American Classical Composer George Rochberg

American classical composer George Rochberg

“It was empty of expressive emotion and was inadequate to express my grief….it is finished, hollow, meaningless.” Thus the words of George Rochberg about serialism in 1963 when his son Paul succumbed to the ravages of a brain tumor.

His works from then on were things of beauty,and he was often derided by fellow composers as a musical coward. But Rochberg just continued to produce compositions of beauty and integrity for the rest of his life, and his output is indeed impressive.

George Rochberg: His Early Life

George Rochberg was born on July 5,1918, in Paterson, New Jersey. He studied composition at the Mannes College of Music with George Szell and Leopold Mannes from 1939 to 1942, and with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1945.

From 1948 to 1954 Rochberg taught at the Curtis Institute and later became chairman of the music department of the University of Pennsylvania. He continued to teach until 1983.

The Rochberg Family

Rochberg was an infantry lieutenant in World War Two and was seriously wounded at Normandy, France. He married Gene Rosenfeld in 1941 and they had two children, Paul and Francesca. It was the devastating illness of his son Paul that brought George back to tonality in composition.

The boy was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was seventeen and died three years later, leaving Rochberg overwhelmed by grief. From then on his compositions would reflect beauty and melody.

Famous Rochberg Compositions

The Third String Quartet, composed in 1971 and given its premiere on May 15,1972 by the Concord Quartet, was the turning point in Rochberg’s compositional style. Although he still used atonality it was not abrasive or irritating, but rather had something to say to the listener. From that time he produced an enormous amount of quality work, some of which is listed below.

“The Confidence Man,” an opera based on a novel by Herman Melville, with libretto by Gene Rochberg, 1982
Six Symphonies, written between the years 1948-1987
Canto Sacra for small orchestra, 1954
Imago Mundi for large orchestra, 1973
Concerti for oboe,1983; clarinet,1996, and concerto for violin and orchestra written in 1974 for Isaac Stern and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andre Previn.
Seven String Quartet, written between 1952 and 1979
Piano Quartet ,1983 and many more important compositions.

George Rochberg’s book, “The Aesthetics of Survival,” was reissued in 2005 and for this he was awarded an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award posthumously in 2006.

His memoirs, “Five Lines and Four Spaces,” is to be released by the University of Illinois Press in 2009.

The Canadian premiere of his Partita-Variartions was given at the Jane Mallett Theater in Toronto., Ontario, by Canadian pianist Andreas Thiel in 1993.

George Rochberg died on May 29, 2005, after undergoing surgery at the Bryn Mawr Hospital in Pennsylvania.