No Slave to History: George Rochberg, 1918-2005

You might assume that the late George Rochberg (1918-2005) was not the kind of composer a Downtowner and experimentalist like me would be interested in, but you’d be wrong. In everything I’ve ever written about Rochberg – and there has been a lot, notably the long lead section of my chapter on the New Romantics in my book American Music in the Twentieth Century – I always cited him as one of the best 12-tone composers ever. His works from the 1950s, notably Serenata d’Estate and the Sonata-Fantasia, were important to me as a teenager, and I still think of them first as intriguingly introverted and thoughtful modernist works, only secondarily as examples of “12-tone music.” I worked hard on that Sonata-Fantasia in high school, and performed the first section publicly (the rest was a little much for my technique at the time). The sheet music has been sitting on my piano for the last few months, and I still enjoy reading through its craggy counterpoint.

If anyone could have continued the 12-tone idiom with integrity, I thought it was Rochberg, but when his son died, and in his grief he came out and railed against the technocratic, obfuscatory music of his peers, I watched his courage with admiration. I wasn’t always wild about the directions it led him in – as an ambitious grad student, I didn’t see aping the styles of Handel and Mahler as any key to the future. But I was in awe of the thoroughness with which he cast off ideology from his shoulders, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt as he stumbled about in the uncharted, ahistorical wilderness outside the academy. Rochberg’s book of essays The Aesthetics of Survival was a heartfelt plea for musical sanity, and even though it excoriated Cage along with Boulez and Babbitt, I found myself nodding in agreement with its compelling common sense.

Of course, in retrospect Rochberg’s neo-tonal and quotation-based music has fallen into an ironic genre popularly understood as postmodernism, but he never claimed that title for it, nor pursued the directions he did trying to be hip. Today the Third through Sixth Quartets with which he abandoned modernism sound no longer like pointers to a potentially sterile future, but like bold thought experiments of someone trying desperately to breach the present crisis. To have arisen to prestige through the academy and then apostatized against it as Rochberg did, threatening what could have been career suicide – except that he was so palpably right – was a move as brave as Monteverdi’s embrace of the “secunda prattica” around 1600. I remember even Time magazine documenting the charges that Rochberg had “sold out,” but he never faltered or looked back.

I never had contact with Rochberg but once. When I reviewed The Aesthetics of Survival in the Voice, he sent me a letter taking thoughtful disagreement, and telling me I had misunderstood the gist of some of the essays. In my youthful arrogance I was prepared to argue, but needed to reread much of the book, and, in the haste of carrying on three careers while raising a son, never got around to rereading, and thus never answered. I’ve always regretted that. Because of all the composers who inhabited points distant from me on the spectrum of musical politics, he alone exhibited an honesty and courage that transcended all differences of ideology. “We are not slaves of history,” he wrote; “we can choose and create our own time.”