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George Rochberg, 86; Helped Lead Revolt Against 12-Tone Technique in Composing

June 01, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

American composer George Rochberg, one of the central figures in the 1970s revolt against the modernist 12-tone technique of composition, died Sunday of complications after surgery May 2. He was 86.

Rochberg died at a hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pa., according to his widow, Gene.

He had begun composing in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern. But the death of his son, the poet Paul Rochberg, from a brain tumor in 1964 so devastated him that he felt he could not communicate his grief in the kind of music he had written until then.

Rochberg started experimenting by incorporating music by other composers to place himself historically. Later, along with such other American composers as David del Tredici and John Corigliano, he began making music more accessible through the use of unambiguous tonality and the reintroduction of melody.

The academic community did not take kindly to his change in style.

"I was accused of betraying, in the following order, the church and the state. I was a traitor, a renegade," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. "I never once responded. If you're going to be a composer, you have to have an iron stomach, fire in the belly and fire in the brain."

His String Quartet No. 3 and Third Symphony are considered the turning points in his style. He published nearly 100 compositions, including six symphonies, seven string quartets and a full-length opera, "The Confidence Man," based on a novel by Herman Melville. He left a seventh symphony unfinished.

Rochberg's Violin Concerto was championed by Isaac Stern, who performed it 47 times from 1975 to 1977. The composer's Symphony No. 5 was premiered in 1986 by the Chicago Symphony led by Georg Solti. His Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra was premiered in 1996 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Rochberg was born in Patterson, N.J., the son of immigrants from Ukraine. The second of three children, he began playing piano at the age of 10 and began composing almost immediately.

For a time in the 1930s, he wrote popular songs under a pseudonym. He entered New York's Mannes School of Music in 1939, but interrupted his studies for three years of military duty as a second lieutenant in the infantry during World War II.

He was wounded in action and received a Purple Heart with an oak-leaf cluster.

After the war, he earned a bachelor's of music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and a master's from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught at Curtis for six years starting in 1948.

He was an editor and then director of publications for Theodore Presser Co., a music publisher, from 1951 to 1960. In 1960 he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania as chairman of the music department. He held that position until 1968, then continued as a professor of music until he retired in 1983.

In addition to his wife, Rochberg is survived by their daughter, Francesca, of Riverside.

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