George Perle at 100

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

George Perle was a unique figure within the world of twentieth-century American classical music. He was part of a “second” generation that followed the pioneers of the 1920s, which included Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Carl Ruggles, Roy Harris, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell. With the exception of Cowell and Ruggles, the others were all linked closely to European influences; they either trained in Europe or studied in America under the tutelage of European masters. But one of the ambitions of this first generation of post-World War I American composers was to create a distinctly American voice. On today’s program the work by William Schuman powerfully represents that goal.

At the same time, these American composers and their successors sought to take their rightful place within a modernist movement whose aesthetics were free of clear markers of the national. Copland’s 1930 Orchestral Variations, originally for piano and presented here in its orchestral version, is a case in point. The Orchestral Variations may be Copland’s most abstract and angular work. It was the piece that young college student Leonard Bernstein played for Copland at a memorable encounter that was the starting point of a lasting close friendship. Not surprisingly, George Perle greatly admired this work.

Although influenced by the work of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern (Perle studied with Ernst Krenek), Perle charted his own path. He did not attempt to express a musical nationalism. But he also did not imitate or adopt Schoenberg’s technique of “serial” composition. He was not a twelve-tone serial composer. He developed his own version of how to use a 12-note series, primarily as a basis of harmony and counterpoint, and not as a source for musical motives. Using “cycle sets” he crafted a modern musical language that was translucent, expressive, and lyrical. There is an elegance and eloquence in his music that never fails to reach the listener on first hearing. Perle also kept his distance from a more abstract, dense, and often brutal anti-expressive characteristic of mid-twentieth-century avant-garde modern music. As a result, his music has a warmth, intensity, and beauty evocative of Classical and Romantic practice, without any hint of a sentimental nostalgia.

Perle was, in addition, a scholar whose pioneering work on Alban Berg will remain as the foundation of all subsequent writing on Berg. Indeed, Berg’s own adaptation of Schoenberg’s 12-tone strategy was Perle’s inspiration. Like Berg, Perle found the means to write music that communicated emotion and meaning in a manner that was adequate to modernity, yet within a tradition that went back to Bach and the masters of the first Viennese “school” of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. And like Berg (as opposed to Schoenberg), the legacy of late romanticism, particularly of Mahler, left its mark.

Perle’s writings are, like his music, a model of economy, clarity, and insight. It was he who unraveled the “secret” program of the Lyric Suite. His two-volume analysis of Wozzeck and Lulu are without peer in terms of clarity, detail, and deep original insight. Likewise, his 1962 book on the Viennese school Serial Composition and Atonality, his 1977 Twelve Tone Tonality, and his 1990 volume The Listening Composer are classics. They will long remain among the most essential readings for musicians, particularly composers. Perle’s writings reflect the significance of his career as a teacher. For more than twenty years he taught at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Perle represents, therefore, the best of American musical modernism. I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know him towards the end of his career. Walter Trampler, the distinguished violist, repeatedly urged me to program Perle’s Serenade for viola and chamber orchestra from 1962. He and his wife, Shirley, a terrific pianist (and lifelong close friend of Leonard Bernstein’s), introduced themselves after a Bard Music Festival performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, a work they had known about but never heard live. The Perles and I became friends. They were unfailingly curious and generous. In subsequent years I had the honor of recording Transcendental Modulations with the ASO, and performing the 1990 1st Piano Concerto with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall (with Melvin Chen as soloist).

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein once quipped about Bernstein (who admired Perle as a musician and a man) that he was the “greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, [and] the greatest composer among pianists.” The same could be said about Perle using his trio of accomplishments as composer, scholar, and theorist. If that weren’t enough, Perle was himself a fine pianist. Perle was among the first composers to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” Award.

In this concert Perle’s place in music history is framed not only by Copland—the dominant and consistently gracious “dean” of 20th century American music—but also by the contrasting and parallel careers of two contemporaries, both of whom shared with Perle achievements apart from composition. Lukas Foss, the startlingly gifted pianist, was distinguished as well as a composer and conductor. William Schuman was not only a major figure as a composer, but an eminent administrator. Schuman served as president of Julliard and subsequently as the first president of Lincoln Center. The music of Foss and Schuman is quite distinct and different from Perle’s and offers the listener a glimpse of the rich, vital, and varied musical culture of the American twentieth century.

More than in the other arts, in music we have developed the bad habit of neglecting the achievements of the past. Too much of great twentieth-century music, particularly American music, has fallen away from the repertory. Some composers were strikingly prolific (one thinks of Martinu and Milhaud, for example). Perle’s output may have been restrained in quantity, but it is rigorously consistent in refinement and quality. His music—the orchestral music, the music for piano, for the voice, for solo instruments, and the chamber music—deserves to prevail in the twenty-first century alongside his remarkable contributions to music history and music theory.