Rochberg as Post-Prohibitionist

Because I just never seem to have enough to do to fill up my time, I guess, I sometimes serve as a “reader” for publishers who want a professional opinion on whether a manuscript should be published. Right now I’m reading a personal memoir by the late George Rochberg – possibly because I was one of the few to express public sympathy for his music and aesthetics after he died. I must say I’m amazed, considering what a different type of composer he was from me, how simpatico I find his opinions.

One gratifying thing I’ve learned is that Rochberg had no patience whatever with Schenkerian analysis, nor with those courses of study comprised under the title “form and analysis.” There seems to be something that links Schenkerian analysis and the “form and analysis” curriculum together with 12-tone music and High Modernism, some kind of belief in absolute rationalism and a specious objectivity devoid of cultural influence or context. I studied Schenkerian analysis with a brilliant man (best not named in this connection), and all we did was argue over what I saw as the arbitrariness and subjectivity of what purported to be scientifically rigorous criteria. I hear that Europe quit paying attention to Schenker decades ago, but he’s still much in vogue in certain American college departments that want to see themselves as top rank. My employers would be prouder of me if I could buy into that whole pretentious mindset, and it’s refreshing to know that someone as academically respectable as Rochberg – only too honest to kid himself – was on my side.

The other thing I find attractive is Rochberg’s characterization of history. As he scopes it out, the history of music was always inclusive and cumulative, each era receiving what was valuable from the previous one and building on it – until the mid-20th century, which decided to exclude and prohibit aspects of the musical practice that preceded it. Rochberg felt that this negative new attitude was a sure road map to oblivion, that a prohibitionary approach to composing would inevitably become a dessicated practice that would blow away with the first wind. For me, this is why bebop harmony is a more sane continuation of the theoretical tradition than the sterile pitch-set analysis I learned in school, because it folds in, retains, and elaborates what came before. And I do find something weirdly schizophrenic in the fact that I spend my afternoons teaching students how to use a certain harmonic vocabulary, and that some composers tell those students that, having learned that vocabulary, they’re not allowed to use it. Old, Eurocentric curmudgeon Rochberg may have been, but like me he believed in a Post-Prohibitive Age, and he was elaborating that belief before I was old enough to know what the issues were.

UPDATE: I am told by an authoritative source that my comment about Schenker analysis being ignored by Europe used to be true; but that there has been a resurgence of the technique in England (which is sort of the Columbia University of Europe anyway), and in Finland and Estonia, whence it has been spread by expatriate Americans.

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