About this Recording
8.559115 - ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 5 / Black Sounds
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George Rochberg (b

George Rochberg (b. 1918):

Symphony No. 5 • Black Sounds • Transcendental Variations


The key that will open George Rochberg’s music to the willing, the curious, but especially to the “innocent” ear lies not in the conventional wisdom that declares him the first “post-modernist” for his openness to a complex mix of musical languages, but rather in seeking to enter the composer’s extraordinary understanding of the nature of time.

            As long ago as 1963, Rochberg, in The New Image of Music, wrote that the successive revolutions of twelve-tone composition and of the post-war avant-garde had brought about a liberation that “permits sounds to create their own context”. This liberation of sound from tonal harmonic functions, led to “the overthrow of a long-dominant temporal structure”; to a world in which conglomerates of pure sound are able to interact in ways that are not necessarily hidebound by structural considerations. 

            “Subjective man,” writes Rochberg, “views existence as change; himself and his history at the center of a process of becoming... Subjective man cannot transcend time; he is trapped in it. However, when man seizes on the present moment of existence as the only ‘real’ time, he spatializes his existence; that is, he fills his present with objects that take on … a state of permanence.” Thus did the composer allow broader means of expression to be added to his vocabulary, constantly enlarging it, making possible what he later came to call an “all-at-once world”.

            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. Rochberg speaks of his use of twelve-tone techniques as engendering a “hard” Romanticism – one has only to look at the slow movement of the Second Symphony, Rochberg’s “serial” work par excellence, to see that the tone row yields music that alternates between melting, elegiac beauty and desperate explosions of anguish; ebullient self-confidence and profound tragedy.

            George Rochberg’s relationship with the past is not one of nostalgia; it is one of intimate, living familiarity. Indeed, he has said, in Reflections on the Renewal of Music, “History will not help us; but the past, which is ever-present, can”.

            Rochberg is never about regret, borrowing or quotation (even if only quotation “in kind”). The Universal Mind, which is there to be embraced by a composer humble enough to deny ego and the flawed search for “originality” at all costs, transcends Time and Space. Denying individualism, seeing the creative artist as a representative of the endless procession of the human condition, the purveyor of our collective memory, allows the composer to gather the entirety of experience into a single, integrated language.

            At the heart of Rochberg’s music are an acceptance of the past as an integral ingredient of a rich present; an understanding that an art which insists on “originality” in its every utterance can have no context and no hope of communication. His music liberates the contemporary musician fearlessly to draw upon, and develop in his own voice, the inheritance of his artistic forbears without being derivative, in the knowledge that there is a language, that the many-hued palette of the great masters has not been darkened forever by the cultural pathologies of the twentieth century.

            “The hope of contemporary music”, writes Rochberg, “lies in learning how to reconcile all manner of opposites, contradictions, paradoxes; the past with the present, tonality with atonality. That is why, in my most recent music, I have tried to utilize these in combinations which reassert the primal values of music.”

            George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey on 5th July, 1918. An accomplished pianist who worked his way through college playing in jazz bands in New York City, he began formal studies of composition in 1939 at the Mannes School of Music, under Hans Weisse, George Szell and Leopold Mannes. He was seriously wounded during wartime service in Europe, subsequently resuming his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1945 with Rosario Scalero. From 1951, he was Director of Publications for the music publishing house Theodore Presser, in 1960 becoming Chairman of the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1979 he was designated Annenberg Professor of the Humanities, retiring from the University in 1983.

            Rochberg’s music has been honoured since his earliest substantial compositions, his Night Music receiving the George Gershwin Memorial Award in 1953. Since then, Naumberg Recording Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, Honorary Doctorates, a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and Fulbright Scholarship in 1950-51 (the year in which he met and befriended Luigi Dallapiccola), the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000; and countless other honours have accumulated in ever greater profusion. In 1996, his manuscripts and papers were acquired for the archives at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

            In the words of the Washington Post, “Rochberg presents the rare spectacle of a composer who has made his peace with tradition while maintaining a strikingly individual profile... he succeeds in transforming the sublime concepts of traditional music into contemporary language.”

            In 1983 John Edwards, manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sounded out Rochberg about the possibility of writing a substantial work to mark the city’s forthcoming sesquicentennial in 1986. An anonymous patron had specifically indicated a “Concerto for Brass and Orchestra”; Rochberg replied, “When I write my new Symphony, I will not neglect the brass!”

            Some months later, Rochberg was meeting with Georg Solti, who had already conducted his Violin Concerto and the symphonic poem Imago Mundi. The composer, hoping that he would be allowed a large orchestra, including fourth trumpet and extra percussion, related the “Concerto for Brass” story. Smiling broadly, Solti revealed, “that was me!”, and of course readily agreed to a full-scale symphony.

            Conventional assumptions about Rochberg’s work are radically subverted by this monumental work. The Fifth Symphony embodies the distillation par excellence of Rochberg’s concept of “hard” Romanticism: expressive, yet never indulgent; passionate, yet stringently argued. Its seamless integration of differing modes of expression is, indeed, no more or less varied in voice than one might encounter – or expect! – in any Mahler Symphony. The music is held together by core thematic material of merely a few intervals, brilliantly manipulated to engender musical motives of vastly differing characters, but often sounding an echo of the five-note “turn” of Mahler’s Ninth and of the final “Ewig” movement of Das Lied von der Erde.

            Totally groundbreaking is the form of the work, which is a continuous composition of 28 minutes, in seven major sections: Opening Statement, Episode I, Development I, Episode 2, Development 2, Episode 3 and Finale.

            Each of the Episodes is contemplative, even dreamlike in character; while the opening and closing sections and the Developments are fast-paced, driven cries of despair teetering on the edge of chaos and collapse. Rochberg recalls the American poet Robert Bly: “Eat your grief before it eats you.” Yet, the second Episode contains hauntingly beautiful forest music, the calls of four horns melting into the distance of time, recalling faint, just recoverable echoes of the lost era of the Chanson de Roland. The third Episode also regards time, now in the epoch of Einstein and Hawking: the “cosmic clock”. The music of the first Episode penetrates even into the Finale, where a longbreathed cello solo (played here by Manuel Fischer-Dieskau) seeks to hold on to the timeless world, braving the intrusion of bleak reality until the last.

            “ ‘In Medias Res’ : ‘In the Midst of things’ that is how I wanted the opening of the multi-sectioned Fifth Symphony to begin”, writes the composer in his soon to-be-published Memoirs. “As though it had already begun somewhere out of hearing in a fury of violent emotions suddenly it surrounds you, it is present, at its peak, and takes you into its world with its insistent calling that cuts through the tumult.”

            “Golden Music!”, declared Edgard Varèse to Rochberg of the younger man’s Duo Concertante, following its performance at a Festival in Canada in 1960. A few years later, the young composer found himself sitting with the revered master in the latter’s downtown New York townhouse, longingly eyeing a pannetone he had brought, to which Varèse was indifferent; music alone the consuming topic of conversation. Varèse was already ill, but in the time left to him, the two composers formed a bond whose mutual admiration has been immortalized in this “homage to Edgard Varèse”, Black Sounds. Indeed, their artistic aims are intimately in tune – Rochberg speaks of Varèse as “the last Romantic”, especially for his Arcana (itself, in part, an “hommage à Strawinsky”), “its totally released hysterical emotionalism always at the breaking-into-chaos point”.

            By turns angry, stark and desolate, Black Sounds is closely based on a 1964 composition, Apocalyptica, for large wind ensemble, piano and no less than twelve percussion. There are few changes of content in this adaptation for twelve wind and brass, piano/celesta, and four percussion; though, intriguingly, the cadenzas for a panoply of unpitched drums and tomtoms in Apocalyptica, have been rewritten as pitched passages for timpani in Black Sounds. The emotional impact of the work remains shattering for these reduced forces.

            Lincoln Center commissioned Black Sounds for a September 24, 1965 telecast, where it was first performed as a ballet by Anna Sokolow under the title “The Act”, describing an act of murder. The televised event won the Prix Italia the same year. The score of Apocalyptica is preceded by these lines, still apt for its incarnation as Black Sounds, from Act III, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s King Lear:

   Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

   You cataracts and hurricanes, spout

   Till you have drenched our steeples,drowned the cocks!

   You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,

   Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

   Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

   Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world,

   Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens split at once,

   That make ingrateful man!

            The ecstatic Transcendental Variations for string orchestra is a work derived closely from Rochberg’s Third String Quartet of 1971-72 one of the watershed works in American, indeed in western art music of our time. The Quartet is the first work of Rochberg’s in which he no longer flirts with “tonality” as an essential ingredient of his expressive palette, but embraces it without reserve, showering the music with virtuosity, mastery, and an intensely personal voice. “Diatonic” though it is, the score contains myriad passing harmonies and melodic collisions, frequently reaching surprising levels of dissonance through multiple suspensions or complex canonic intersections, that would have been unimaginable prior to the twentieth century.

            This is not the place to describe the controversy unleashed by the early performances and recording of the Quartet. Its detractors aside, the work struck a chord with countless musicians, one of whom, conductor Vilem Sokol, suggested to Rochberg in 1975 a version of the quartet’s slow movement for string orchestra. The resulting Transcendental Variations are music thoroughly recomposed in terms of registration and sonorities. Its textures are filled out

to impart a richness quite different in scope from the intimate qualities of the original string quartet, stretching the musical vision heavenward, giving it immense depth, scope and luminosity.

            “Transcendental” has everything to do with Rochberg’s vision of time, or rather, timelessness; no resonance is intended with the nineteenth century American literary movement of the same name. These seven variations are arranged in a sequence that feels deceptively simple on the surface. The true “theme” of the Variations is only revealed in the Finale, an homage in canonic form to one of the composer’s most revered forbears. The work transcends, indeed rejects any religious meaning; its true inner life remains hidden. Whilst toying with ancient mysticisms, it is in the end enclosed in its own impenetrable mystery.


Notes by Christpher Lyndon-Gee


Conductor’s Note

I first met George Rochberg in January 1986, when I was (unsuccessfully!) auditioning for Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That same week, Rochberg’s Fifth Symphony was receiving its world première by the orchestra, under Sir Georg Solti. I attended rehearsals and the première, coming to know Rochberg already quite well, as a result of which I arranged several concerts and lectures for his visit to Australia later the same year.

            Strangely, this towering work, the Fifth, was not taken up by other conductors after Solti, and its recording in Saarbrücken in March 2002 – its second performance, sixteen years and two months after its première – represented the fulfillment of a long-held wish of mine. The Saarbrücken orchestra had given public performances of the Violin Concerto a few days earlier, but the Fifth was scheduled only for the studio. We finished the “takes” in record time, leaving two-and-a-half hours free at the end. The orchestra generously assented to repeat the work entire and whole, as a performance, for the composer and his wife, Gene Rochberg. Without doubt, this “concert” for an audience of two was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

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