George Rochberg, Symphony No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 5, 1918 in Paterson, NJ
Died May 29, 2005 in Bryn Mawr, PA
Composed 1955–56
Premiered February 26, 1959, in Cleveland by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell
Performance Time: Approximately 30 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, tenor drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, gong), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

George Rochberg’s posthumously published memoirs, Five Lines, Four Spaces, open with the story of the Second Symphony and its premiere by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on February 26, 1959. (Szell had been one of Rochberg’s teachers at the Mannes School of Music in the 1940s—another, at Curtis, was Rosario Scalero, who had also been Samuel Barber’s teacher.) The fact that the composer singled out this particular work in the first chapter of his book indicates that he considered it an important milestone in his career.

Rochberg is best known for his later break with modernism and his return to tonality after the 1960s. For many years, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where his students included Stephen Albert, Maryanne Amacher, and Stephen Hartke.

The second of Rochberg’s six symphonies is a product of the composer’s modernist period. Yet Rochberg was never the kind of modernist who would put dissonances before feelings, or experimentation before experience. In a letter to one of his closest friends, Hungarian-Canadian composer Istvan Anhalt (1919–2012), Rochberg called it a ‟compressed, hot, concentrated work,” emphasizing its strong emotional foundations.

In music composed according to the twelve-tone system, the melodies and harmonies are derived from the tone-row and its various transformations. The rhythm, the orchestration, and the overall form of the piece, however, are free for the composer to shape without any external constraints whatsoever. Rochberg’s symphony, in five movements played without a pause, is pure drama from beginning to end. A complex first movement—in turn seethingly intense and gently lyrical—is followed by a wild scherzo, a somber Adagio, and a varied recapitulation of the opening section. A slow, and rather tragic, coda ends this symphony, about which musicologist Alexander L. Ringer once wrote in The Musical Quarterly:

[It] astonishes as much by the novel sounds drawn from the traditional orchestra as by the melodic-rhythmic wealth derived from a single twelve-tone row…Rhythmically, as in the melodic realm, Rochberg has succeeded in creating the unity in variety that marks the true master.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.