About this Recording
8.559182 - ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 2 / Imago Mundi
English  German 

George Rochberg (1918–2005)
Symphony No. 2 (1955–56) • Imago Mundi (1973)

George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey on 5th July, 1918, and died at Newtown Square, near Philadelphia, where he had lived for over forty years, on 30th May, 2005. 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 accumulated in ever greater profusion. In 1996, his manuscripts and papers were acquired for the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

Although not completed until the spring of 1956, George Rochberg’s Symphony No. 2 is unquestionably a wartime work. Living in New York in 1941-42 with his new wife, Gene, making ends meet by playing at jazz bars and clubs while studying with Hans Weisse, Leopold Mannes and George Szell at the Mannes School of Music, Rochberg’s student life and idyllic early years of marriage were interrupted by call-up into the United States Army in November 1942. There followed three testing years serving as a captain with Allied forces in Europe. At the Battle of the Bulge, Rochberg was severely wounded, spending close on a year in recovery and rehabilitation. As the war ended, he was able to take up his studies again at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he honed his skills in counterpoint under the great Rosario Scalero, who had been a member of Brahms’s circle in Vienna sixty years earlier.

The hour-long First Symphony [to appear on Naxos 8.559214], written in 1948-49, was the first large-scale work to result, an important stepping-stone on the way to the Second. Exploring the power of the orchestral palette for the first time, delineating his expressive boundaries and challenges, establishing a powerfully individual personal language, still essentially “tonal” but ever more sharply pressing the harmonic limits of that language, the First Symphony is a young composer’s assertive laying-down of the gauntlet.

All of the accumulated anger and anguish about the Second World War was now freed, through the First’s refinement of a mature technique, to explode onto the page in unfettered spontaneity, an immediacy of compositional vision sharpened, if anything, by the four years spent polishing the score of the Second in the intervals of other work.

“My war experience had etched itself deep in my soul. After the end of the war, I lived with an ever sharpening awareness of the approach to the abyss I saw in a world coming apart at the seams. I was distressed at the growing slovenliness of people’s bad thinking and worse behaviour and became nauseated by the growing narcissism on all sides, more particularly as it surfaced in public comments and statements of leading artists and writers of the day, but even more as it showed itself in the works being produced in a never ending stream of bad taste, bum ideas and sloppy craftsmanship. There was no recourse but to stubbornly pursue my own purposes and disregard virtually everything and everyone else.”

The Second, moreover, is a fully-fledged twelve-tone work; the first twelve-tone symphony composed by an American, and the composer’s logical solution to the tensions of language already explored in the First.

“I needed to find a language expressive enough to be able to say what I felt I had to. … I found ways of organizing the row based on hexachords in such fashion that its transpositions through inversion could take on an analogical relation to tonal centers through locus, … [that is] a scheme of tonal loci … that had the status of “keys” in the old sense.”

Rochberg’s arrival at twelve-tone technique owed nothing to his contemporaries and compatriots, who were pursuing, or on the brink of pursuing similar techniques; they were stand-offish and protective of what they felt to be their private discoveries, and he failed in his attempts to establish contact and dialogue with them. It was his private study of the works of Schoenberg and Webern, and perhaps, too, the influence of his friendship with Luigi Dallapiccola while he was Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1950-51, that led to his highly personal mode of expression in this new language. Its chief characteristics are that it is impassioned while being hard-edged; at the same time discursive yet rigorous and economical; by turns ferocious and elegiac yet always utterly unsentimental. The composer later came to call this expressive style “hard romanticism”.

The symphony’s formal scheme, too, “essentially four movements linked by brief interludes into a thirty-minute uninterrupted musical whole” lends additional urgency to what is an outburst of rage at the ugliness and evil of which humankind is capable. Yet this music is not without long, lingering glances at beauty, especially in its Adagio movement. As Rochberg has written elsewhere:

“Making the world a better place is not a project for the artist. His project is to express the fire in the mind, to make, as Robert Browning said, beautiful things that ‘have lain burningly on the Divine Hand’.”

Written between the winter of 1955 and the spring of 1956 (though some sketches date from 1952), the work was premièred by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on 26th February, 1959, in Cleveland. With the New York performance by Szell and the Cleveland at Carnegie Hall in 1961, the Second Symphony immediately established George Rochberg among the leading composers of his generation, and it has remained one of his most recognised, most representative, and in many ways still most urgently compelling works, right down to its Coda of unsurpassed regret and resignation, whose unresolved final chord lingers long in the memory.

Imago Mundi can better be described as a Ritual than as a Symphonic Poem. It was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and first performed in May 1974 under Sergiu Commissiona. A three-week visit to Japan in the early summer of 1973 left George Rochberg with visual, aural and cultural impressions more profound than those he had drawn from any other of his travels. A group of four, related works were rapidly written in subsequent months, three chamber works, Ukiyo-E – Pictures of the Floating World, Slow Fires of Autumn (Ukiyo-E II), Between Two Worlds (Ukiyo-E III), and the present work for large orchestra, Imago Mundi (Image of the World). Exploration of ways of perceiving and representing the world is at the heart of this series of works.

Ukiyo-E is the traditional Japanese school of painting, typified by the famous and much-reproduced “Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa” and “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” by the early 18th century master Hokusai, or in the later master Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Views of Famous Places of Edo [Tokyo]” and bird and nature paintings. The sounds of the koto, the shakuhachi, the sho, and above all of the Gagaku orchestra, lie equally close to the surface of Rochberg’s music of this year. As does his vivid description of a Japanese doctor singing a Noh song at a private dinner, “profoundly moving in its melancholy”. But most of all, Gagaku, for centuries the private court music of the Emperor, forbidden to any outside ear; “a music of powerful presence ...... not simply exotic sounds, but a music of chiselled-out melodic lines and vivid colours. ...... I fixed on a particularly gripping Gagaku piece that had a riveting intensity about it — a slow, ceremonial, harsh, chant-like processional intensity.”

The third element that is explored in ways not usual for Western consciousness in these four works is the element of Time (and it had been for a Conference at which he delivered a paper entitled “The Structure of Time in Music” that Rochberg had travelled to Japan). The chamber works especially embrace “a marked propensity for motionless motion and stasis ..... gestures of freefloating sounds and sound complexes”. The slowness of Noh theatre, which “through a kind of intuitive understanding below the level of language ...... allows one to reach into the core of existence itself” is another profound influence in this music.

Imago Mundi, the composer concludes in his remarks in Five Lines and Four Spaces, “is a picturing of the external world — but only insofar as our pictures of the world outside ourselves are imaginings, mental fictions, shadowed reflections of the “reality” of past as well as of present times”.

Christopher Lyndon-Gee

Close the window