Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: George Rochberg and the Great Dilemma

George Rochberg
George Rochberg (1918-2005)

We mark the birth on July 5, 1918 – 103 years ago today – of the American composer George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg). He died at the age of 86 on May 29, 2005.

Rochberg was of that generation of composers who, having served in the military during World War Two, found himself a radically changed person and artist by the war’s end in 1945. Like other composers of his generation – Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti – to name but a few – Rochberg’s aesthetic and world view were altered forever. Like the composers named above, he sought a modernist musical language relevant to what appeared to be an entirely new world. We’ll talk about the nature of much post-war modernism in just a bit; suffice it for now that it is music of daunting compositional complexity and sadly, far more often than not, unremitting ugliness.

But then personal tragedy forced Rochberg to re-examine the roots and premises of his musical modernism. In 1972, with the composition of his String Quartet No. 3, Rochberg, musically reborn, re-emerged as a composer of a different sort of music with an entirely new aesthetic behind it. George Rochberg’s remarkable musical journey is not just the story of one composer but that of an entire generation of composers: composers who believed that they had discovered a musical language relevant to the post-war world only to discover, after crises of musical faith many years later, that they had not.

Again, the single work that marks Rochberg’s compositional “rebirth” is his String Quartet No. 3 of 1972. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will explore that quartet in detail.… continue reading, only on Patreon!

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