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Brian Burtt
MusicWeb International, July 2008

By now it’s an old-story: a young lion of the serialist, atonal avant-garde becomes a tuneful symphonist…or a minimalist. This is the story told of American composer George Rochberg, whose collected orchestral works Naxos is endeavoring to record with the help of Christopher Lyndon-Gee. It is, like so much of what’s happening on Naxos’ “American Classics” series, to be met with shouts of joy.

Rochberg’s First Symphony was written in the late 1940s, while the composer himself was just turning 30. Yet the score was revised “top to bottom” in 1977, and again in 2002-03 in preparation for this recording; the composer died in 2005. Rochberg, like Bruckner before him, fell victim to others’ attempts to make his music more manageable and accessible. Eugene Ormandy convinced him to submit to the editor’s ax. When he was finally willing to cut no more, Ormandy retorted, “Far be it from me, a mere conductor, to tell a composer how he should write his music.” It must have been gratifying to Rochberg to participate in the present rehabilitation of the original score.

So, the symphony began its life before the composer adopted serial methodology, and then through subsequent revision assumed a form far more reflective of his artistic maturity. His post-serial mission, in Richard Taruskin’s charged words, was “to challenge the whole idea of stylistic obsolescence. And to challenge that idea was to put in question the ‘necessity’ of the twentieth century’s stylistic revolutions—the most sacred of all modernist dogmas.”

Rochberg himself could describe his purpose even more grandiloquently and obtusely. “Subjective man 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.” If we are to take this as Rochberg’s compositional philosophy, then what process of becoming do we find “spatialized,” made permanent, in the First Symphony?

Structurally, this symphony shows similarities to Mahler’s Seventh: both have five movements constructed in an arch. Rochberg even has a second movement “Night Music,” though where Mahler would insert a funeral march, we get instead the lurching graveyard revels of dancing ghosts and skeletons, with an undead fiddler for good measure. This after an opening movement (marked “Exultant!”) of Nielsen-like exuberance. The third movement Capriccio (“fast and impetuous; like a curtain-raiser”) with percussion outbursts and obbligato piano (and that’s just in the first minute) caused his own teacher to exclaim “This is the craziest music I have ever seen!” Stitching together the craziness, however, is sweet, yearning writing for strings and winds. The fourth movement Variations continue elegiac writing for strings and brass in a “very slow and stately” mode. The finale brings pealing brass heralding war fury and, after uncertainty—perhaps—victory.

Sure, it sounds like a lot. But it all hangs together, which is more than half the wonder. Whether the whole adds up to an extra-music programmatic narrative, however, is a verdict I’ll leave to the reader-listener.

Lyndon-Gee’s involvement in the recording of Rochberg’s works extends beyond conducting to writing the notes as well. In these notes he demonstrates his deep knowledge and passion for the music, even if he shares the composer’s tendency to start talking about music and end up talking metaphysics.

As far as the playing is concerned, this is no mere read-through. The musicians from Saarbrücken play with commitment and intensity, with polished and integrated tone, and with the precision of articulation that can elude better-known orchestras. Lyndon-Gee, for his part, is a natural at organically shaping phrases and building climaxes.

Fans of the twentieth-century symphony should consider this essential.

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net, May 2008

This is among the more important releases in Naxos’s “American Classics” series…this is an amazingly assured, mature, personal, and daring work—unmistakably American, and unmistakably the work of George Rochberg, although the next several decades would take him in many unexpected directions…Despite the pervasive mood of struggle in this symphony, it is clear that the fight that’s being fought is a good one, and the victory that is achieved after 64 minutes is hard-earned and worthwhile. Open-minded listeners are in for quite a ride with this work.

Lyndon-Gee conducts this music passionately, never letting the tension slip, and making the most of the atmosphere in “Night Music,” and the hairpin turns in “Capriccio.” The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, also no stranger to Rochberg’s music, gives this symphony not only its requisite grandeur and energy, but also a sense of control. In no way does this recording sound like a run-through: both the conductor and the musicians are deeply involved. The engineering, courtesy of the Saarländischer Rundfunk, is big and bold, like the symphony itself.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2008

The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee sounds entirely convincing, and Naxos’s recording, as usual, is exemplary. …Recommended. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Robert R. Reilly, January 2008

This and next month, I want to talk about modern American music because I have been listening to new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as to some other new CDs of American music. Curiously, the one thing of which I may be sure is that very few readers will have heard of many of the composers I will cover.

Why is that? I think it is result of what happened to music in the 20th century. The January issue of Gramophonemagazine alludes to this problem in a debate titled “Why Is New Music Ignored?” Three participants try to divine why so much modern music is unknown. Their speculations are really quite amusing, as they largely tiptoe around the reason modern music lost its audience.

One participant did get close to the answer by referring to “the problem of language.” He said of a musical piece by Harrison Birtwistle, “I have no idea what to say about it. If I heard the piece again I’d probably forget that I heard it the first time. There’s something about the lack of memorability if you remove all the obvious prompts that make music memorable—like melody, harmony, rhythm.” Yes, I would think so. It’s like saying that it is hard to remember the taste of wine made without grapes; the “obvious prompt” of the grape is missing.

Some, such as the composer participating in the Gramophone debate, feel “liberated” by this loss of “prompts,” with the result that “‘retro’ structures and melodies feel suffocating” to them. Oh, dear, asphyxiated by a tune? If someone wants to be liberated from melody, harmony, and rhythm, why not become a basket weaver or an investment banker? Another participant piously reacted to the complaint about the loss of language by saying that the problem of “how you memorise something if there isn’t a melody—is partly about our having lost the educational moment to understand that journey.”

In other words, it’s the audience’s fault, or the fault of those who should have educated the poor peasants in the audience. But why should the audience bother to understand the “journey” of those who chose to discard a comprehensible language in which to address them? How about composers understanding the journey of audiences—out of the concert hall? Did composers seize upon that educational moment to come to their senses?

In fact, as the Naxos series demonstrates, many did and have. Not soon enough, however, to keep the audience’s interest—so deep has been the alienation produced by the regularly administered drubbings of new atonal music given in concert halls. Thus it will be news to many that a large number of composers turned against the ideology of amnesia, better known as serialism, and returned to the basics of music—no one more so than George Rochberg, on whose role and music I will focus this month. Some others never left the basics in the first place. They were simply ignored for most of the second half of the 20th century. They were not the serial sinners; they were the sinned against. We are only now slowly getting to know who these composers were and are, as the hold of the amnesiacs was finally broken and this music is now being heard.

Though he was first in their thrall, George Rochberg (1918–2005) helped to break the hold of the amnesiacs. One of the most significant new Naxos CDs is the release of Rochberg’s First Symphony (Naxos 8.559214), an amazingly ambitious and bold work that is so strong it helps me to understand why Rochberg could not have been held under the serialist spell for long. It is given a galvanizing performance by the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christopher Lyndon-Gee. This is the team Naxos assembled to record all of Rochberg’s six symphonies, and they have already given stellar renditions of the Fifth (8.559115) and Second (8.559182), along with the great Violin Concerto (8.559129), with violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved.

This project is so important because Rochberg was at the very center of the seminal controversies affecting modern music. Understand Rochberg’s music, and you understand the struggle within and against modernity. His was an inside job, which is why he was so resented. He became the darling of the avant garde with his highly praised Second Symphony, which was written serially, according to the doctrines of Arnold Schöenberg, who famously declared himself “cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty.” However, Rochberg turned against serialism and returned to tonality in his Concord Quartets, which created a scandal. One angry young critic wrote an article with the title, “Can Modernity Survive George Rochberg?” It turns out it couldn’t. That’s how important he was.

This was not an easy journey for Rochberg. It involved a great deal of thought, passion, and suffering, which included coping with his young son’s death from cancer. Thanks to Naxos, we can begin to listen to Rochberg’s journey as he fought his way through to the realization that, as he once told me, “serialism is the denial of memory” and to his re-embrace of beauty as a source of transcendent continuity.

Rochberg was a profound thinker with a poetic gift of expression in his writing, as well as his music. His music speaks for itself and needs no outside explication, but his writings reveal the depth of his understanding of what he was doing and the reasons for it. As he wrote in the introduction to his brilliant collection of essays, The Aesthetics of Survival, he became repulsed by “the sheer mindlessness and unrestrained vanity of egotism that add up to ‘the forgetting of being.’” And so he declared, “The artist’s 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.’” That is what I hear in his passionate music. That is what I encountered in his person. That is why he became a hero to me, and why I treasured my brief acquaintance with him.

We now have a new source for Rochberg’s thoughts in Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961–2005, published by the Wilfrid Laurier University Press, under the editorship of Alan M. Gillmor. Rochberg maintained his correspondence for a long period with his Canadian composer-friend Anhalt, who did not embrace the same views—which is what makes the conversation interesting. I have nothing but praise for this endeavor; it is the kind of exchange of which civilization is made.

As the above quotes demonstrate, Rochberg was very eloquent when he composed his thoughts for publication. In his correspondence, we see a more spontaneous kind of expression, but one equally revealing. Here are a few enticing samples from the more than 400 pages of letters:

1961: I must confess am growing tired of hearing music defined as Varese defines it as “organized sound.” That’s like saying that the world is “organized matter” or some such nonsense.

Music today is more than sounds and sound manipulation, at least for me. It is a way of reaching the ineffable or exorcising the Devil…Schoenberg has no real value as far as I’m concerned merely as the basis of the 12-tone method.

1965: The end of the 19th century Romantic posture, the vertical man, who thinks he is unique enough to blot out the sun. I for one am utterly fed up with art and artists based on such unholy premises.

1970: Happy to be able to think harmonically and rhythmically as though it were the most natural thing in the world. I passed the stage of writing tonally from a sense of irony to simply writing it . . . . My recent listening experience confirms that contemporary music is a limited palette of essentially neurotic, constricted gestures. All of it perfectly true—but only of certain kinds of experience—the worst ones (alienation, trauma, nihilistic-destructive withdrawal, etc.).

1971: I’m presently obsessed with the need to write genuinely tonal music with all the attendant aspects of melody, accompaniment, etc. It’s like breathing clean air again.

1984: What is fascinating though is how the human mind in this century insists in ever-increasing degrees of intensity in stripping every possible layer of “natural” meaning from human experience and taking “knowledge” (so-called) even farther and farther away from life as we experience it to some oxygen-free zone of abstraction…I see a wild dance going on that most of humanity is partaking in; and I see the intellectuals distancing themselves as much as possible from this mad dancing. As music is part of the dance, and a very big part at that, I prefer to be there myself.

1985: It does not follow that if a work of art symbolically or actually ‘represents’ or tries to represent the terrors of the contemporary world, that it a) is telling the ‘truth’; b) is by virtue of that effort to tell the truth, a piece of art; c) is automatically protected from a justifiable critical view of what it is in itself as at attempt to make art…For me, while the chaotic horrors of our day are all too real, I’m not convinced they are ‘subject matter’ for art unless their rawness is transfigured, transformed through the power of an intense artistic mind and nature

I enjoy these letters in anticipation of the appearance of Rochberg’s memoirs, Five Lines, Four Spaces, which is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. I read several chapters in manuscript and I know this book will be priceless to anyone wanting to understand what happened in the 20th-century world of music.

However, we now can listen to what was going on with Rochberg immediately after World War II, when he composed his Symphony No. 1. There are very few first symphonies that can come close to the scope and tumultuous drive of this more than one-hour-long work. It is extraordinary in every way. It is not easy music; it represents Rochberg’s notion of what he called “hard romanticism,” which can be harrowing at times and quite dissonant. The opening is riveting. It begins with a highly arresting figure—the sounding of an alarm in several rising notes—followed by pounding staccato chords. The symphony also contains music of great elegiac beauty and poignant reflection. It is dedicated: “To my Mother, in Memoriam.”

It is close to unbelievable that the Naxos CD is the first full performance of the score, which was truncated for its first performance in 1958 by Eugene Ormandy. The removal of the second movement is especially puzzling; it has to be some of the finest Night Music composed outside of Bartók. Why was it removed?

The primary influence here, however, is Stravinsky, especially in the last movement, which bristles with Rite of Spring rhythms. The influence is expressed in the form of overt homage, not dependence; it is not as if Rochberg doesn’t have ideas of his own. This is a very fecund work, bursting at the seams with intensity, energy, and striking ideas. It is in every sense a harbinger of the greatness Rochberg would achieve in his Fifth Symphony and in other works we have yet to hear, but can now hope to, thanks to Naxos.  This series is the best way I can imagine of encountering and understanding the “problem of language” that engulfed modern classical music, and how it was overcome.

Derek Warby
MusicWeb International, January 2008

George Rochberg is not a familiar name to many people nevertheless he was a composer of great power and imagination. His works are often large in scale and ambition. He had wonderful control over orchestral colours and textures and always presented a cohesive musical argument. Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey of Jewish Ukrainian parents on 5 July 1918. Like his close contemporary (and fellow impressive symphonist), William Schuman, Rochberg played jazz piano in New York clubs as a student. He studied at the Mannes School of Music where his studies brought him into contact with, among others, George Szell, later studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War and he remained with a slight limp for the rest of his life. He was director of publications for Theodore Presser from 1951 and in 1960 became chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania and then Annenberg Professor of Humanities from 1979 until retirement in 1983.

Rochberg’s musical style falls into three distinct periods. Before his meeting with Luigi Dallapiccola in 1951, Rochberg’s music was chromatic, almost atonal, although still recognisably from tonal roots. Between the early 1950s and 1963, he was the darling of the American avant-garde and wrote exclusively serial music, the most important work from this period being the Second Symphony of 1955–56, premiered by Rochberg’s former professor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1961. The Naxos American Classics recording of this work has been reviewed several times previously for Musicweb, as has the Fifth Symphony by Neil Horner [review]. Following the death of his son in 1964, Rochberg abandoned the twelve-tone system in search of a music language which would allow him the increased degree of expression he sought. Possibly his most notable work from this third period is the Third String Quartet from 1972, which also bore the Transcendental Variations, an arrangement for string orchestra of the Quartet’s slow movement.

“This is the craziest music I have ever seen” is reportedly how Rochberg’s teacher Leopold Mannes, reacted to being shown the piano score of the Capriccio of Rochberg’s First Symphony. The Symphony is a monster, it has to be said, being a five-movement work of well over an hour’s duration. At the most superficial level, the First Symphony resembles the model of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony—two substantial symphonic movements at beginning and end, a furious scherzo in the centre and two ‘night music’ pieces as second and fourth movements. This superficial level is where the similarity ends, however. This symphony is a vastly ambitious creation for a young 30-year-old composer to attempt and I was constantly struck by the confidence and assurance shown in the composition of this powerful yet slightly rambling work. Originally written during 1948–49, Rochberg revised the First Symphony in 1977 and then again in 2002–03 in preparation for this recording.

The first movement (along with a great deal of the rest of the Symphony) shows the strong influence of the music by Stravinsky Rochberg doubtless heard in New York such as the Symphony in C and Symphony in 3 Movements, as well as (to my ears) early Schoenberg and hints of Berg, Martinů, Varčse, Copland and early Bernstein—whose own First Symphony had appeared in 1942. The work opens without any preamble whatsoever and brings to mind the aforementioned Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. There seems to be almost a straight quote from the Stravinsky work at around 3:03 and again later at 9:04. Rochberg’s confidence in his skills is shown not only in the complex, dissonant, contrapuntal music that pervades much of the movement but also in the bravery of ending the ‘exposition’ section with a blatant, richly scored C major chord. The movement is taughtly argued throughout its eleven minutes and makes an impressive start, living up to the marking Exultant!! in the score. Wherever next?

What we have in the second movement is a true Night Music. This is not, however, a night music like Mahler or Bartók. This was the first part of the Symphony to be written, standing alone for some months, and is very much Rochberg’s own distinctive sound world. The heart of this movement could quite easily be the slow movement of a cello concerto. This is a lament of extreme tranquility and one feels that Rochberg’s dedication for the Symphony “To my mother, in memoriam” is at its most deeply felt here. This extensive ruminatory music is framed by sections more agitated in nature.

The Capriccio third movement is a Stravinskian/Varèsian/Coplandesque scherzo of massive proportions. The percussion comes very much into prominence here and the music has a relentless forward drive that leaves the listener breathless after nearly fourteen minutes. The huge Variations fourth movement sounds oddly ‘English’ in many places, Rochberg’s symphonic contrapuntal skills echoing those of Edmund Rubbra. The movement leads straight into the Finale—the First Symphony’s only movement lasting under ten minutes. After a brief slow introduction which continues the hazy music which concluded the Variations, we are thrust into what Rochberg himself described as “peg-leg Pete” music, with its lolloping gait and constant changes of direction.

The performance of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra is exemplary in every way and Christopher Lyndon-Gee obviously has the full measure of this gargantuan work. His credentials have already been fully shown in the previous Rochberg releases which have won such critical acclaim. The recording is first rate to match, having the perfect combination of warm, natural sound and enough detail in the recording to hear Rochberg’s sometimes complex contrapuntal textures.

This Symphony has been a major discovery for me and repeated listenings have been intensely rewarding. Rochberg is undoubtedly one of the most important American symphonists. I think only William Schuman could realistically vie with Rochberg for the mantle of ‘the’ most important American symphonist. This giant of a symphony has not had an easy life and I hope Christopher Lyndon-Gee’s world première recording will bring to it the larger audience it so richly deserves.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Two traumatic experiences, the first coming in front-line service in the Second World War when he was badly wounded, and the later death of his 15-year-old son, were to leave the listener never quite sure as to which George Rochberg they are about to experience. Born in New Jersey in 1918, he had begun his studies as a composer when he was drafted into the US army in 1942. The effect of all that he had seen in the European conflict had a delayed action, his first music on returning home seemingly in the mood of relief. He had started his First Symphony in 1939 and resumed work on its five movements in 1948, his influences remaining in a tonal idiom that five years later would turn to a devout serial composer in the Second Symphony. That he was later to return to tonality gave him the opportunity to revisit the score in 1977 rewriting part of the work and enriching the orchestral fabric. Early efforts to have the work performed had resulted in a shortened version of the work played by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1950’s, a premiere he much regretted. He did recirculate the second movement as a stand-alone piece, Night Music, but until this recorded performance in 2004, it had never been heard in its entirety. The prospect of that event caused Rochberg to take one last look at the score when several more changes were made. Even between movements we find a very different composer, at times embracing an American folksy element, while at times he intimates the onset of atonality. Certainly the two extensive slow movements that come second and fourth are very imposing, the rather savage passage towards the end of the second preparing the way for a powerful finale whose abrupt ending is intended to shock. Rochberg’s very free use of his thematic material does need revisiting several times to get inside his thinking, the music at times seeming to meander as ideas come and go. Christopher Lyndon-Gee has long been a champion of Rochberg and we can be sure that this is a benchmark recording, and even though the Saarbrucken orchestra at times sound to be coming to terms with the score, the whole account constitutes a ‘must have’ disc from the American contemporary scene.

David Hurwitz, November 2007

George Rochberg’s First Symphony (1949) is a big, gritty orchestral extravaganza in five movements that lasts a bit more than an hour. Not quite atonal, it contrasts a high level of dissonance with affecting melody and traditional harmony, combining thrilling outbursts of orchestral mayhem with long passages of disquieting stillness. With movement titles like “Exultant!”, “Fast and Impetuous; like a curtain-raiser”, and “Night Music”, it’s very much young man’s music, and it clearly reveals a composer with tremendous talent and an overwhelming urge to self-expression. If I had to compare the style to any other composer, it reminds me a bit of Sessions’ suite from The Black Maskers, only with richer string textures.

It also sounds ferociously difficult to play, particularly for the brass, which are called on to execute rhythmically complex gestures both individually and as a section. The Saarbrücken players are amazingly game, and largely successful, though I could imagine a hair more precision at a few points in the first and third movements. It’s all very impressively held together by Christopher Lyndon-Gee in what is effectively the symphony’s premiere performance in its complete original form and most recent (2003) revision. Brilliant sonics convey Rochberg’s vivid scoring with tactile immediacy. If any neglected American symphony deserves to enter the repertoire, this one does—aside from Rochberg’s other works in the form, of course.

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