It’s debatable how much power 12-tone music held over classical music in the 20th century, but power it certainly had. Then an inside man dropped a bombshell. A look at George Rochberg.

George Rochberg (1918–2005). Symphony No. 1 (1949–57)

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Hi everyone, I’m Kile Smith, and this is Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast every month on SoundCloud and Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” to find every one of our podcasts.

Classical music these days is a smorgasbord of just about every imaginable style. Tonal, romantic, pop-influenced, jazz-influenced, 12-tone, extreme chromaticism, extremely mathematical, minimal, post-minimal, computer-assisted, artificial-intelligence assisted, chance, dance, hip-hop, electric, eclectic, experimental—it’s all in the mix. This wildness is true not only on the fringes, where it’s always been true, but in the biggest concert halls and with the biggest orchestras. Fringe is in.

It was not always the case. For a large part of the 20th century, the proper way to compose, according to many who had influence in such matters, was to write 12-tone music. How strong that power was is open to debate. But what isn’t open to debate is that many composers felt pressure to compose according to the principles set down by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. Those principles demanded the destruction of tonality by ensuring that no one pitch or chord would have dominance in a piece of music—that tones and music itself would be liberated by the demolishing of the major/minor key system that music had, in this view, become strangled by.

It seemed to many that 12-tone music was the music of the future. Composers who didn’t get on board with it or with serialism, its later, more comprehensive development, were seen as impediments to progress. As Pierre Boulez put it, “any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced—the necessity for the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.” (The capital letters are his, and this quote is from an article where Boulez castigates Schoenberg and the 12-tone method, so there’s more to wrestle with than we can go into now.)

Of course, composers kept writing tonal music, but their number shrank as they died off or succumbed to the new vision. Even the most popularly successful composers eventually took up the new theory. Igor Stravinsky took it up. Aaron Copland went 12-tone, before he virtually stopped writing music altogether, in the 1960s.

Classical music has never been monolithic, though, not even in the 20th century, and many either fought against 12-tone music or simply ignored it. Paul Hindemith was one of the earliest to reject Schoenberg’s thinking, publicly, in the 1920s. His later theoretical writings continued to denounce it; he, in turn, and his music, were pooh-poohed, and still are today in some corners. John Cage’s and Earle Brown’s work in chance music had its adherents, and the 1960s birth of minimalism and its extremely repetitive structures, had a long-lasting effect down to this day.

But these countercurrents were relatively small and, for the time being, on the outside. Granted, so much of this is based on perception, and again, it is still debated how much sway 12-tone practice held over classical music for, say, the 60-year period from the First World War on. But it is undeniable that power there was. And no composer from within the academy—within the world of theory, conferences, within high-octane orchestral composition in big cities with big newspapers and big critics—no such composer really challenged the 12-tone orthodoxy head-on, and many who would want to, recounted how they did not, for fear of reprisal.

Until George Rochberg, that is. Born in northern New Jersey in 1918 to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, Rochberg studied at Montclair State, then at the Mannes School in New York. He married, and when the U.S. entered World War II, he entered the Army, and as an infantry Second Lieutenant with Patton’s Third Army was wounded in action during the Battle of the Bulge, for which he received the Purple Heart.

After the war Rochberg studied at the Curtis Institute, which is where he began work on his First Symphony. He received his Master’s from the University of Pennsylvania, taught at Curtis, and with the first of two Fulbrights studied in Italy, where he met the leading serialist composer Luigi Dallapiccola and soaked up 12-tone theory. Back home, he worked for the publisher Theodore Presser in Philadelphia, then in 1960 accepted a teaching position at Penn, later becoming department chair. He retired from Penn in 1983.

His Second Symphony, from 1956, a landmark American 12-tone work, was heralded critically, and Rochberg composed other 12-tone works to great acclaim. But in 1964 tragedy struck when the Rochbergs’ son Paul died from brain cancer.

George Rochberg found that he could not express his grief in music, that the techniques he had embraced to create his art were insufficient to address this suffering. There were two gifts of music, he thought, that the 12-tone system could not supply: melody and memory. And to truly express the entire range of human emotion, you need both.

He felt that tonal music could produce long lines—melodies—whereas 12-tone music tended toward brief statements. Also, he said, “One of the biggest problems about 20th century music in terms of modernism is that very little of it can be remembered. It struck me a long time ago what a painful thing to be involved as an artist—how painful to spend a lifetime producing work which, let’s say, leaves nothing on the retina of memory.”

Because of this, in his opinion 12-tone music sounded much the same no matter who wrote it, which was, ironically, the very charge of modernists against the 19th-century romantics. Also, the very basis of Schoenberg’s music and that of Berg, Webern, and others who followed him, was Expressionism, and yet that very expression was crippled by what he saw as these fatal flaws in 12-tone dogma.

Rochberg composed his way through these problems, and through his grief, throughout the 1960s and in 1972 came his bombshell, the String Quartet No. 3. Critic and musicologist Ralph Locke describes his first hearing of the work this way:

There, nestled in the middle of a piece otherwise written in…high modernism, was a slow movement (theme and variations) that sounded for all the world like a previously unknown movement from a late Beethoven quartet amped up with some harmonic coloration from Mahler. For many of us classical-music lovers, “the Rochberg Third” announced that postmodernism had arrived; obeisance to the cult of Schoenberg, Babbitt, and Boulez was no longer required; and new music could now be…all kinds of different things.

The reaction in the classical music world was a defining moment, and mostly negative. In The New Yorker, Andrew Porter called it “almost irrelevant.” “I was accused of betraying,” said Rochberg, “the church and the state. I was a traitor.”

But he would not be deterred, and composed from then on, certainly not easy-listening music, but music with long melodic lines and cogent harmonies. Not only that, he spoke and wrote against the old orthodoxy whenever he had the chance. He felt that singing and dancing, the twin pillars of music, had been replaced by counting, a science he called “fake.”

It may not seem obvious at this remove, but the wealth of diversity in classical music styles we enjoy now grew largely from that Third String Quartet of George Rochberg in 1972. But what of his voice, what is the sound of it? It seems to me that a wondrous place to go for that is to the George Rochberg before the bombshell, before the grief, even before Italy and 12-tone (for or against, whatever our opinion is of that melée). I’d like to take us to that Symphony No. 1, which we saw him composing at Curtis in 1949.

It would be fully eight years before the premiere would take place, two years after he completed his Second Symphony. 1958, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, and I have that performance for us now, thanks to the American International Music Fund, and the Fleisher Collection’s recovery of these tapes that curator Gary Galván is seeing to.

Even though this performance is a cut version of the work (five movements down to three), even though Rochberg revised it in 1977 and again in 2002 for a new recording, I love two things about this 1958 concert. First, the piece itself is a marvel of energy and youth, and deep expression from a composer who was 21 when he began it. It’s a lot of fun, actually, within some brilliant, tough, difficult writing. Second, it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they sound fantastic.

The ending is a smash, which is funny in light of a little dust-up between Rochberg and Ormandy. The conductor suggested that an even bigger ending might be better but the composer, perhaps smarting from already having had to cut two movements, and perhaps thrown by having this suggestion come to him in front of the entire orchestra, held his ground. So a peeved Ormandy, according to Rochberg, pronounced, “Far be it from me, a mere conductor, to tell a composer how he should write his music.”

Well, the ending sounds slam-bang to me, but see what you think. Here’s the Symphony No. 1 of George Rochberg in its world premiere of three movements, the opening Allegro the composer attached the word “Exultant!” to, a Theme and Variations, and the joyous Finale. This live 1958 performance, from the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra.

[George Rochberg. Symphony No. 1]

The world premiere of the Symphony No. 1 of George Rochberg, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy in 1958. The performance was captured for us because of the American International Music Fund and newly digitized by the Fleisher Collection under curator Gary Galván. This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, coming to you on the first of the month every month, and I’m Kile Smith.

Rochberg and Ormandy had a spotty relationship, you might say, following the argument over the ending we just heard. Later, Ormandy complained in print about the state of new music in America, saying that the orchestra loses subscriptions every time they play a new piece. George Rochberg, who, we’ve seen, was no shrinking violet, answered in print, saying that there was a lot of new music out there that they could be playing that people would like. Well, the next time they saw each other, Ormandy told Rochberg that he didn’t appreciate being attacked in print, turned on his heel, and the two never spoke again.

George Rochberg, we’ve seen, was a man of passion and courage, whether it was taking fire from the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge, whether it was from the pages of The New Yorker, or from his own colleagues in academia. And he did say in a 2004 interview that in composing, “You can’t be nice.” But whether you agree with his view on this or that theory, all he wanted to do, he said, was this: “I wanted to prove to myself and the world that beauty is not dead.”

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And thanks again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.