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ClassicsOnline Home » ROCHBERG: Black Sounds / Cantio Sacra / Phaedra
George Rochberg (b. 1918) Black Sounds Cantio Sacra Phaedra
George Rochberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on 5th July, 1918. He studied composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York from 1939 to 1942 with Hans Weisse, George Szell and Leopold Mannes. During World War II Rochberg served as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry in Europe. Of this period in his life the composer has said: "The war years were much more than an interruption in my musical studies. They taught me what art really meant because I learned what life really meant. The war shaped my psyche and precipitated my internal development. I came to grips with my own time. I came to the necessity of the twelve-tone method independently of the few other American composers who turned to it after the war."
After fighting in Europe in the Second World War (he was seriously wounded in Normandy), Rochberg returned to Philadelphia, where he studied at the Curtis Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. His works quickly gained attention, and in 1950 he left for Italy, having won both the Rome Prize and a Fulbright fellowship. In Italy Rochberg became friends of the anti-Fascist composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), then the leader of the Italian serialist avant garde.
Actively engaged in teaching composition at the University of Pennsylvania he continued to wrestle with the problems of contemporary music. During the 1950s and 1960s Rochberg wrote a number of influential critical and theoretical articles which have appeared in leading music magazines and journals in the United States and Europe. These writings reflected his constant search for and preoccupation with musical truths. By the mid-1960s Rochberg broadened his compositional range to include tonal idioms. But in 1961 the Rochbergs seventeen-year-old son, Paul, fell ill with a brain tumour. He died three years later, throwing his father into despair. Confronted with his sons death, Rochberg struggled to give that tragedy some meaning through his music, but the serialism upon which his career had been built he now found empty and meaningless. It was a language that could not bear the weight of his sorrow. But while Rochberg rejected serialism, he did not reject the atonal composition out of which serialism had grown and which characterized its harmonic syntax. Instead, Rochberg began to construct his music out of both tonal and atonal languages. In so doing, he dramatically reinterpreted the notion of stylistic uniformity that had been a hallmark of the Western aesthetic since antiquity. He refused to abandon "past" musical styles, insisting that they continue to live - transformed by his individual artistry but recognizable nonetheless - in his new art. By including these diverse forms of music, Rochberg believed that he had expanded the emotional range that modern music was able to express. He had found a contemporary language that could both bear the weight of despair and point to transcendence, and, unlike either strict serialism or aleatoric composition, it was a language that was pointedly individualistic.
Rochberg is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of the Alfred I. du Pont Award for Outstanding Conductors and Composers, the George Gershwin Memorial Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. When in 1985 George Rochberg was presented the Gold Medal of Achievement of the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, the citation read in part: "We celebrated George Rochberg for his craft, poetry, and determination to melt the ice in contemporary music... Rochberg is a towering figure in American music. He has been a vibrant teacher and leading American composer -- questioning, eloquent and deeply serious... His work reunites us with our musical heritage and provides a spiritual impetus to continue."
Notes on the Music by George Rochberg
In 1964 I wrote a large wind ensemble work entitled Apocalyptica. From this work I drew the material for a seventeen-player wind piece called Black Sounds. This new work was done in 1965 on commission from Lincoln Center for a dance called The Act, choreographed by Anna Sokolow for inclusion in a special TV composite project Lincoln Center developed in cooperation with WNET, New York. Later that show was awarded the Prix dItalia. Since the dance concerned itself with the "act of murder," the music, to be appropriately "black," had to be unrelenting in its intensity, dark in its gesture. The result was a totally chromaticized texture, though not necessarily atonal. In a through-composed, single movement Black Sounds is stylistically consistent from beginning to end. At the time I wrote it, I also thought of it as an "homage" to Varese, whom I admired greatly for his directness and power of dramatic expression.
Black Sounds appeared in a television broadcast on 24th September, 1965.
When the demand for stylistic consistency rules it is not hard to understand why people might get uneasy, even disturbed, if a composer who "normally" writes twelve-tone music decides to produce a purely tonal work. This was the case when in April 1953 I transcribed for small orchestra a set of variations for organ by the Baroque composer Samuel Scheidt on the chorale tune "Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz" as Cantio Sacra.
45 years later, looking back on the time when the international avant-garde was trying hard to erase from memory the glories of old, I remember quite clearly my reasons for continuing to delve into music which was supposed to be finished, obsolete. First of all, from early on, I had a veritable passion for all forms of variation, which I still see as a primary form of musical expression, invention and construction. The chorale variations (and chorale preludes) for organ of the Baroque era held a special fascination for me and I never tired of playing through endless sets of them at the piano. Secondly, I loved and responded to the soberness, the gravitas of this early music, which combined rich harmonic thinking with intellectual contrapuntal interweavings which, to my mind, remain unmatched to this day. Finally, 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.
In Phaedra I have chosen only the high points, the peaks of Phaedras tragic fate in the belief that through her agony the essence of this ancient and terrible but all-too-human drama will emerge and that only that essence truly lends itself to musical setting. The instrumental portions of this work supply a kind of musical metaphor for the key narrative, aspects which, had they been treated vocally, would have necessitated composing an opera. I opted instead for a single-minded, stripped-down concentration on the monumental figure of Phaedra, the pawn and victim of Venus, the goddess of love, and the radiant splendour of Phaedras barbaric ferocity.
Robert Lowells verse translation of Racines Phèdre, itself based on Euripides Hippolytos, is written in American English, direct, uncluttered and unselfconscious. That appealed to me greatly because the images are vivid, immediate and - very important to a composer - the text rhythms translate readily into musical ones.
My wife was my indispensable collaborator in selecting out the dramatic meat of the text and making important and necessary combinations of passages often widely separated in Lowells version.
The story of Phaedra is briefly told. After Theseus kills the minotaur in the Labyrinth of Minos, King of Crete, Theseus leaves for Greece with Ariadne and Phaedra her younger sister. Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos and takes Phaedra to Athens to become his bride. On her wedding day she see Hippolytus, Theseus son, for the first time and falls madly, insanely in love with him. From that point on, the tragic web of circumstances (created by the gods according to the Greeks) gradually enfolds them all. Phaedra, hearing that Theseus had died at sea, confesses her all-consuming passion to Hippolytus who rejects her because he loves Aricia, an Athenian princess whose father and brothers, political rivals of Theseus, have been put to death by Theseus who is king of Athens. The report of Theseus death is false however; and when he returns home, Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of trying to seduce her. Theseus enraged calls on Poseidon, the sea-god, to kill his son. Full of remorse, Phaedra pleads with Theseus to spare Hippolytus. When Phaedra learns, however, that Hippolytus loves Aricia, she falls into an uncontrollable rage. The news of Hippolytus death reaches the court. Before she dies, having taken poison, Phaedra confesses to Theseus that it was she who loved Hippolytus and that he was innocent of her false accusations.
 I Aria
In May in brilliant Athens
In May on my marriage day
I turned aside for shelter from the smile of Theseus
Death was frowning in an aisle
I saw his face turned white!
I could not breathe or speak.
I faced my flaming executioner
Aphrodite, my mothers murderer!
I fled him, yet he stormed me in disguise,
And seemed to watch me from his fathers eyes
Each day I saw Hippolytus
And felt my ancient passion
Tear my body limb from limb
Naked Venus was clawing down her victim.
What could I do?
Each moment terrified by wild emotions
Now I cried, I cried for death
To save my glory
and expel my gloomy frenzy from this world, my hell!
In May on my marriage day.
 II. Black Sails
 III. Aria
You understand me too well!
Why do you hang there speechless, petrified, polite?
My mind whirls.
What have I to hide?
Phaedra, in all her madness stands before you.
Fool I love you, I adore you.
At first I fled you, and when this fell short of safety
I exiled you from court.
I was afraid to kiss my husband lest I love his son.
I made you fear me
You loathed me more
I ached for you no less
Misfortune magnified your loveliness.
Do you believe my passion is voluntary?
That my obscene confession is some dark trick,
some oily artifice?
Avenge yourself, invoke your father;
a worse monster threatens you
than any Theseus ever fought and slew.
The wife of Theseus loves Hippolytus.
See, Prince! Look, this monster,
ravenous for her execution, will not flinch.
I want your swords spasmodic final inch.
 IV Theseus Homecoming
 V Supplication (Arioso)
Theseus, I heard the deluge of your voice
and stand here trembling.
If theres still time for choice,
Hold back your hand, still bloodless;
Oh spare your race!
I supplicate you; I kneel here for grace.
Oh Theseus, will you drench the earth
with your own blood?
His virtue, his youth, and his birth cry out for him.
Is he already slain by you for me?
Spare me this incestuous pain!
 VI Cabaletta (Aria)
My last calamity has come.
This is the bottom of the sea.
All that proceeded this had little force,
the flames of lust, the horrors of remorse,
the prime refusal, by my grim young master,
were only feeble hints of this disaster.
They love each other!
For them each natural impulse was allowed,
each day was summer and without a cloud.
Theyll love for ever, even while Im talking they embrace,
they scorn me; they are laughing in my face.
I hear them swear they will be true forever everywhere.
Have pity on my jealous rage;
Ill kill this happiness that jeers at age.
Ill summon Theseus, hate shall answer hate!
What am I saying? Have I lost my mind?
I am jealous and call my husband
Imposture! Incest! Murder!
Bind me, bind me, gag me; Im frothing with desire.
My husband is alive and Im on fire!
For Whom? Hippolytus!
When I have said his name blood fills my eyes,
my heart stops dead.
My lovers lifeblood is my single good.
Nothing else will cool my murderous thirst for blood.
Yet I live on!
I live, looked down upon by my progenitor,
the sacred sun by Zeus, by Europa,
by the universe of gods and stars, my ancestors.
They curse their daughter.
In the great night of Hades,
Ill find shelter from their sight.
What am I saying? Ive no place to turn.
Minos my father holds the judges urn.
Will he not shake and curse his fatal star
that brings his daughter trembling to his bar.
His child by Pasiphae forced to tell a thousand sins
Unclassified in hell?
Father, youll be your own childs executioner!
You cannot kill me! Look, my murderer is Venus!
I killed myself and what was worse I wasted my life
for pleasures I have never tasted.
My lover flees me still, and my last gasp
is for the flesh I failed to clasp.
 VII The Death of Hippolytus
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ROCHBERG: Black Sounds / Cantio Sacra / Phaedra