Composer  George  Rochberg

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


[Portions of two brief biographies]

George Rochberg (Composer)

Born: July 5, 1918 - Paterson, New Jersey, USA
Died: May 29, 2005, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA

The American composer, George Rochberg, attended the Mannes College of Music, where one of his teachers was George Szell.

George Rochberg abandoned serialism after 1963 when his son died, saying that serialism was empty of expressive emotion and was inadequate to express his grief and rage. By the seventies he was causing controversy with often obviously tonal music. He compared atonality to abstract art and tonality to concrete art, and compared his artistic evolution with Philip Guston's, saying, "The tension between concreteness and abstraction" is a fundamental issue for both of them.

George Rochberg is perhaps best known for his String Quartet No. 6 which includes a movement of variations on the Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. A few of his works were musical collages of quotations from other composers. Contra Mortem et Tempus, for example, contains passages from Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Edgard Varese and Charles Ives.  [Names which are links refer to interviews by BD elsewhere on this website.]


George Rochberg was the chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania until 1968, and continued to teach there until 1983.

His later works tend to be neo-romantic (and even neo-Mahlerian) in style.

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Born in 1918, Rochberg received a bachelor's degree from Montclair State Teacher's College and subsequently enrolled at the Mannes School of Music, where he worked with Georg Szell and Leopold Mannes himself. After serving in the military during World War II, Rochberg studied at the Curtis institute until 1947, when he received a Bachelor of Music degree. A year later he received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to the Curtis Institute to teach. Impressed by the power of serial music during a 1950 stay at the American Academy in Rome, he befriended 12-tone composer Luigi Dallapiccola. Rochberg then began to explore twelve-tone procedure in his own music, eventually producing a string of expressive works in that language, including the Second Symphony, (1956), and the Twelve Bagatelles for Solo Piano, (1952). Also from the 1950s come a number of important theoretical treatises on aspects of twelve-tone technique, specifically the ramifications of what is known in modern music theory as the hexachord.

By the early 1960s Rochberg was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations of strict serialism, and his last truly twelve-tone work, a piano trio, was completed in 1963. Experimentation with quotation (i.e. the presentation of a snippet of older music within a newly composed framework), as in the Music for the Magic Theater, left Rochberg dissatisfied. With the Third String Quartet of 1972, Rochberg publicly rejected the musical status quo, returning instead to a thoroughly tonal idiom, juxtaposed with bitter, often violent atonal music. The slow movement of the quartet is a set of variations composed in a style reminiscent of Beethoven, while the finale seeks to replicate Mahler. While the quartet was hailed by some as a masterpiece and as the best hope for music in the future, others were less impressed, seeing instead a motley compilation of stylistic cliches which added up to something less than the sum of its parts. Masterful performances by the Concord String Quartet, for whom many of Rochberg's subsequent chamber works would be written, did a great deal to promote Rochberg's new musical aesthetic. Subsequent works, often cast in staggeringly large molds, such as the 50-minute, seven-movement Piano Quintet of 1975, follow in much the same vein as the Third Quartet.


During his long career Rochberg served in a number of administrative and faculty positions. From 1951 to 1960 he worked for the Theodore Presser publishing house. He maintained a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania from 1960 until the mid-'90s.

Rochberg was in Chicago in March of 1986 to attend the world premiere of his Symphony #5 with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti.  This work would be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize later that year. 


His schedule was packed with appointments, but he graciously spared a few minutes to speak with me at his hotel.  Here is what was discussed . . . . . . . . .

George Rochberg:     There’s too much talk these days.

Bruce Duffie:    Really?  Is there too much talk about music?

GR:    Well, I’m practically a 19th century character, and I’ve heard radio broadcasts of symphony orchestra programs, and the talk that goes on!  It’s unbelievable!  I keep thinking to myself, and I say out loud when my wife is in the room, listening, “Why don’t they just play the music, and stop all this yammering?”  If there’s a new piece in the program, the conductor talks or composer talks or somebody talks.  Just play the music!

rochberg BD:    You don’t feel it’s good for audiences to hear a little bit of discussion?

GR:    I’m just expressing my own thought.  It’s very likely that I am in a very tiny minority, that other people such as non-composers and non-musicians probably enjoy this.  But in any case, I’m not saying this to discourage you.

BD:    No, no, no.  [With a gentle nudge]  I’ll cut your segment to a minute and a half.  [Laughs]

GR:    That’s all right.  I don’t listen that often, but every once in a while I decide I’m not going to work today, or I’m tired and I want to hear some music.  So I put on one of our FM stations, and there’s always an orchestra concert.  It usually comes on at one o’clock.  It’s either the Minnesota, or the Pittsburgh, or something.  The Minnesota’s pretty good.  They don’t talk too much, but on the Philadelphia Orchestra concert broadcasts they talk a lot.  People love music.  They really don’t need it explained.  They just want to hear the music.  Anyhow, let’s go.

BD:    Sure.  Let me ask you first, what do you expect of an audience that comes to hear your music?

GR:    One or two very simple and fundamental things.  My ideal audience would be an audience which, first of all, loves music.  I’m not saying any specific kind of music; that’s their affair, but let’s say an audience that loves serious music.  The second part of it would be that same audience, with this intense feeling for music in general, with a real background of experience of listening.  As far as expectations on the part of an audience, every audience that is primed to experience something has, naturally, keen expectations... the keener the better.  As the composer, in the case of this brand new work, I certainly hope that their expectations will not be disappointed, that they will not be dashed in any way.  But you can’t predict.  You simply don’t know.

BD:    Do you write for a specific audience?

GR:    No.  Any composer who has any brains in his head, any sense, knows very well that you can’t write for a specific audience because there is no such thing as a specific audience.  I’ve heard stories of audiences that in old Vienna, connoisseurs of chamber music, 250, 275 people that would go to hear, let’s say, first performances of a Brahms chamber piece.  But they were cognoscenti.  They knew everything he had written up to that point.  It’s impossible to expect that of an audience today.  You expect that of professional musicians and you expect that, say, of first class amateur musicians.  But non-musicians who love music?  That’s really the larger part of the audience.

BD:    And yet in any audience, you’re going to have people who know your work intimately, and people who are coming to a concert for the first time.

GR:    You hope.  You hope that they know your work intimately, or at least have some acquaintance with it.  And of course, there will be people who have never heard any of your music before, and you hope that that will be the start of a passionate interest on their part. 

BD:    What can the audience expect from you?

GR:    You mean in regard to this work?

BD:    In regard to any work.

GR:    Any work?  Well, I can put it quite directly.  I give the musicians everything I can in terms of the music, and if they respond they will give everything they can to the performance.  More an audience cannot expect from composer or musicians.  There isn’t any more.  You see, we’re not talking about physical, material magic, but we are talking about magic, and a musical performance of a brand new work, or of a recent work, which is thoroughly moving, thoroughly convincing, is about as close as  you can get to magic in a purely non-material sense.  And of course, this is what I always hope will happen.  I can’t say that it always happens.

BD:    I hope it happens enough to make you happy.

GR:    It if does happen, yes.  Then, of course, it’s very gratifying, and you feel that you’ve achieved part of what you set out to do.  It’s very difficult to verbalize, to put into words, what precisely it is that you do want to do with music.  Especially when I’m in the middle of writing a new work, I can feel in rather precise terms what it is that I’m trying to say, what I hope to be able to actually put down on the paper, but for the life of me, I couldn’t translate that into words while I was doing it, or even after.  A good case in point is always the problem of the program note.  The performing institution or organization would like to have a word or two from the composer, and I never quite know how to go about it because I don’t want to be overcomplicated, and I’m not giving a lecture in print.  I don’t want to be intellectual.  On the other hand, you don’t want to be vague and over-general.  You do want to convey some kind of information to either whet the appetite or provide some kind of handle with which the listener, who’s going to hear this for the first time, can sort of grasp some possibility of what’s going to come.  All of this is surrounded by a whole series and layers of intangibles, in a very strange way verbally intangible, but in terms of feeling, and even thinking, on a certain non-verbal level, which is what music is.  It’s very real.  I’m not talking about things that are not real.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you find that when conductors or performers get a hold of your scores that they find things in them that you didn’t even know were there?

GR:    Sometimes.  Of course, there’s a long-standing conviction on the part of some people that authors, painters, composers, etcetera, really don’t know their own work.

rochberg BD:    Do you ever do any conducting?

GR:    No.  Well, I say “no” in any professional sense.  Many years ago, oh, at least almost twenty years ago, I did one season of five or six concerts with the university orchestra and chorus.  I loved doing it and I knew the music so I could convey it to the singers and to the orchestra, but I knew I was not a conductor and I wasn’t going to make any effort to learn how one conducts.  I was, at that point, about 50, and it seemed to me that I would do much better to just spend my time writing music.

BD:    You’ve done quite a bit of teaching on the college level.

GR:    Oh, yes, all my life, one way or another.

BD:    Is musical composition something that can be taught, or is it something that must be intuitive by a young composer?

GR:    It has to be felt, first of all.  It perhaps can be learned, in the sense that all experience is a learning process.  In other words, you learn from writing.  A composer has to just simply write.  That’s the way.  A young composer has to write and should write a great deal.  Maybe nine-tenths of it may have to be abandoned, thrown in the waste basket or put in the circular file, wherever you want to put it.  [Pauses a moment]  Can you teach composition?  I tried for 23 years, formally that is, at a university, and even before that when I wasn’t in the university I had some private students.  Really all you can do is talk about music, which you love, because I think young composers have to be or have to become first-class musicians.  They’ve got to know the repertoire.  They’ve got to know what came before them in order to find some place along the line of these traditions, because there are many overlapping traditions.  You can’t reinvent the world in any generation, although lately we’ve certainly seen indications of young people who think they can do both, reinvent the world, and in fact, are reinventing it.  Then, as they attain a little more maturity, they find out and they realize that you really couldn’t.  It’s even more so in the arts because, in the case of music — my God, at the point at which I was born, in 1918, the repertoire was virtually established.  The only thing that still had to happen, perhaps, in terms of adding to the repertoire were the works of Bartók, which he was writing through the twenties and thirties, up to the time he died, and let’s say those few things that Schoenberg somehow managed to get into the repertoire.  I don’t mean to say that he got them in, but those he wrote which got into the repertoire.  But not very many of them are really in the repertoire.  Stravinsky was still evolving, in his way.  So that part of the repertoire was still growing and being composed.  So when I became fully aware of what it was I wanted to do, I realized, as I think any young composer — and by young I mean seventeen, eighteen, nineteen
when you feel the call very intensely, you realize that there’s an enormous backlog of incredible music behind you!  The question then is how you learn to add to it.

BD:    Are there too many young composers today?

GR:    There’s never too much of anything.  If they’re genuinely serious, if they have the right touch of humility — and I only mean by humility the realization that they can only take their place in the repertoire, such as it is and will be in the future
if they just simply give their utmost, and that takes humility, not hubris, and not an overweening ego, and so on.  It really takes humility because what comes with humility is the realization that you’ve got to work constantly, and that your standard is always above what you’re capable of doing.  You just keep that up forever.  There’s no point at which you can say, “Aha!  See?  I’ve arrived.”

BD:    The composer never arrives?

GR:    I don’t think so.  No artist ever arrives.

BD:    Is there competition amongst composers?

GR:    Unhappily, that seems to be the case every now and then.  I think it’s a kind of pressure which may not arise from within composers so much as is imposed on them by the pressures of, let’s say, the situation that pertains in the world around them, because everyone wants to get ahead.  Everyone wants to be successful, and of course, the name of the game in America is you must be a success at some time.  If you’re not a success, well then, why did you do it?  Why did you start out to do this thing?

BD:    So what exactly constitutes a success for a composer?

GR:    I suppose success means that your works are being done, that you’re being asked to do new works, that there’s a growing appreciation of what you’ve done or what you’re doing, and there’s a sense that there is a readiness to deal with your work on the level at which you project it.  In other words, you give something very serious, and seriously, and it’s taken that way.  When it’s not taken that way, when it’s used for other reasons, that’s the point at which I move away, I withdraw, because regardless of what’s happened in this culture, in terms of reputations, the rise and fall of reputations — and that does happen all the time — there’s one thing which has been an absolute thread in my life, and that is I don’t do anything unless I absolutely mean it, and I can’t tolerate being approached by people who also don’t mean it.

BD:    You don’t want the superficiality?

GR:    How can you deal with the trivialization of something which is absolutely serious?

BD:    Is that what rock music is
trivial music?

GR:    I don’t want to get into that.  First of all we don’t really have the time, and secondly, the things that I would say would be so negative, and in fact so unpleasantly negative, that I would just as soon leave it go.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    There’s a huge proliferation of home electronic systems.  Has this helped or hindered music?

GR:    I suspect it’s helped the dissemination of music.  Whether the physical dissemination of music through electronic means improves the character of the music being composed, that’s something on which we can only have an opinion.  And I’m not even sure that one could have an opinion that is worth very much.  There’s no evidence to show that because millions of people in America today are listening to music, as compared with only thousands of people 150 years ago who had the opportunity once in a while to attend a live concert
and they were very rare as compared with todayto say that this has improved the quality of the actual music being composed, I think would be a wrong conclusion.  There wouldn’t be much logic to it.  One of the problems is there’s no logic to this whole thing.  You can’t add one and two and three and come up with six in this situation.  We’re not dealing with engineering and we’re not dealing with factual data.  We’re not dealing with computer programs with 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 0-0-1, and so on and so forth.  You’re dealing with things which are, as I already said, first of all very hard, if not virtually impossible to verbalize.  You’re dealing with things which are, for those who are trying to make these things happen, sometimes very difficult to get at.  But to dig out the gold?  As I see it, the idea of a real artist is not someone who just comes along and skims what’s on top.  He’s someone who digs, and is not content until he’s struck gold.  A real artist always knows when he’s struck that vein.  This is not a mystery to the artist, even though there’s fool’s gold that glitters.

BD:    Is this in each piece or in the repertoire as a whole?

GR:    All of the pieces in the repertoire are not gold, let’s face it.

BD:    Is there some real gold in each piece?

GR:    Usually, yes in any piece which has attained the level of pretty much constant performance, so that it’s part of the repertoire.  There are many levels, many layers, so sure, there is quality there.  There is quality of a certain kind.  There is some gold there, but the reason why we use words like “masterpiece” is only to suggest, to designate those works where it’s mostly gold and has that radiance in it.  It’s got that inner radiance when you talk about Mozart, you talk about Haydn, you talk about Beethoven, Shubert, Brahms, and so on.

BD:    When you’re writing, do you try to write the gold in, or do you hope that the gold will appear of itself?

GR:    You don’t write it in.  If it appears, you know it.  It gets in, somehow.  If it doesn’t appear, you just keep digging.  But I think pretty much any real artist worth his salt knows when they
’ve struck gold.  This is without regard to what the medium is.  It could be a painter, it could be a poet, it could be a novelist, what have you.  He or she knows when they’ve struck gold, and it’s not a question of, as they call it, the “experience,” or “Excelsior!  I’ve found it.”  No.  If you’ve been at it for a long time, you just know quietly, inside, that the thing that you’re after is beginning to emerge.  Then you don’t fool around with it.  You just quietly keep pursuing it until you’ve really got it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your pieces?

rochberg GR:    Mostly.  There are some which I think are terrible, but no point in mentioning which ones they are.  But for the most part I’ve been very lucky, very lucky.  Of course, one of the advantages these days of the recording industry and the whole electronic process of recording is that composers are generally invited to, as they say, “supervise” recording sessions.  So by now I’ve been at I don’t know how many, and usually, of course, those are the ones that I feel best about because I had a lot of input.  As it turns out, it’s rare that I end up feeling, “Well, that’s really not it.”  One can change one’s mind, you know.  You can have another feeling about how it came out, not in a sense that you made a mistake, but that your feeling about it is, “Well, if I could do it now, I would do it differently.”

BD:    Do you ever go back and tamper with your old scores?

GR:    You mean, revise them? 

BD:    Mm-hm.

GR:    Revision is not tampering.  Revision is something much more profound, when you consider that it’s a time-honored tradition.

BD:    Do you revise your pieces, then?

GR:    Not all, but I have revised some.

BD:    There’s a certain idea going around now to dig out original versions of scores, and I like to ask living composers how they feel about that.

GR:    If we’re talking about original versions of scores, of course what comes to my mind right away is Bruckner, and I think that he had just too many cooks in his kitchen.  He had a lot of friends and other people who kept saying to him, “Anton, this is too long.  You could take that out and maybe you ought to do this to that,” and he listened to them.  What it comes down to is that since the artist is an intensely intuitive individual, and you’ve got to listen to those inner voices in you, usually your first idea and the first ones which you’ve realized are the best ones.

BD:    Listen to the voice inside rather than outside?

GR:    Right.  Now we’re talking about tampering!  Maybe you start tampering because someone whom you consider a friend and whose judgment you, in fact, have some respect for says, “Well, I don’t know about that.”  Then when you get to that place, somehow it doesn’t achieve what you set out to do.  It depends on how you feel.  Sometimes you may agree and sometimes you may not, and in that regard I’m a pretty stubborn character.  I’ve reached the point where when I let a work out, it’s what I want.  I’ve worked at it hard enough so that it’s what I really want.  Works that I have revised tend to be early works, and I can speak specifically, for example, of my first string quartet.  I began it in 1950 when I was in Italy, and then when I got back to the US, I continued it.  I guess the first version was done somewhere around ’51, ’52.  I gathered together a group of friends who were string players and we read it through.  I was horrified!  Not at the reading, but at what came out.  I said to myself, “Oh, no.  This has got to be changed.  That’s got to go.  This has got to be better.  That’s got to be much better.” 

BD:    Then, obviously, what you’ve put on the page was not what you heard in your head.

GR:    Well, no.  I have to contradict you and suggest that sometimes what you put on the page is, in fact, what you heard, and it’s no good or it’s not good enough.  Then when you hear it, you recognize that it’s not good enough, and that was the case here.  My first quartet went through three revisions before I published it, and it was published in ’55.  Even then, as late as the seventies, I was very unhappy with the ending, and I didn’t know what to do with it.  Finally, in a recording session with the Concord String Quartet, I suddenly knew what should happen.  On the spot we improvised a new ending, and then I wrote it down, and as a matter of fact, just about a month ago the new version has come out.  It was only a matter of a page and a half of score, twenty, thirty measures, but it’s crucial.  It’s very important, very important how you begin a work and how you end a work.  Very important!  I had a singer friend many years ago, whose coach used to say to her when she was preparing a recital, “[in an accented exaggeration] Zee beginning und zee end must be gut, and you can schwindle a little in the middle.”  [Both laugh]  The beginning and ending have got to be absolutely solid.  So the business of tampering is usually what you do when other people start getting into your thoughts and you listen to them.

BD:    So then you would advise young composers not to listen to many outside voices?

GR:    Young composers should at least consider.  Let’s say if an older colleague friend or composer says, “Well, John, I’m not so sure about that,” he ought to consider it seriously.  But if John is totally convinced, then let him find out for himself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me throw you a little bit of a curve, and ask you about The Confidence Man.  This is the only opera that you have written.  How do you feel about it, now that it’s been a couple of years since its production?

GR:    The same way I felt after it had its critical fiasco, but it’s solid.  It’s as good, in its way, as almost any piece that I have total faith in, and I simply hope to live to see the day when it will be totally vindicated.

BD:    Has the criticism dissuaded you from doing another opera?

GR:    No, not the criticism, because I’m most at home and I realize that.  I’ve written a lot of vocal works.  I’ve dealt with words, poetry, etcetera, really from the very beginning.  I may not be known as a song composer, but I’ve contributed my share of songs and chamber music with voice.  After all, two of my seven quartets are with voice.  They really should be called quintets and I don’t know why we don’t do that.  So doing the opera was not a rare thing where suddenly I’m dealing with words.  But the truth of the matter is that I am most comfortable, most at home, always generally feel I have most to say in a purely nonverbal musical situation.  If I my passion were opera
in the sense that it’s what I felt I should write all the time, and only rarely, if at all, occasionally write a purely instrumental piecethen it would be different, let’s say, regardless of the fiasco.  Many other operas have had absolutely deadly fiascoes, and then they’ve somehow come to life again at some point.  Sure, I’d be on the hunt for another idea, and if I found one that I felt was good, try to get a libretto written for it, and so on.  But no, I’ve been busy writing chamber works, orchestral music, and I have two more orchestral commissions to fulfill in the next couple of years.  After that I’ve got some more chamber music I want to do, and one of them will be, again, with voice or perhaps two voices, but it’ll be a chamber work because a young friend of mine, a poet in Philadelphia, whom I think is enormously gifted, has a book of poetry out of which I think I can take certain elements and form a kind of verbal emotional scenario for this work.  I’ve already been thinking about it and I’ve been reading it, and I even have some rough ideas as to what I want and how I will do it.  So, that all lies ahead.

BD:    [Noting that it was time for his next appointment]  Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with me today.

GR:    Thank you.

A select few of the many recordings of music by George Rochberg
which also have music by some of my other interview guests . . .


To read my Interview with Robert Palmer, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Roque Cordero, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Bernard Heiden, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Elliott Carter, click HERE.


To read my Interview with William Bergsma, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Gunther Schuller, click HERE.

To read my Interview with William Schuman, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Isaac Stern, click HERE.

To read my Interview with André Previn, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Miklós Rózsa, click HERE.


To read my Interviews with Zubin Mehta, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Jacob Druckman, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Maurice Wright, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Joseph Schwantner, click HERE.

To read my Interview with David Gordon, click HERE.



To read my Interview with Miriam Gideon, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ursula Mamlok, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Yehudi Wyner, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Lowell Lieberann, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Harold Shapero, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Andrew Imbrie, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Cecil Effinger, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Lukas Foss, click HERE.


To read my Interview with John Harbison, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Robert Muczynski, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Ned Rorem, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Menahem Pressler, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Neva Pilgrim, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ernst Krenek, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Richard Wernick, click HERE.


To read my Interview with George Crumb, click HERE.

To read my Interview with John Cage, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, click HERE.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on March 11, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 1988 and 1998; also on WNUR in 2007 and 2013.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.