The Evolution of George Rochberg

American composer George Rochberg died this week. He broke away from modernism, the dominant musical style of the 1950s and '60s, and became one of its most articulate critics. Joel Rose of NPR station WHYY offers an appreciation.

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American composer George Rochberg died this week. Mr. Rochberg broke away from modernism, the dominant musical style of the 1950s and '60s, and become one of its most articulate critics. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

George Rochberg began his career as a modernist. In works from the 1950s, like his "Second Symphony," Rochberg embraced the 12-tone style of the European avant-garde.

(Soundbite of "Second Symphony")

ROSE: Rochberg was considered one of the top American composers working in that style, also known as serialism, but he soon felt constrained by it. In 1984, he told WHYY's Terry Gross that serialism was better at building musical structures than it was at expressing emotion.

(Soundbite of 1984 interview)

Mr. GEORGE ROCHBERG (Composer): If all you end up with is an awareness of the intellectual structure, you can't really think about that too long without beginning to wish that there was something more warm and warming about the experience. So I found myself in the early '60s beginning to turn violently away from all of this.

ROSE: A personal loss helped push Rochberg away from modernism and back to the music of the past. In 1964, his son died of a brain tumor, and Rochberg began looking for new ways to express himself. But Rochberg's return to tonality did not happen all at once.

(Soundbite of 1984 interview)

Mr. ROCHBERG: And it took about--almost a decade, from the time I first got the impulse, the necessity or the desire to do this in a serious way until the point where I really could do it and manage it in a way which is my own.

ROSE: And his return to tonal music was never absolute. Starting with his "Third String Quartet" in 1971, Rochberg often combined elements of atonal and tonal music in the same piece.

(Soundbite of "Third String Quartet")

ROSE: Rochberg was head of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. For a top professor at an Ivy League school to break with serialism was at the time a scandal in the music world. Some of Rochberg's colleagues expressed a sense of betrayal. But for many younger musicians like James Freeman, who had just taken a job teaching at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, the effect was liberating.

Mr. JAMES FREEMAN (Swarthmore College): If George Rochberg can do something like that, there's nothing that I can't do and get away with it. I don't have to write 12-tone music; I can if I want to. I can write stuff that sounds like Brahms. I can do anything I want. I'm free. And that was an extraordinary feeling in the late '60s for young composers, I think, many of whom felt really constrained to write serial music.

ROSE: Rochberg wrote that he tried to reconcile his love of the music of the past with the, quote, "destructive pressures" of the late 20th century. His widely performed "Violin Concerto" from 1974 is mostly tonal, but dark.

(Soundbite of "Violin Concerto")

ROSE: Some critics and many serialist composers were quick to bash Rochberg's music for being `pretty' but not `serious.' But even at his most romantic, Rochberg's work was substantial, says pianist Marc-Antonio Barone.

Mr. MARC-ANTONIO BARONE (Pianist): He brought the same rigor, the same intensity, the same craftsmanship to his work in the most conservative sounding tonal idioms as he did to his most ultramodern, 12-tone composing. It was all about what in the human condition he was trying to express.

ROSE: Barone says Rochberg was also a fine pianist. Here he plays his own work, "Ricordanza."

(Soundbite of "Ricordanza")

ROSE: Rochberg was not fond of the neo-Romantic label that critics attached to his music, but he did want his work, like the great Romantic music of the past, to endure.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. ROCHBERG: One of the biggest problems about 20th century music in terms of modernism is that very little of it can be remembered. It struck me a long time ago what a painful thing to be involved as an artist--how painful to spend a lifetime producing work which, let's say, leaves nothing on the retina of memory.

ROSE: George Rochberg leaves behind more than a hundred published works of music, including six symphonies, seven string quartets and an opera. He died Sunday near his home outside Philadelphia. He was 86. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

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