THE BLOG

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: George Rochberg

02/11/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

I was occasionally in the presence of the wonderful photographer Irving Penn in the 80's. I will never forget a simple statement he made then, "I keep getting better the older I get because I do learn more as I go along." While this sounds patently obvious, it is true only if one is open to learning more and willing to push deep in the artistic journey.

There are many composers of the latter half of the 20th century for whom this is not what has taken place. Instead, like various mathematicians and scientists, they produced something extraordinary at an early age and were incapable or unwilling to move on to richer and deeper artistic places as they matured. Once they found their style, they stuck with it so resolutely that they ended up treading water. This is perhaps because of a shortage of creativity, a marketing choice, or perhaps a failure of nerve.

Those who have willingly braved the gauntlet of change include composers such as Penderecki, Del Tredici, Ligeti, Adams, and Corigliano, to name a few. Penderecki and del Tredici moved from soundmass and serial works to a neo-romantic ones respectively. Ligeti moved from folk influenced music, to micropolyphony, to music influenced by minimalism and that of sub-saharan Africa, and finally, in the Etudes, to all of that and the entire tradition of etudes, as well as jazz and Nancarrow. Adams, in his willingness to sift through the ash heap of music, has moved from his beginnings in minimalism to a strongly maximalist position, absorbing lessons from Jazz, Bruckner, Subotnick, Broadway, cartoon music, Schoenberg, and more. Corigliano moved from an expanded tonal realm in the 60s to an expanded eclecticism thereafter, followed perhaps back to a freer tonal realm in pieces like The Red Violin Concerto. For all of these composers the trick is to retain one's individual voice while altering language, as Stravinsky did, speaking in numerous languages, dialects, or styles, during his long and varied career.

One of the first to have travelled this road, and to whom the previous owe much, was George Rochberg.

Rochberg started off his career in the 40s-60s as a serialist, producing such gems as the Symphony No. 2 and the chamber work Serenata d'Estate. These works demonstrate his control of large forces of the orchestra and the subtlety of small forces; the control of both large and small scale form; and that most important element, the ability to come up with strong, memorable ideas, and develop them over time. Even in this compositional environment, he projected his notion that "Is it really so bad if something in the music stays in the mind?".

In the mid-sixties he made a break with serialism, concluding that the language is ultimately barren of expressive intent, or perhaps put differently, that its expressive possibilities are extremely proscribed. But unlike European composers like Berio, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and others, who continued to write and seek answers within a modernist post-tonal aesthetic, Rochberg looked to the past, and wrote music in the style of Beethoven and Mahler, occasionally borrowed music from other cultures (Japan), while at the same time also writing within a post-tonal lexicon. In Music for the Magic Theatre he incorporates the Adagio of a Mozart's Divertimento No. 287, ascribing re-arrangement to the realm of composition (by the way, in so doing, he opened up the possibility for Berio's best movement of Sinfonia, the third, which is a riff on a Mahler's Symphony No. 2-Mvt III, or Jacob Druckman's Prism).

Rochberg was rejecting the avant-garde notion that everything started anew, and with a complete sense of amnesia, after WWII. Rather his credo was "All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time"; that all great musical works are of the present; they are part of our lived experience. This is a religious notion of history, as in the Jewish notion that when one recites at Passover the words of the emancipation of the Jewish people, those reciting it are experiencing it as if they are now coming out of Egypt, and it is expressed similarly in the Christian term for the Resurrection at Easter, He is Risen, not He has Risen.

But Rochberg did not remain static. In works from the 80s- Octet: A Grand Fantasia, Oboe Concerto, and Symphonies No. 5 and 6- he synthesized his wanderings through musical time, forging a personal post-tonal language of immense breadth and expressivity. We appreciate him not only for opening up the musical landscape but also for the rich oeuvre he has left us.