George Rochberg, U.S. Composer Who Rebelled Against Modernism, Has Died at Age 86
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
By David Patrick Stearns
Philadelphia-based composer George Rochberg, 86, who is credited with leading American composers out of esoteric modernism with some of the more emotionally visceral pieces of the late 20th century, died Sunday [May 29] from complications following May 2 surgery. His widow, Gene, reported that he died peacefully in Bryn Mawr Hospital.
Mr. Rochberg was one of the most successful composers of the 1970s and '80s. His Violin Concerto was championed by Isaac Stern, who performed it 47 times between 1975 and 1977; his Symphony No. 5 was premiered in 1986 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti and his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1996.
His seven string quartets ó especially String Quartet No. 3, which is considered the turning point in his output ó are considered cornerstones in the American chamber music repertoire. Among his nearly 100 published works are six symphonies and a full-length opera, The Confidence Man.
Mr. Rochberg continued composing into the late 1990s after he retired from the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1960 to 1983. He left what would have been his Symphony No. 7 unfinished, preferring to complete a multi-volume music theory book as well as his memoirs, titled Five Lines and Four Spaces. Both await publication.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey and educated at New York's Mannes School of Music, Mr. Rochberg spent most of his creative life in Philadelphia. After World War II, during which he served as a second lieutenant, he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music for six years starting in 1948, followed by his appointment at Penn, where he was chairman of the music department until 1968.
Mr. Rochberg began to compose in the footsteps of modernists (who preferred highly systemized modes of composition), but the death of his son ó the poet Paul Rochberg ó from a brain tumor in 1964 left the composer at a loss to express his grief in the kind of music he had written up until then.
The composer had also experienced mounting disaffection with the New York avant-garde, which dominated intellectual circles in the 1960s. "I ran in to New York as often as I could to hear concerts, and it all sounded gray and dull, by people with vast reputations based on what, I'll never know," he recalled in a 2001 interview.Accused of betrayal
His gradual conversion to a more expressive mode of composition was savaged by the intelligentsia. "I was accused of betraying, in the following order, the church and the state. I was a traitor, a renegade," he said. "I never once responded. If you're going to be a composer, you have to have an iron stomach, fire in the belly and fire in the brain."
The success that came with this notoriety was a mixed blessing. If audiences thought Mr. Rochberg would be a throwback to Brahms, they were certainly surprised by the expressionistic manner of his mature works in the 1980s. Just because Mr. Rochberg's music was growing out of the great works of the past didn't mean that he was glossing over the turbulent times in which he lived. Mr. Rochberg often compared composing to handling fire, and said that his Symphony No. 7, which he never had the strength to complete, would have been his darkest and most violent.
"I always threw myself heedlessly into a work and didn't care how it made me feel. And by the end of it, my stomach was shot to hell," he said.
That's particularly understandable, given the account that has surfaced in recent years of his collaboration with violinist Stern, who asked for cuts that amounted to 14 minutes. The rehabilitated version [of the Violin Concerto], released last year on the Naxos label, reveals a rather different piece, epic and tumultuous.Whatever is necessary