Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
  Classical Music Home > Music News

The Legacy of George Rochberg

George Rochberg is the pivot point around which American music

took a decisive turn away from Arnold Schoenbergs systematized dissonance,

generally known as twelve-tone or serial music, and back toward tonality.

If it is now safe to return to the concert halls, it is largely because of him.

--Robert R. Reilly, critic for High Fidelity and Musical America


it seemed perfectly natural to me to speak multi-lingually, i.e. to be able to think and express both atonal and tonal music whenever the need arose--whether simultaneously or successively. The only thing I demanded of myself then, as now, was that, whatever the language I used, the result was music.

--George Rochberg in his notes to Naxos American Classics release Black Sounds / Cantio Sacra / Phaedra

For the bulk of the first half of the twentieth century, many composers seemed to decide that their works should jettison all things beautiful. A key tool in their arsenal often was an almost religious devotion to serialism. Composer George Rochberg has played a watershed role both in challenging the straitjacket of sorts that serialism placed on composers as well as in returning a quest for rich beauty and utmost craftsmanship to music. In doing so, he blazed a trail that the musical establishment of the day criticized soundly. To Rochbergs great credit, he decided to march to a different drummer despite their attacks. He created works that utilize a wealth of styles and truly created a musical language of his own. His body of works features a satisfying and well-crafted use of tonality and atonality that refreshes, engages, and challenges.

Could one consider Dr. Rochberg courageous and opinionated? Yes, refreshingly so. Well-rounded and engaging? Indeed. A skilled artisan? Without question.

We recently enjoyed a lively conversation with Dr. Rochberg about his new and future Naxos recordings, books, painting, music critics, and the arts in general.


Naxos: At the outset, let me say that its been a great pleasure to experience your works. With the great diversity in our world today, your musical diversity seems very appropriate indeed. I believe you refer to it as speaking multilingually.

Rochberg: Yes, and I often refer to it as an all at once world. The language has spread in so many different directions that a composer who really is gifted and knows what works can utilize many things. However, youve got to know what fits. Its not a grab bag. You cant just throw things together and hope they settle into some kind of pattern that holds peoples interest and attention. It has to be designed. After the age of thirty, when I designed the form and the shape of my first major work, the First Symphony, I cant remember a work that I have not designed carefully from first note to last. This is not design as a set of meaningless objects. No, Im talking about a design that takes into account first of all, and most importantly, the functions that Im establishing for the performers. They are the people who have to use eye, ear, mind, and soul, muscle and psyche to project what you put on paper. If you can capture their interest, theyll give you the convincing performance you want. And if you dont, youre sunk.

N: Some of the people reading this interview might have never really embraced modern music . . . . And in turn, they havent yet experienced the accessibility, passion, and excellence of your craft.

R: What is modern is merely what everyone has to deal with nowadays. They may not think about it in that way. Take technology, for example. The kind of technology that we have today didnt exist when I was a young man. When I was a boy, the only technology that existed was the telephone and the radio. Technology is part of the thrust of what is modern. Starting with the first year of the twentieth century all of the arts simultaneously took off like mad. There were so many young people who were anxious and eager to break away from the traditional, but that doesnt mean the traditional died. This is, of course, where I made certain decisions later on that put me on the hot seat.

N: That it did!

R: There were many people who were strong believers in serialism. You have to remember that an aesthetic idea or belief or conviction, like the kind of thing you like to paint, or the kind of thing that you as a critic will or wont praise, is a passionate conviction. They have something of the same force as a religious conviction.

N: That is what I keep hearing over and over; that the use of serialism was almost like a religion.

R: Absolutely.

N: If you didnt buy into it hook, line, and sinker, there was something wrong with you, not with their scheme.

R: Exactly so, and of course I created a problem for myself and for everyone else. But I could solve my problem, whereas they could not. They certainly couldnt solve it for me. When I was in my thirties I began to write twelve-tone music, which is the stage just before serialism. Serialism is an advanced case of twelve-toneism! [chuckles]

N: You do realize that you sound like a physician diagnosing an illness. [laughs]

R: Well, Ive been accused of being a doctor in this case. I never earned a Ph.D., thank God. [Interviewers note: Rochberg has four honorary doctorates from prestigious music schools.]

N: How interesting to hear you say that, since you were involved in academia for some time.

R: Yes, I spent almost twenty-five years in teaching, and eight years rebuilding the department at the University of Pennsylvania. Then I retired into the woodwork to just teach and compose. Theres something very oppressive to people who dont have a sufficiently strong and independent personality, and mind, to resist the blandishments and the drying-out process of the academic world. But it never got to me, Im happy to say!

At any rate, I reached the point where I decided total serialism was out of the question. Serialism meant capitulation to nothing but measurement and a quantity.

N: Perhaps that is why many people have found it cold or cerebral.

R: Rightly so. It was over-rationalized to the point where you didnt have to feel anything. Nor did you need much imagination, except in relation to how you manipulated all the possible devices and techniques of the relations between the twelve notes, dynamics, timbres and colors of the instruments you were working with. You can quantify a beat; that is to say you can put it up against a metronome and you can arrive at a precise value for a note. It gives you the idea of the pace of the piece. But when you start divorcing the pace of a piece of music from its movement forward, its directionality, and you treat it instead as a quantity, a measurement of time, and then associate that measurement with a particular pitch or pitch configuration, and then associate those two with a particular quantity of dynamicnow thats another problem. For example piano in music means soft, of course. But nobody knows how soft soft is!

N: Its all relative!

R: Yes, its all relative. The same thing applies to forte and the truth is that as you move from composer to composer, especially after the middle of the nineteenth century; all these dynamic indications take on particularly different personalities given the context of various composers. What Im suggesting is that the piano for Mozart was not the same as the piano for Stravinsky. What happened with serialism, however, was that there was an assumption made, a purely rational assumption, that piano and all of the other possible values of loudness and softness could be regulated on a scale of quantitative measurements . . .

R: At its very best, music is a very strange combination of very powerful feelings. When I say that Im talking about the great composers: Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, and so on. A musical idea such as the beginning of Beethovens Fifth is a germ from which things can grow. But if you reduce that to a mathematical nodule, youve already broken its essence and spirit. Now you can only operate by multiplication, whereas what Beethoven did was pour that opening, that germ of an idea, into a giant, ferocious burning furnace of musical energy.

N: Does this refer to some degree to a comment I read where you described twelve-tone music as symmetrical music and tonal music as asymmetrical? If I remember correctly you were saying that twelve-tone music essentially dictated to a significant degree when one had to end a work. With tonal music one had far more possibilities.

R: Yes, youre absolutely right. I read almost everything that I could get my hands on and I recall that there was a lot of talk about symmetry. But no one ever talked about asymmetrical music, which is actually what we called, in the old language, tonal music. The diatonic scale is an asymmetrical scale. The chromatic scale is, potentially, a symmetrical scale, because everything is based on equal distances and equal element values. I decided at a certain point, after writing quite a large number of twelve-tone pieces (but never serial), that it was time to re-examine the old language. That meant that I could not just confine myself to an expressionistic, tight, angular music to which twelve-tone and serialism lend themselves. I wanted to be able to express joyfulness, serenity, tranquility, strong feelings, passionate feelings, but in a tonal way. I also then began to try to work out for myself ways of modulating from one level of intensity to another, and combining those two perhaps with a third. This is why the idea of designing a composition became very important for me. It needed to have the sense of being in a world that was not all one taste, one quality or quantity, or all one sound.

N: And as such, it addresses more appropriately, more fully, how life is in this modern world, anyway.

R: Well, this is the problem: how to compose, in our present day, music which remains fully human--music that has all the aches and pains we all feel for one reason or another, whether physical, psychological or spiritual. We live in a world of almost total uncertainty except for the fact of religious convictions many people have. We dont know when something destructive is going to appear on the horizon, like September 11, for example. We were totally asleep, totally unaware that something like that was brewing. Even before that, if you go back to the eighteenth century, in his letters Mozart makes it very clear that he knows the agonies, problems, and uncertainties of existence. In spite of all that, he says, Music must be beautiful. It must be appealing to the non-musician., and then he adds, Underneath it should have substance for the learned. In those days the learned meant what we would call today the sophisticated, the knowledgeable, the people who are professionals.

N: I would even go so far as to say that even a religious conviction cannot be a certainty. Perhaps certainty at ANY level would be considered a myth.

R: Well, I know what youre saying. As a composer I worked from the notion of uncertainty and toward certainty. But I allowed within that certainty, the design of areas in my work, such as in Black Sounds or the Fifth Symphony, where things seem to get confused. Its as though a cloud comes over the clarity of the situation, and then it can even translate into virtual chaos. Then it clears.


R: People are uncertain, they feel under the cloud of not knowing which way to go, which way to turnhow to solve this problem, what to do about that problem. As you know, sometimes terrible things happen as a result--the police blotter is full of them. But theres got to be room in my music for these things, and there has to be room as well for what I call the beautiful. And I dont mean pretty.

N: No, not at all!

R: Oh, but that is what has happened! A lot of critics, commentators, even a lot of composers, talk about music now being more accessible than it was. Well, so is Kelloggs Corn Flakes, in that sense, because there are a lot of boxes available in your local supermarket, but were not talking about the beautiful. Were talking about accessibility. Youre only talking about something perfectly ordinary. The beautiful is, in the fundamental sense, without getting too high-flown, something that is a very rare occurrence. When you think about music, you cannot claim, even with the diversity of tastes commenting on the question, that everyone who writes music writes beautiful music. That is not the case; as a matter of fact, most music that is composed is quite ordinary. The ideas are not particularly interesting, and the way they are handled is not certainly beautiful. But if you start talking about Bach, Monteverdi, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, or Mahler, then you can start discussing what you mean by what is beautiful. That rarity, the uniqueness of the beautiful moment or the beautiful work, is not something old which can be put aside because it is on some timeline segment, and then replaced with something newer. Oh, no! Its an eternal value that stays whether you agree with it or not. A few years back I became fascinated with the ideas of Luigi Russolo, who was part of the Italian futurists. They were young firebrands that wanted to break tradition with everything, all the arts. Russolo was essentially a painter, and knew nothing about music. He decided he wanted to be a composer. Of what? Of noise.


N: Are we talking about a forefather of John Cage here?


R: Yes. Chance music, music based on environmental sounds and like, comes out of this movement. Russolo laid down the groundwork and essential philosophy in this area. He said, The art of noise is going to supercede the worn-out, hackneyed, tiresome music of Beethoven.

N: [chuckles] It reminds me of a Ned Rorem interview I heard where he criticized some composers for seemingly thinking they had to be completely original. He said in so many words that all composers stole from one another, and the place where they proved their artistry was in how they covered their tracks when they did so.

R: I dont believe in the idea of originality. That came to be a counter in modernism; the idea that if you could find something that no one else had thought of doing, you had learned how to be original! Of course, in so doing you painted yourself into a corner. How could you be forever original if you were forever doing the same thing? Take Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, for example. They began to paint what I call the single image. You had one idea, and you sort of put a brand name to it. Everyone said, oh, this is great, this is wonderful, this is original. But original is rare, like the beautiful is rare. Beethoven is original, even though he owes everything to Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and other composers who are really second and third-rank, because he scooped up their insight. If he found something interesting, he used it. The originality is not in the thing that you find, the new combination of pitches, or harmonies, or melodies. The originality is your personality, how you think. Mozart sounds like so many of his contemporaries, but as a musical personality he is unique. No one comes anywhere near him. The idea of originality is a very dangerous road to go down; at least I denied it for years. Now Ive been accused of being original, that is something else entirely [chuckles]. The force of an idea interests me much more than being original.

N: Surely.

R: For example, when I wrote Black Sounds I knew it was going to strike a lot of people as somehow heavily influenced by Varese. Well, that was only the most obvious thing in the world! You know, I mean, you walk outside and the suns shining, so you say gee, its a sunny day. Thats obvious. And all they did was announce was that I had absorbed Varese. When I wrote Black Sounds I thought of it to myself as an homage, taking my hat off to this fantastic man. I always refer to him as the last of the romantics. That may strike you as an odd way to refer to Varese, since the music doesnt sound like what we usually attach to the word romantic. But Im talking about his attitude, because he was a staunch individual with a powerful ego. All of the romantics are powerful egos with great energy of expression, and theyre deeply human.


N: What a wonderful thing that you were able to spend time with him.

R: Yeah, he was a great guy. I dont know to what extent his work is known out there currently. There was a period when he came to the fore. He had the kind of career that some friends of mine who are no longer with us have had. I think my career takes the same shape. Its like a roller coaster. You know, you have high points, and then you come crashing down at fantastic speed and then you rise again. Have you heard of Wharton Esherick? [Interviewers note: Mr. Esherick was a famed artisan and woodworker, and considered the dean of American craftsmen.]

N: Yes, and I was going to ask you about him because I understand you were good friends.

R: Yes, we were very close friends. Its taken about 35 years since Wharton died for his work to really finally come through. Hes now acknowledged, as he should have been during his lifetime. His career was up, and then it was way downlong periods of time when no one paid any attention. Then something would happen, and hed be up again, because the stuff was unique. Something of that is characteristic of my own work.

N: It made perfect sense to me that you would be friends.

R: Well, you know, spiritual kinship is interesting. Such people always find each other.

N: Often its even stronger than a family kinship, perhaps.

R: Yes, sure, because its based on the deepest kind of convictions, beliefs, loves and hates. For all his gentleness, and for all of mine, he was able to hate certain things with a vengeance. And so am I! [chuckles]

N: Well, to have strong opinions either way is not common any longer, and it stands out! Personally, I appreciate it.

R: Well, strong feelings are characteristic of real art. In the end, Im interested in what survives. And what survives is the thing that has a kind of organic intensity about it. Its alive in itself, and its waiting for the time when enough people are hungry for that aliveness and will recognize it. But it also has to have a beautiful surface. There has to be something that pulls you in and you say to yourself, My God, this is beautiful.

N: I can just imagine you as a composition teacher, keeping folks on their toes.

R: I was a tough bird because I set very high standards. One time one student said he had gone into a slump of depression for a couple weeks because of some things I had said at a lesson and I asked him what I said and he told me just precisely.

N: He had memorized it by that time, Im sure!

R: I said to him, those criteria were here long before you or I were born. They are universal; theyll always be here. Human beings who care about real values insist that there be real character, real quality, real expression in art, something that moves them, something that they can live with, take with them as they go through life, something that will survive itself after the time it was created. Thats what I mean by survivability. The ideas have to be strong. They have to etch themselves into your ears. If they dont charm the ear the music is dead in the water.

N: I recall what you said about being able to sing what it is youve written.

R: Yes, Ive always maintained that a composer has to be first and foremost a musician. Of course, the piano is sort of the instrument of common brotherhood among composers, but you should be able to sing as well. I once had a student who brought me some of his music and I asked him to play it for me. He said, Oh, I dont play the piano. I stopped for a minute and said Well, could you sing it for me? He said, Oh, I cant sing. So I paused a little longer, and frankly, Im getting a little puzzled. How can he be a composer and not sing it? So I said, Can you whistle it? He said No I cant whistle, either. I didnt want to insult the poor kid, because he already had the look of someone who was ferociously upset. He was naturally a little bit ashamed, I would think, that he was not a musician. I said to him, Well, I dont know how you can write music at all if youre not a musician, so maybe what you need is to get about the business of becoming a musician. Learn how to play an instrument. Learn how to sing what you hear in your head.

R: Thats something of which people are not aware. They think music is magic. Well, yes, of course it is. I mean, whos ever going to deny that its not? Its absolutely wonderful magic, but it comes from us. Were able to sing it. Ive been a singer all my life. I even studied voice at one time and I sang in the college choir. That was one of my great experiences in college; the other was finding my wife. The rest of college was rather ho-hum! [chuckles] If youre going to take upon yourself the responsibility of making work that you want to present to the public, you have to take the responsibility that goes with what it means to be a composer. Youve got to be a musician. I asked a class if they were familiar with the Schoenberg Fourth Quartet. When I asked them to sing the tone row, things broke down after six or seven notes. Well, if you cant sing it, then you havent internalized it!

To be continued . . . .


Read the conclusion of our interview with George Rochberg next week on


For more information on George Rochberg, read Joan DeVee Dixons "George Rochberg: A Bio-bibliographic Guide To His Life and Works (Pendragon Press, ISBN: 0-945193-12-2) or visit his page at the Theodore Presser website.



Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group