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ClassicsOnline Home » ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 1
Although the first, fourth and fifth movements were performed in cut form in March 1958, Rochberg’s Symphony No. 1, the first large-scale work of his career, is here heard complete for the first time. Unlike the anguished Second (Naxos 8.559182), written in the mid-fifties as a delayed response to the awfulness Rochberg saw at first hand in the war years, the First is a young composer’s exultant exploration of his maturing technique and powers of invention. Rochberg’s teacher, Leopold Mannes, called the Capriccio movement, heard orchestrally for the first time ever in the present performance, “the craziest music I have ever seen!” More than fifty years on, this powerfully individual work has stood the test of time, and of neglect. It is a First Symphony of a young composer who was a natural composer for the orchestra, and a born symphonist.
By Robert R. Reilly
By David Denton
George Rochberg (1918-2005)
Symphony No. 1 (1948-49, rev. 1977 and 2003)
George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on 5 July 1918, and died after a long illness on 30 May 2005. An accomplished pianist who worked his way through college playing in jazz bands in New York City, he began formal studies of composition in 1939 at the Mannes School of Music, under Hans Weisse, George Szell and Leopold Mannes. He was seriously wounded during wartime service in Europe, subsequently resuming his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1945 with Rosario Scalero. 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, the Naumberg Recording Award, 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 have accumulated in ever greater profusion. In 1996 his manuscripts and papers were acquired for the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.
The key that will open George Rochberg's music to the willing, the curious, but especially to the "innocent" ear lies not in the conventional wisdom that declares him the first "post-modernist" for his openness to a complex mix of musical languages, but rather in seeking to enter the composer's singular vision of the nature of time.
As long ago as 1963, Rochberg, in The New Image of Music, wrote that the successive revolutions of twelve-tone composition and of the post-war avant-garde had brought about a liberation that "permits sounds to create their own context". This unchaining of sound from tonal harmonic functions led to "the overthrow of a long-dominant temporal structure"; a world in which conglomerates of pure sound are able to interact in ways that are not necessarily hidebound by structural considerations.
"Subjective man," writes Rochberg, "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." Thus did the composer allow broader means of expression to be added to his vocabulary, constantly enlarging it, making possible what he later came to call an "all-at-once world".
By 1959 Rochberg was lionized as America's first and greatest master of composition in a serial language. His 1955-56 Second Symphony, taken up and enthusiastically premiered by George Szell, seemed to lay out a path for him as one of the leaders of the American avant-garde. And yet, not even three years after its première, he was rethinking his language, already dissatisfied with the limitations of expressivity of the strict twelve-tone environment. Having mastered the idiom, he was far ahead of his time in seeking to go beyond it.
The oft-repeated assertion that it was predominantly personal tragedy that led Rochberg to abandon dodecaphony and embrace tonality, is not entirely borne out by the facts. His evolution towards a multiplicity of simultaneous languages was already well in train from his earliest compositions. Rochberg speaks of his use of twelve-tone techniques as engendering a "hard" Romanticism (kin, perhaps, to the works of Alban Berg) – one has only to look at the slow movement of the Second Symphony, Rochberg's "serial" work par excellence, to see that the tone row yields music that alternates between melting, elegiac beauty and desperate explosions of anguish; ebullient self-confidence and profound tragedy.
George Rochberg's relationship with the past is thus not one of nostalgia: it is one of intimate, living familiarity. Indeed, he has said, in Reflections on the Renewal of Music, "History will not help us; but the past, which is ever-present, can."
One recalls, too, William Faulkner's dictum: "the past – it is not even past!"
Rochberg is never about regret, borrowing or quotation (even if only quotation "in kind"). The Universal Mind, which is there to be embraced by a composer humble enough to deny ego and the flawed search for "originality" at all costs, transcends Time and Space. Denying individualism, seeing the creative artist as a representative of the endless procession of the human condition, the purveyor of our collective memory, allows the composer to gather the entirety of experience into a single, integrated language.
"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."
At the heart of Rochberg's music are an acceptance of the past as an integral ingredient of a rich present; an understanding that an art which insists on "originality" in its every utterance can have no context and no hope of communication. His music liberates the contemporary musician fearlessly to draw upon, and develop in his own voice, the inheritance of his artistic forbears without being derivative, in the knowledge that there is a language, that the many-hued palette of the great masters has not been darkened forever by the cultural pathologies of the twentieth century.
"The hope of contemporary music", writes Rochberg, "lies in learning how to reconcile all manner of opposites, contradictions, paradoxes; the past with the present, tonality with atonality. That is why, in my most recent music, I have tried to utilize these in combinations which reassert the primal values of music."
Symphony No. 1
"This is the craziest music I have ever seen!", was the response of George Rochberg's teacher, Leopold Mannes, when the young composer showed him a piano reduction score of the Capriccio movement of the First Symphony. "Why are you making these seconds?", asked an equally mystified Rosario Scalero, in response to the first movement of the work, when Rochberg visited Scalero at his home in Piedmont, Italy, in 1951. And indeed, the work's harmonic language reaches far beyond the "classical" training Rochberg had received from the scrupulous Scalero, though it would still be five or six years before he adopted the twelve-tone idiom so fearlessly and virtuosically explored in the Second Symphony.
Living in New York in 1941-42 with his new wife, Gene Rosenfeld, 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 to a year in recovery and rehabilitation; he walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life. 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 more than one-hour-long First Symphony, written in 1948-49, was the first large-scale work of the composer's career; unlike the anguished Second, written in the mid-fifties as a delayed response to the awfulness Rochberg saw at first hand in the war years, the First is a young composer's exultant exploration of his maturing technique and powers of invention. Flexing his muscles in the range 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 31-year-old composer's exuberant and assertive laying-down of the gauntlet to the music establishment.
Following the bitter experiences of the war years, "some of us born in America between 1900 and 1920 felt another, opposite world stirring, a barely coherent, inner world of longings and yearnings to say something serious in one of the art forms; to leave our own stamp on the time; even to leave behind, if we could, a touch of beauty, in sound, in paint, in words; and, if not beauty per se, something that mysteriously leaves its healing mark and residual trace on the human soul. These urges, old as the universe itself, were couched in idiosyncratic Americanese."
Feeling his powers returning after the exhaustion of the war, the young composer's project for his first large-scale work was nothing if not ambitious:
"In 1948, three years after the war ended … I was already full of a large and ambitious plan with which to scale the orchestral heights, still vague where specific ideas were concerned, but nonetheless, laid out in my mind as two great pillars for outer movements and two inside slow movements of differing structure and character enclosing a big scherzo of constant, capricious changes that I decided to call Capriccio."
The Symphony was complete by March 1949 and, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the legendary Al Boss of Philadelphia, copying of the orchestral materials for the more than two thousand measures of the piece finished by the end of that year. An evening rehearsal session of the student orchestra of the Curtis Institute was devoted to a reading of the work, thanks to an invitation from the orchestra's conductor, Alexander Hilsberg. But Hilsberg got cold feet; whether from genuine lack of time, or an inability to connect with Rochberg's musical language, he handed off the conducting to the young composer himself at a week or two's notice — and Rochberg, by his own admission, neither then nor at any time later, professed any kind of ability as a conductor.
"I remember how hard and concentratedly we worked that evening. Somehow we played through the entire work without any serious mishaps … the full-blown, big-boned character and size of the symphony's musical ideas came through."
If the Curtis orchestra reading was exhilarating, the hard-won, partial Philadelphia Orchestra performance under Ormandy eight years later was a bitter-sweet experience for the young composer. In the interim Rochberg "foolishly acceded to the bad counsel of my friends and colleagues to shorten the work." In removing the first of the symmetrically paired slow movements — which would later be played several times as a free-standing piece under the title Night Music — and the Capriccio (often performed during the fifties in a two-piano version; but orchestrally for the first time ever in the present performance), a formally unsatisfying shell of an impressively conceived work remained. Further changes, however, were too much; when Ormandy saw fit to suggest a rewrite of the ending of the Finale, so that it would not "tear off" so abruptly — precisely the musical gesture the composer wished — he said "enough", and refused. The seeds of the famous breakdown in their relationship were sown: "In a sharply biting, arch tone of voice, [Ormandy] shot out, "Far be it from me, a mere conductor, to tell a composer how he should write his music."
The work has stood the test of time, and of neglect. It is music of powerful individuality and enormous self-confidence; a First Symphony of a young composer who was a natural composer for the orchestra, and a born symphonist. As to its language, "idiosyncratic Americanese" or not, Rochberg defied the academic dichotomy identified by Adorno, drawing on both of the European giants of the earlier twentieth century for his jumping-off points:
"I drew on … the largest palette possible as I sketched and wrote: Stravinsky for his rhythmic esprit and metric asymmetry, Schoenberg for the ache of his atonal harmony; Stravinsky for his high saturation with a kind of perverse dissonantal atonality, Schoenberg for his wide interval-stretching of expressive line; Stravinsky for his outward gestural angularity, Schoenberg for his inward, expressionistic gestures. Never far from my thoughts were Beethoven's Eroica and Ninth, [and] Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique."
None of this is audible in a surface way. The musical voice is pure Rochberg; the "influences" thoroughly and completely internalised. This music's 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 the tensions inherent in this expressive style "hard romanticism".
Most impressive are, first of all the deeply satisfying, symmetrical form of the work, which comes full-circle with the recapitulation of ideas of the opening sixty-five minutes later, in the final, headlong rush of the closing pages of the Finale. But, most of all, his ability to create thematic ideas of sharp individuality: the magical, suspended, timeless lament for solo 'cello that lies at the heart of the Night Music; the cheery grotesquerie of the "peg-leg Pete" second theme group of the Finale (he termed it thus himself); the Ariel-like untouchability and constant changes of direction in the, yes, capricious Capriccio; the grand, melancholic dignity of the surprisingly "English"-sounding Variations (one thinks of Rubbra, or of certain passages of Walton); and many more. Rochberg's gifts of invention as a young man were so fertile that he had a hard time containing his pieces within bounds. And so it remained during the entire richly productive life of this greatest of American symphonists.
In 1977 Rochberg revisited the First, rewriting and enriching the orchestration of the work from top to bottom. Then, in 2002-03, with the present performance and recording in the offing, the score was again comprehensively revised. It was at this point that the Variations movement, the second slow movement, was renotated with a quadrupling of note-values into triple alla breve time that highlights its links with Renaissance contrapuntal techniques.
The First Symphony is dedicated "To my Mother, in Memoriam".
Quotations are taken from George Rochberg's unpublished autobiography, Five Lines and Four Spaces: Reflections on My Music and the Performers Who Played It, © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 George Rochberg; publication anticipated in 2008. Used by permission of Mrs Gene Rochberg.
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ROCHBERG: Symphony No. 1