he found a new language that was neither aleatoric nor serial, dialects that now seemed ornamental to a basic tonality.

Up through the 1980s he was awarded our major honors and grew as famous as a composer can be, before he died in the light—or is it the shadow?—of appreciation.

With a perspective of hindsight, one finds that those long-gone “modern” composers who changed languages many times—Stravinsky and Copland, for example—actually retain their same accent. Similarly, Rochberg, at least to my ears, spoke the same language and with the same accent throughout his long life, despite what occurred away from his desk. For an artist at work stops living in order to write about living; should he weep real tears, he would smear the ink.

Yes, his music was always tuneful, if not in a conventional sense, nor harmonically lush. And it was always scary, at least to my ears, in both counterpoint and rhythm, as witness the ominous and persistent kettledrum slitherings in Black Sounds, or the original monodrama, Phaedra, or Robert Lowell’s verse in which the human voice speaks and screams. Pure theater.

Indeed, all art is theater, in that art is not real life but a concentration of life. By that definition, the art of George Rochberg is theater to the core, a core that is eerie, explosive, complex, and very sad.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 6, 2006.

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