George Rochberg, composer, Died at 86


George Rochberg died on May 29, 2005 at the age of 86,he was an American composer of contemporary classical music.

Born in Paterson, New Jersey on July 5, 1918, Rochberg attended first the Mannes College of Music, where his teachers included George Szell and Hans Weisse, then the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Rosario Scalero and Gian Carlo Menotti.

A longtime exponent of serialism, Rochberg abandoned this compositional technique upon the death of his teenage son in 1964.

He said he had found serialism empty of expressive intent and that it had proved an inadequate means for him to express his grief and rage.

By 1959, Rochberg was lionized as America’s first and greatest Master of composition in a serial language.

His 1955-56 Second Symphony, taken up and enthusiastically premièred by George Szell, seemed to lay out a path for him as one of the leaders of the American avant-garde.

And yet, not even three years after its première, he was rethinking his language, already dissatisfied with the limitations of expressivity of the strict twelve-tone environment.

Having mastered the idiom, he was far ahead of his time in seeking to go beyond it.

The oft-repeated assertion that it was predominantly personal tragedy that led Rochberg to abandon dodecaphony and embrace tonality is not entirely borne out by the facts.

His evolution towards a multiplicity of simultaneous languages was already well in train from his earliest compositions.

By the 1970s, Rochberg 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 aneoromantic composer.

He compared atonality to abstract art and tonality to concrete art and compared his artistic evolution with Philip Guston’s, saying “the tension between concreteness and abstraction” is a fundamental issue for both of them (Rochberg 1992).

In 1961 tragedy struck when Rochberg’s son became ill with an ultimately fatal brain tumor.

His son’s death three years later left the composer deeply changed and struggling to compose.

His eventual conclusion that he was unable to adequately express his profound grief and loss through serialism led him towards his more mature style, an aesthetic which often mixes tonality and atonality and has sometimes been labeled “neo-romanticism.”

Rochberg described his goal in this new style as an attempt to achieve “the most potent and effective way to translate my musical energy into the clearest and most direct patterns of feeling and thought.”

Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 was immediately controversial. Its aesthetic, which appeared to draw from older tonal music, was heavily criticized by Rochberg’s academic colleagues.

The composer’s work was described by some major critics, such as Andrew Porter of The New Yorker, as “almost irrelevant.”

At the time, the new music scene in America was dominated by the strict serialism championed by Pierre Boulez, and aleatory music, as championed by John Cage.

Rochberg’s music rejected both approaches, focusing instead on a style revolving around expressionism and detailed notation.