Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

Observations on George Rochberg and deliberate anachronism


On hearing George Rochberg’s String Quartet # 3: The tonal portions of his quartets are very beautiful although, I suspect, not-quite-good-enough for Mahler. On second hearing, the music comes across more effectively, but even more Mahlerian, including some near-quotes from Mahler 9. In addition, the string quartet medium evokes aspects of early Schönberg—Verklärte Nacht, for instance. I am encouraged by Rochberg’s aesthetic, and I would like to hear more of his music, although I have the sense (in the little music of his that I have heard) that, were he strictly a tonal, “19th century” composer, his music would not be all that interesting, by comparison with the masters of that period. I think this is because, although he has clearly mastered the harmonic conventions and predilections of Mahler, for example, he doesn’t exhibit Mahler’s melodic gift — or perhaps deliberately avoids it. If you think of nearly all of Mahler’s thematic subjects, you’ll hear that they all have “profile.” Lots of wonderful, big leaps, and angular turns of phrase, that are somehow still singable and very memorable. A tonal musical texture made up simply of triads and suspensions with sevenths and ninths isn’t all that difficult to conjure up. By contrast, Rochberg’s serial music is good (for what it is), and he has clearly mastered it — although here again, I wonder whether the exigencies of serial method overshadow elementary “musical” sensibilities (e.g. tunefulness, resonant harmonic sonority, rhythmic “infectiousness,” and all-around memorability). And so his music, methodically constructed, can be made to sound effective by excellent performers schooled in other “musical” sensibilities, like lyric line, beautiful sonority, clean, precise rhythm, and a clear command of romantic and post-romantic musical rhetoric — all of which can make almost anything sound good. Rochberg, Symphony # 4: I am very interested to hear this, and I applaud Rochberg’s courage for composing in an academically proscribed idiom. This work reminds me of Ives’ First Symphony, which I admire more for its idiosyncracies than for its similarities with contemporaneous works. With Rochberg, the shoe is on the other foot, somehow. He seems to be flirting with an historic model, but doesn’t do so consistently, and one wishes he could. This is like an early work of Dvorak or rather, Korngold or Franz Schmidt: very Austro-German, with occasional excursions into mid-20th century Americana (something like Barber, Roy Harris, or Howard Hanson). If we are familiar with these other models, it is hard to know what make of Rochberg’s symphony. It would make excellent film noir music, but I don’t think that was his intent. It could do with a few tunes with real profile, not just soaring romantic effect, but real character, as in the music of Mahler, who so clearly inspires Rochberg. The middle movement (scherzo?) is a remarkable bridge between Mahler and Schoenberg. It really could pass for early 2nd Viennese School — it’s very good. But the ending of the work sounds almost academic — 19th century academic, that is. Ultimately, I suspect Rochberg composed in these contrasting idioms with much the same motivation as Gabriel Fauré, in writing his Requiem: purely for the pleasure of it. The problem is, nowadays, that’s not allowed.

Commentary © 2015 by Stephen Mager. All rights reserved.

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