April 26, 2012

When smart people say stupid things II

I have become completely dissatisfied with [serialism's] narrow terms.  I found the palette of constant chromaticism increasingly constricting, nor could I accept any longer the limited range of gestures that always seemed to channel the music into some form or other of expressionism.  The over-intense manner of serialism and its tendency to inhibit physical pulse and rhythm led me to question a style which made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquility, grace, wit, energy.
George Rochberg, liner notes for the 1973 recording of his Third String Quartet issued on Nonesuch Records LP  (italics mine).

I happen to like Rochberg's 12-tone music (2nd Symphony, Piano Trio) and I have no problem with his decision to abandon serialism (by which he means only serial organization of pitch, not integral serialism of Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen) in favor of (mostly) tonal composition.  But his attempted justification of this decision strikes me as borderline incoherent.

To begin with, Rochberg equates "constant chromaticism" with 12-tone music, which is simply false because chromaticism also pertains to tonal music whose expression of key is highly ambiguous or obscure.  Such tonal music (e.g., Roger Sessions' 2nd symphony) may sound 'atonal', while 12-tone music whose basic tone rows are designed to create strong illusions of tonal centers may sound 'tonal', albeit ambiguous with respect to its key (e.g., Benjamin Frankel's symphonies, Interlude from Krenek's opera Karl V, Dallapiccola's Variations for Orchestra).

Second, Rochberg's claim that 12-tone music is incapable of expressing psychological (emotional) states traditionally associated with tonal music is absurd.  Keeping in mind that our perceptions of such states in music are highly subjective (what sounds 'witty' and 'graceful' to Boris may sound 'banal' and 'trite' to Natasha), I get as much 'wit' and 'grace' from Krenek's 5th Symphony and his works for string orchestra as I get from Haydn.  If I want 'tranquility' and 'serenity', I can find them as easily in the delicately shimmering and haunting sonorities of Gunther Schuller's Symphony (1965) or Boulez' Pli selon pli as I find them in the works of Debussy.  As for 'energy', I get more of it from one short movement of a Roger Sessions symphony than from all of Bruckner's elephantine Scherzos combined.  And when it comes to 'love', 'passion', 'sensuousness', 'sadness', and 'tragedy', no tonal music can match the impact with which these emotions have been expressed in 12-tone music (e.g., Berg's Lulu).   

Finally, there is Rochberg's implied - and at best highly dubious - suggestion that some form of return to tonality is the only viable alternative for composers unhappy with (perceived) emotional limitations of serialism.  Elliott Carter's music is neither tonal nor serial, yet, when Carter feels like it, he can infuse his music with intense, sweeping romantic passion and poignant, bittersweet longing (e.g., episodes for massed strings in Boston Concerto, Interventions, and Three Occasions); or with wit, playfulness, and happiness as pronounced as in the sunniest music of Haydn and Mozart (e.g., Oboe Concerto). 

Rochberg's diatribe against 12-tone music would not have bothered me much if it weren't for the fact that he spoke not only as a composer, but also as a professor of composition - an academic appointment he held at the University of Pennsylvania for many years.  With such incoherent and misleading denunciations of  12-tone music coming from professors of composition at Ivy League universities, it is no surprise that an average concert-goer in America still thinks of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto as a musical equivalent of a root canal...


sasha said...

O Speaking of 'delicately shimmering and haunting sonorities' you wouldn't happen to have Schuller's 1965 symphony to post, would you Boom? God its been years since I heard that US LP (was it a Nonesuch release?) where it was coupled with the double bass quartet..Anyways I didn't mean to side step the main thrust of your article..Yes yes totally agree with your thoughts there..Remember questioning Elliot Carter along those lines at one of those wonderful pre-prom talks here in London a few years back..My question went something along the lines of 'What do you make of Penderecki's more recent late-romantic inspired output and the crop of Eastern European composers bathing themselves in this tonal light?' His answer was a chuckle and a those-grown-men-really- should-know-better..It seems Mr Rochberg dosen't..

jbrahms said...

I agree. Rochberg's statement is polemical. It reminds me of statements made about psychoanalysis based on either Woody caricatures or the worst ungiving analyst anyone may have had.

Bob Falesch said...

I'm surprised that Rochberg, one whose music I've admired, would make such claims. Boom, I find your point of view here sound and, as usual, colorfully expressed. At first I was startled by your example of Lulu, but very happy you chose it given it's favorite work mine. That reminds me, I must go to see my dentist.

laybl said...

Didn't you once comment on Beethoven's ability to create "tender" music? Does this not call into question the goal(s) of serial music? We don't compare Pollack to Van Eyck, or Joyce to Hardy.Music should rise and fall on its own merit, not in comparison with works that have disparate aims.


Eric Grunin said...

Rochberg's life was shattered by the death of his son, and he retreated to the shelter of Beethoven and Brahms.

Unfortunately he then proceeded to insist that anyone who said they enjoyed modern art was either lying or a charlatan. I once heard him claim that "Ulysses" was incomprehensible.

Boom said...

Rochberg's comment on "Ulysses" is all the more bizarre in light of what he once said about Schoenberg's 12-tone Violin Concerto - a much more angular, gritty music than Dallapiccola's lyrical opera:

-- [Schoenberg's Violin Concerto is] the work that I really felt was a burning, intense, hyper-emotional piece. And I loved it for that.
(quoted from "Trackings: Composers speak with Richard Dufallo", Oxford U. Press)

welker said...

Is it sure that Rochberg was talking about Dallapiccola's *Ulisse* and not about Joyce's *Ulysses*, which is rather more difficult and/or "modernistic" than the opera? Certainly the Schoenberg Violin Concerto is a harder nut to crack than D's opera; that's what makes it so fascinating. It's also extremely beautiful - hearing Hilary Hahn play it in concert was a revelation (more so than the recording she made about the same time). Schoenberg will, I fear, remain caviare to the general, despite the success of *Verklärte Nacht*.
As to composers' views on other composers: they are always based upon their own compositional choices. Britten couldn't stand Brahms. So what? I can enjoy both...

Boom said...


You might be right in that Rochberg referred to Joyce and not to Dallapiccola! After your comment, I searched the web and came across a mention of Rochberg saying in a public interview (late 1990s) something about "not be able to get through" Joyce's book.

I just took it for granted that, in the context of this post, the reference was to a composer rather than a novelist...

Eric Grunin said...

Rochberg's comments on Ulysses were indeed about the novel.

It was in a post-concert discussion (more like an interview) at Miller Theater at Columbia University, possibly in 1994.

He said something like: I don't know anyone who's actually gotten all the way through Ulysses.

We were all a bit shocked, and then a woman on the stage raised her hand and said, quietly but firmly, "I have."