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The Legacy of George Rochberg

Part II

“I have learned that there is no greater provincialism than that which denies the past,

 that there is no greater danger to the human spirit than to proclaim value

only for its narrow slice of contemporaneity.”

--George Rochberg, quoted in George Rochberg, A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to His Life and Works,

Joan De Vee Dixon, Pendragon Press


This week we continue our conversation with George Rochberg as he ponders poetry, politics, and a lifetime of music.

Click here to read Part I

N: Many are no doubt aware of your influence on notable composers of our time such as William Albright, Gerald Levinson, Daniel Dorff, Stephen Jaffe, and a host of others. Until I prepared for this interview, however, I wasn't aware of your influence on jazz musicians.

R: Yes, there's a lot of crossover now between the pop world and the serious world. A good example would be Uri Caine. He was a student of mine some time ago, and we're still friends.

N: When I thought about it, I certainly could understand your influence on jazz musicians. If I understood correctly, I believe you played your share of gigs years ago, didn't you? [Interviewer’s note:  Rochberg is an accomplished pianist.]

R: Yes, I needed the money. In 1933, when I was fifteen, it was the depths of the depression, and I did them [gigs] until I was nineteen or twenty. I learned quite a bit about improvising and what jazz was all about. I even enjoyed it at times, but I didn’t enjoy where we had to play the stuff. It was tough, seamy, and sleazy. In my memoirs, which are almost completed, I talk about the fact that almost no one has ever commented on how the great pop tunes of the thirties and forties left their stamp on my melodic way of thinking about music. I borrowed them in an unconscious way. I’ve been very close to my violin concerto again because of upcoming performances and preparation of a score of the restored version. I’m struck by the fact that there are phrases in that, as there are in a lot of other works, which I can trace back to specific tunes. But I make no fuss and feathers about it. It was a natural thing to do, because that stuff was really indelible. I mean, survivable! Here it is, 2003, and those tunes are still very much alive.

N: Oh, yes, there’s still a little bit of interest in Cole Porter out there!

R: Cole Porter. Irving Berlin, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern--these guys were melodic geniuses! I’ll put it bluntly, I’m sorry to say, that my own colleagues cannot match them in terms of the melodic aspect of their respective musics, because they have not paid serious enough attention to making a real tune. It became part of my musical bloodstream. Uri Caine grew up with a double strand, an education in both jazz and classical music, so that now he turns to his particularly unique way of making transcriptions or variations of an amazing sort. He really broke through the glass ceiling with a giant collage/commentary of Mahler’s music called Primal Light. It is a fantastic piece, because he has both feet in both traditions. He’s totally at home in each one.

N: That’s such a wonderful part of your legacy to have held up such high standards for your students.

R: Music is a serious art. The great musicians of the past like Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Alban Berg—these people worked very hard. This was not just something you did while driving your car down the road with one hand, jotting down notes with the other. It’s not casual. And the seriousness with which they worked meant a kind of obsession with perfection. To do that takes everything you’ve got. There are no shortcuts.

N: That’s one thing studying music theory taught me. It’s a great amount of work to create living, breathing music, beyond merely completing an academic exercise.

R: The great ideas come to those who’ve penetrated those secrets. One of the problems of modernism and the modern era, especially now in America, is that people don’t think these things are as hard as they are, or they want it to be easier than it is. There’s no way to make it easier. Only when you master all of the aspects are you going to be one of the lucky few to whom ideas come. Not automatically, but almost magically, you know? You’ve heard the Transcendental Variations, which is one of my favorite works. It came out of the Third Quartet, but it’s a different composition because it takes on another world, so to speak. Things happen in it that did not happen in the original string quartet version, although for all intents and purposes the music is identical. It’s hard to describe in plain language what I mean, but the very expansion into this larger body for string orchestra did things to my head, my heart, and my feelings that gave it a new serenity that it never had before. I love that work.

N: Oh, yes, I do as well. It’s so rich and beautiful.

R: I’m glad you do. It represents to me a high point in my life as a composer. You see, I believe it’s possible to live in a time of absolute hell and, for some crazy reason, there are those moments where you can still penetrate through the veil. It’s as if you are breaking through the steel wall of whatever it is you’re surrounded by and are able to see some kind of momentary vision what is truly beautiful and what is really serene. We make our own hell, but we are also capable of breaking through in some subtle way into these other reaches and bringing back the message that the vision is there.


N: What kept you focused during the era of the Third Quartet, when you embraced tonality and many of your colleagues responded so critically?


R: Well, first of all, I knew I was right! I had an absolutely basic, powerful conviction that this is what music had to be again. Some people might like it, most might not like it, but I had to take my lumps. That’s also part of trying to produce art that is meaningful, beautiful, and survives. I was called all kinds of names and all of the comments had been very passionately delivered. I was called “a traitor to the cause”, which made the cause sound political. I was an “apostate”, which made the situation a religious one, as though I had departed from the “church”. I was a “ventriloquist”, a trickster. I was speaking through others’ voices, right? Well, wrong!


R: I had written a set of liner notes for the first recording of the Third Quartet, and the producer of the recording reviewed a copy prior to its printing. She called me and said it was “too personal,” as if I were revealing myself. I told her that I had intended to do just that. For me this was a serious matter: I needed to reveal what kind of music I was writing and why I intended to write in this way. She wanted me to tone it down. I said, “I’m sorry, but it needs to stay the way it is.” One critic who reviewed the recording and my notes said “Rochberg gets on his soap box and lectures to us” and so on. Well, of course, if you’re revealing yourself, in a sense, you are!


R: I think the Third Quartet upset a lot of people’s ideas. I was considered a disappointment; and people were angry with me. A younger composer, a former student of mine, said that an older composer of my generation said to him, “I don’t know why George wants to write beautiful music. We’ve done that already.” How do you write beautiful music and then just give it up because now you have something better to do? It’s like saying there really is something better than Mozart. Well, if there is, I’d like to know what it is, and who wrote it! [chuckles] It was a rugged time, but in a curious way I enjoyed it. Actually, that was my most original act, to just simply stand against what was considered the avant-garde position. I’ve never answered my critics, except in one case.


N: Well, I think you have answered many times, though your music!


R: I did have the pleasure once of doing it directly, however. I was part of a panel discussion in Canada and Paul Hume was there. He was the man who had made a nasty crack about a recital by Margaret Truman, and Harry had become quite upset as a result. However, Paul had always been very kind to me. As we rounded off our remarks to the audience, I turned and purposely addressed him. I said, “You know, Paul, after all, the truth is when all is said and done, it’s what the composer has done that survives and what the critic has done goes by the board.” [chuckles]


N: Touché! [chuckles]


N: In addition to the recent releases of Black Sounds and Symphony No. 5, Naxos will soon release your Second Symphony as well.


R: Yes, and for me it was a real break. It was the first large orchestral work in which I took what I had learned in my earlier experiences with twelve-tone and expanded it. And I discovered things in the writing of it that I had known in a quasi-theoretical way but hadn’t yet applied in a musical sense. The composer Ulysses Kay was a friend of mine, and he came to hear the performance that Szell gave in New York. His comment was “George, it’s too melodic. Everywhere you turn, it’s one melody after another!” He was serious, but at the same time he saw the humor of it from my point of view. The complaint about contemporary music has been largely been that it is a-melodic. There’s not a tune to be found anywhere. And to a large extent, that’s perfectly true!


R: Speaking of melodies, and referring to our earlier discussion, when we were talking about singing and being able to project your own ideas, I used to say to my students, “whatever you do, if you’re lucky enough to start getting performed, don’t give lectures to performers about your ideas.  If you want them to know what you want, sing it!” Show them how it goes. Beat it out for them.


N: Use a musical way of explaining it.


R: Exactly! Musicians will respond to it, because first of all, they want to get on with the playing. They don’t want to sit and listen to a lecture. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world because a lot of composers assume that somehow verbalizing what they’ve written is as important as writing what they’ve done. I ran into this early on and I saw the horrendous discrepancy. In some of the early conferences I attended, you’d meet people that you had not known prior to the event. They were very educated, all from various universities, and were talking about how this or that is done regarding their music that was scheduled to be performed, and so on and so forth. I was getting bleary-eyed having all this thrown at me.  Then, when I heard the performance, there was no way to put the two together. This is what I call “an emptiness where there are no ideas and it can only be filled by talking.” Maximal explanation, minimal music. I can tell by your laugh that you follow what I’m saying.


N: Yes, I think so. It sounds like “sound and fury signifying nothing”.


R: To a great extent, yes, it’s true. I know I could be accused by the number of words I put down on the page [Interviewer’s note: Rochberg has been not only a prolific composer, but an essayist as well] but I have always tried to be careful to say what is, rather than what I would like it to be. In other words, the goal is to recognize real problems and identify them, and not be afraid to express your opinion even though you may be exaggerating a little in one direction or totally wrong, as the case may turn out to be. Even those of us who are right half the time are wrong the other half of the time so, you know, you take your chances.


N: Boldness is an attribute that could definitely be used in your case!

R: Publishers both here in the States and abroad have brought out many books on contemporary music and contemporary composers. A great deal of them consist of simply marks on a page without any ultimate meaning, because the authors haven’t faced the realities of judging what they are talking about. The idea of throwing out making judgments about music is also a part of throwing out the tune, the melody, the harmony, and so forth. In other words, these authors and publishers are afraid of being judged. That’s why I’ve sometimes come across statements like “if you’re talking about what works in the contemporary scene musically, you have to include Chuck Berry along with a discussion of Igor Stravinsky.” Now that’s a pretty extreme way of putting it! One apparently can’t have value judgments anymore with “good” as the ultimate, and “bad” as the negative. Everything is to be considered as potentially good or worthwhile along with everything else, so everything is leveled down to the ground. A flat plain, with no hills, no valleys. Well, it doesn’t work.

N: It results in “plain vanilla” commentaries. Very bland, I would think.

R: Oh yes, and in a sense it characterizes a lot of our present culture.

N: Indeed it does. I think that’s one thing that fascinated me about what you’ve accomplished. It’s definitely not bland. It’s so obviously opinionated.

R: Oh yes, it is! [chuckles]

N:  Many people are afraid to be opinionated about anything these days. I think that is their loss.

R: Yes, even what I say is an opinion, but I can back it up. In other words, I want to back it up the way a scientist likes to back up their hypotheses. You need empirical evidence.

N: Yes, it’s not being opinionated merely for the sake of being opinionated. It’s rational, logical, and well reasoned.

R: Exactly! In a curious way the people who are producing this bland stuff know it’s bland but that’s the best they can do. They still want you to think very highly of it in a critical sense, and I never can. It’s impossible. Take human beings for an example. Walk into a room of people you’ve never met. Let’s say one person strikes you as interesting, and the rest have a certain blandness about them. Well, you can’t treat them like they all have great ideas when they express themselves in a conversation! [laughs]

R: To get back to the Second Symphony, it’s an expressionistic work, pure and simple, and intended as such. I was sitting next to the Cleveland Orchestra program annotator during a rehearsal. The opening is very lusty and loud, and he turned to me and said, “Why is it so loud?” [chuckles] Well, I began to laugh and I thought to myself, “That’s a funny question, because the opening of the Brahms First Symphony is loud, too!” There are movements of Beethoven symphonies that are loud. They’re assertive; they’re aggressive, even. It’s as if they are saying, “Listen, take this seriously, I want you to hear this!” I don’t know the gentleman was expecting, but I can’t deny that it was loud. It was!

R: At the time I wrote the Second Symphony, I arrived at the idea that it’s a tough problem to have a successful, multi-movement work where the opening and closing of each movement is on the same level, which is not even true among classical composers. Sometimes last movements fall away, or fall off in terms of the way they end. Endings are always very difficult, and I decided that even though this was a major work for me I wanted it to be a big sound and a big statement, that I didn’t want to struggle with the problem of finding three or four different beginnings and three or four different endings. I wanted one beginning that, as I said, I made very assertive, very loud, because it just simply needs it, and one ending which is the opposite, which just literally dies away in a dark resignation. I don’t believe in the idea of a matching beginning and ending. If the beginning is quiet, possibly you can go for a strong, powerful ending. The symmetry of beginning and ending with the same kind of gesture has never appealed to me.

N: Based on our previous discussions about symmetry relating to serialism and asymmetry relating to tonality, that would not be surprising.

R: Right. I love the idea of juxtaposing opposites and putting things together that are day and night, hot and cold, sweet and sour.

N: That’s the beauty of it! People don’t know what to expect. Well, they expect something well-crafted in your work but one of the things I love about it is that it’s definitely not formulaic.

R: It keeps you guessing. When you heard the Fifth Symphony for the first time, you didn’t know what was going to happen.

N: So true!

R: There’s no way it is going to tell you what is coming next. And that of course is part of what I mean when I say I’m very aware of how the work is to be shaped and what follows what. It’s not that I want everything to come as a surprise, but I don’t want to give anything away. On the other hand, once you get to know the work, you realize some process of growth going on from the beginning to the end, so that once you’ve experienced the thing and gotten your head around it you have the deep satisfaction of seeing the unity of the whole thing, with all of the differences inside, because there are many differences.

N: It draws you back over and over.

R: Yes. For me one of the basic sections is the concertino in the work where just the four horns are playing. Then after a while other instruments join them and they finally make it back into the tutti. There are other places, though, that I like very much as well. When I was very young I remember saying to myself, “I want to be able to write things that I can listen to, play through myself, and enjoy years later.” I had already written things that I had thrown away. They didn’t satisfy me. I knew that I had to find a way of writing that although years might pass and circumstances might change, I could revisit the work and feel the same sense of what I originally felt it meant.

N: It’s readily apparent that musically you have many, many influences and interests. I’m guessing that you have many interests other than music as well, that have no doubt influenced your work.

R: When I was a child I used to draw a great deal. When I got to be a late teenager I began doing some painting—not very good paintings, I must confess. Oddly enough, during the time I was in England and on the continent in France and Germany while I served in World War II, there would be those times when a set of watercolors would miraculously fall into my hands. I remember when I was in Germany I found a box of watercolors, and I needed some paper on which to do some painting. I could only find the inside of back covers of magazines in a dark grayish color, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Somehow I managed to keep the scenes I painted with me all the rest of the time I was in Europe. My daughter now has some of these same paintings hanging in her home. My wife has also done some painting. She has given herself to the study of art for many years. She’s really very good. I keep encouraging her to do more painting.

N: She obviously has more skills than just a gift for the written word! [Interviewer’s note: Rochberg’s wife Gene has collaborated with him on many works including the libretto for his opera The Confidence Man as well as Phaedra, the latter having just recently been released by Naxos.]

R: Oh, yes. I am quite interested in poetry as well. Our son was a poet, a very gifted one. Had he lived I am convinced he would have become one of our country’s first-rate poets. There was something in his voice, in the way he wrote, that was all his own. So that was a tragic loss for us, and I think for poetry. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been interested in all of the arts. I have read in every direction imaginable.

N: Given your music, I’m not surprised!

R. I enjoy reading philosophical books. I even read theology. If I get a chance to talk to someone who is knowledgeable about religion, I like to do so. I am irreligious in the orthodox sense from any point of view, but I think that there is a world out there that is beyond anything we can imagine, and beyond anything anyone has named so far. There are many different forms of religion, and I’ve read in all of them. I’m fascinated by the fact that especially the Western ones avoid as much as possible the question of evil. That is the stumbling block that I think about a great deal. Last night, for example, my wife and I saw the 1958 Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick, which is a powerful, powerful piece of work. I’m going to go back and re-read Moby Dick as Melville first wrote it. There you have the pictorialization of what he refers to as “the inscrutable universe” which Captain Ahab identifies as the place of evil. Moby Dick is the absolute boiling down to one body, one mountainous white sea body, of the nature of evil. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or even Buddhism haven’t taken on this problem. If you believe in a deity, either the deity is responsible for evil or they let it happen, which is morally the same thing so far as I’m concerned. I’ve not met a human being who’s willing to admit that he or she, as a representative of the human race, can understand that he or she might be part of the problem of evil. So this is something else that has entered into my music, you see. I’m concerned with these matters to the point where I take a moral attitude on what we call the good and the evil.

R: I’m fascinated at present with the whole story of the great physicist Werner von Heisenberg who developed the Heisenberg Principle, the principle of uncertainty. He took the sense of uncertainty any sensitive person feels and made out of it a technical principle, which he applied to atomic particles. There’s a brilliant play written and produced by a British playwright entitled Copenhagen. It’s about the whole question of why Heisenberg, who was the head of the German team to develop the atom bomb, did not achieve the goal. Did he do it on purpose, or was it because he miscalculated? Scientists and historians of science today are apparently concerned with this particular issue. They’re talking about it and thinking about what Heisenberg’s role was in Germany’s losing the war. Germany had developed the rocket, and if they had found the atom bomb, it would have likely been curtains for the rest of Europe and possibly for America as well. The inherent drama in that from an intellectual, spiritual, moral and human perspective is enormous! Upon reading about it and thinking about it, it becomes apparent that it’s a problem that will never be resolved. As Ives put it, there are some “unanswerable questions”. He really knew what he was saying when he invented that phrase.

N: Ah, yes.

R: Ives also had another wonderful phrase somewhere in his essays on the Concord Sonata. He uses the term “the garish day”:  the exaggerated, the peculiar, the overemotional or overdressed, the woman who puts on too much makeup, and the man who wears loud clothes. That very much characterizes a certain aspect of our lives. There’s a lot of noise going on in America and Americans seem to like it that way. I have to admit, I need a lot of quiet and I sort of divorce myself from the noise. That largely means I’m not watching TV. I used to be addicted to the news. I had to find out what was going on politically. Well, I’ve almost given up because you don’t get news.

N: Exactly.

R: You don’t get people seriously thinking through what’s happening and telling you what’s happening from a serious point of view. We merely get “reports”. Much is uncertain as to the outcome of the events. At any rate, as far as my interests go, I think I could honestly say the only thing I’m not interested in is how people make money. [laughs] I mean to say that I find that lack of interest very interesting, because that goal exercises a great many human beings.

N: Well, that desire is practically at the core of our society nowadays.

R: Somehow I know there’s a lot of self-delusion in the idea of making money, which is to say that it’s always a gamble with the conditions of uncertainty. There’s always a certain anxiety at its root and that’s why people who go into the stock brokerage, manufacturing and so on are always worried about meeting their expenses and they’re always chopping down the benefits for the workers, and they’re not too happy about raising the minimum wage. I find all of this somehow to be a world that I know but I don’t want to know.

N: Yes, certainly. It’s pervasive.

R: It's a repetition, a maddening repetition, over and over again. I was reading a review of biography of Teddy Roosevelt and he was referring to the robber barons of his time, the steel interests, the oil people, the railroad people, and so on. They were robbing the people blind, and the workers were paid hardly a pittance. That is, of course, how the unions got started. There were real battles where people got hurt and killed, because the owners refused to give in and they dispatched the "goons" on these people. The "goons" were like mercenaries in this civil crisis. Roosevelt wanted to preserve capitalism, but felt strongly that we must restrain those who don't want any restraints placed on themselves. He would repeatedly tell Congress, "we must restrain the malefactors". Ronald Reagan was the first president in recent decades that fought hard to win reduction of restraints on the corporations, who wanted to do as they please. I never get bored when I'm reading about philosophy or about science, or reading about what's going on in literature, and so on. But I frequently find myself getting tired with the language and the vocabulary and the phraseology of people who talk about economics.

N: I think that's quite understandable and I've often felt that way myself! Thank you for telling us more about your non-musical pursuits. You have such a great diversity of interests and they have been used so beautifully in your work. Dr. Rochberg, I do appreciate your time. It's been a great privilege.

R: It's been a pleasure for me as well. Thank you.

For more information on George Rochberg, read Joan DeVee Dixon’s "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.

Interview by Lorrell Holtz-Oxley, July 2003.  This interview is the property of and may not be reprinted without permission. 


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