Born on July 5, 1918, in Paterson, NJ; died on May 29, 2005, in Philadelphia, PA; married Gene Rosenfeld, 1941; two children: one son (deceased) and one daughter. Education: Music degrees from Mannes School of Music, New York, and Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia; University of Philadelphia, M.A., 1949; further compositional studies in Europe, 1950-51.
In the 1960s, classical composers in the United States and Europe were in the grip of a system known as serialism or 12-tone music, so called because a piece written according to the system would be built strictly from a certain ordering of the 12 tones of the octave in Western tuning. Even major American orchestras programmed 12-tone music, which by and large baffled and alienated audiences. By the end of the twentieth century, however, composers once again had a vast range of stylistic choices from which they could choose. Of the composers who broke the dominance of 12-tone music, none was more important than Philadelphia's George Rochberg. Rochberg's String Quartet No. 3 of 1972 was controversial when it appeared, for defenders of serialism denounced it as a throwback to earlier styles. But Rochberg turned out to be a strong inspiration to younger composers, and audiences voted a resounding "yes" to his music--his compositions were widely performed in the 1970s and 1980s.
George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg), one of three children, was born on July 5, 1918, in Paterson, New Jersey. The son of Ukrainian immigrants (his father worked as an upholsterer), he grew up in nearby Passaic. Rochberg took up the piano at age ten and quickly started writing music of his own. His first efforts were popular songs with lyrics written by a friend, Bob Russell, who later collaborated with bandleader Duke Ellington. Rochberg, like Leonard Bernstein, continued to write popular songs under a pseudonym after immersing himself in classical studies.
Played in Jazz Combos
That immersion resulted in a young composer with promising talents. After earning a bachelor's degree at Montclair State Teachers' College in New Jersey, Rochberg won a scholarship to New York's prestigious Mannes School of Music in 1939. Studying under Hungarian immigrant composer and conductor George Szell, Rochberg impressed that fearsome figure enough that Szell began programming Rochberg's music after he became the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1950s. Rochberg played in jazz groups around New York while studying at the Mannes School between 1939 and 1942.
Before going off to war, Rochberg married Gene Rosenfeld in 1941; the marriage lasted for the remaining 63 years of his life. As a second lieutenant in the army during World War II, he saw action in France and was seriously wounded during the Normandy campaign. Rochberg returned to the United States in 1945 and enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. One of his teachers there was Amahl and the Night Visitors' composer Gian Carlo Menotti. After earning a B.Mus. degree from Curtis, Rochberg was invited back to teach there on Menotti's recommendation in 1948. He continued his studies, earning an M.A. from the University of Philadelphia in 1949.
In 1950 Rochberg traveled to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship and met 12-tone composer Luigi Dallapiccola. He took to the serialist system, which, he was quoted as saying in London's Independent newspaper, made him feel as though he was "living at the very edge of the musical frontier, of music itself." The 12-tone system, devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, was elaborated in complex ways in American universities after World War II, and was hailed as the music of the future within the classical tradition. By 1952 Rochberg was writing serialist works of his own, such as the 12 Bagatelles for piano (1952). He contributed to the large body of written music theory that underlay the new system, and he began to win major composition prizes, including the Society for the Publication of American Music (SPAM) award for his String Quartet No. 1 in 1956.
Worked for Music Publisher
After teaching at Curtis for six years, Rochberg was hired at Philadelphia's Theodore Presser Company, a commercial classical music publisher. Starting as an editor, he advanced to the position of director of publications. Even before the tragedy that was about to change his life and music, Rochberg was frustrated by the gulf that existed between serialist composers and classical audiences, and was working on ways to make his compositions more accessible.
In 1960 Rochberg returned to the academic world, taking a teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania. He remained there until 1983, taking time away only for a succession of prestigious guest professorships. Rochberg's early years at Penn, however, were painful ones: his 17-year-old son, Paul, already showing promise as a poet, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1961. Paul Rochberg died three years later and, after a serialist piano trio in 1963, George Rochberg stopped composing. He couldn't find a way to make 12-tone music express the grief he felt.
For several years Rochberg wrote nothing at all. When he resumed composing, he had decided that "there is no greater provincialism than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past," according to an article later quoted in the New York Times. He began to experiment with quotation and collage techniques---what today would be called sampling, but with pen and music paper, not an electronic device. Rochberg compositions such as Music for the Magic Theater (1965) quoted music of earlier eras within the classical tradition.
Outraged Orthodox Composers
Finally, in 1972, Rochberg wrote his String Quartet No. 3. It was what classical musicians call "tonal"; that is, it employed the traditional system of keys and key relationships. And it was openly emotional, in stark contrast to the intellectual aesthetic favored by the serialists. Those who defended serialism as the next stage of music were outraged. "I was accused of betraying, in the following order, the church and the state," Rochberg wryly told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I was a traitor, a renegade." But Rochberg took the criticism in stride. "If you're going to be a composer," he pointed out to the Inquirer, "you have to have an iron stomach, fire in the belly, and fire in the brain."
Indeed, Rochberg composed music under the grip of strong creative impulses. "I always threw myself heedlessly into a work and didn't care how it made me feel," he told the Inquirer. "And by the end of it, my stomach was shot to hell." Philadelphia antacid vendors must have notched healthy sales in the 1970s and 1980s, for Rochberg wrote music prolifically. His list of works filled 22 pages, and if academic composers disparaged his work, professional performers, who relied on audiences, picked up the slack. One of Rochberg's most successful works was his Violin Concerto, which legendary violinist Isaac Stern---after asking and getting cuts of about 14 minutes from the concerto's original 52-minute length---performed 47 times in the mid-1970s. The String Quartet No. 3 was followed by four more string quartets, often performed by the Concord Quartet.
In addition to his musical impact, Rochberg was influential as a writer. His 1984 book of essays, The Aesthetics of Survival, brought him a host of honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. Some of the most successful composers of the late 20th century, including David Del Tredici and John Corigliano, looked to Rochberg as an inspiration. His music was sometimes called Neo-Romantic, but those who looked on his music as just a feel-good throwback to the era of Romantic melody and harmony missed important aspects of his music. It was often dark, stormy, and rapidly shifting in mood and style---very typical of modern times in its sensibilities. When he died after complications from surgery on May 29, 2005, Rochberg was remembered, not as an apostle of Romanticism or conservatism, but as an advocate for freedom. "I've tried very hard to rid myself of that stultifying conception of historical line, and if I want to contrast dissonant chromaticism cheek by jowl with a more accessibly tonal style, I will do so," he was quoted as saying, according to the New York Times article. "All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time."
by James M. Manheim
George Rochberg's Career
Taught at Curtis Institute of Music, 1948-54; Theodore Presser Company, editor and director of publications, 1954-60; composed music using serialist method, 1950s and early 1960s; University of Pennsylvania, professor of music, 1960-83.
George Rochberg's Awards
Numerous awards, including Fulbright Fellowship, 1950-51; Society of the Publication of American Music Award, for String Quartet No. 1, 1956; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966-67; Naumburg Chamber Composition Award, for String Quartet No. 3, 1972; Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, first prize, for String Quartet No. 4, 1979; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, inducted as fellow, 1986.
- Selected compositions
- David the Psalmist for tenor and orchestra, 1952.
- 12 Bagatelles, for piano, 1952.
- String Quartet No. 1, 1956.
- Symphony No. 2, 1956.
- Music for the Magic Theater 1965.
- String Quartet No. 3, 1972.
- Violin Concerto 1974.
- Symphony No. 5, 1984.
- The Aesthetics of Survival (collection of essays), 1984.
- Sadie, Stanley, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.
- Guardian (London, England), June 2, 2005, p. 29.
- Independent (London, England), July 1, 2005, p. 46.
- Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2005, p. B10.
- New York Sun, June 1, 2005, p. 6.
- New York Times, June 1, 2005, p. B9.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 2005.
- Washington Post, June 2, 2005, p. B6.
- "George Rochberg," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 6, 2005).
- "George Rochberg," Theodore Presser Company, http://www.presser.com (July 6, 2005).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a National Public Radio Weekend Edition broadcast, June 4, 2005.