George Rochberg

Powerful composer who, to the fury of his colleagues, rejected avant-gardism
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'If you're going to be a composer, you have to have an iron stomach, fire in the belly and fire in the brain." George Rochberg had that fire in ample measure: you can hear it in his music as clearly as you could sense it in his personality. And he needed it: when he took one of the boldest artistic choices made by any 20th- century composer and rejected avant-gardism – thus setting in train the stylistic liberalisation that allows today's composers such a range of musical languages – his modernist colleagues turned on him with rare venom and rancour.

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1918, George Rochberg took a BA at Monclair State Teachers' College, also in New Jersey, before attending the Mannes School of Music in New York from 1939 until 1942, studying composition and counterpoint; his teachers there included that legendary martinet of a conductor, Georg Szell, himself no mean composer. Rochberg, a fine pianist, paid for his studies by playing in New York jazz bands.

As with many Americans of his generation, he now found his career interrupted by Second World War service, during which he sustained serious injuries in the Normandy campaign. Back in the United States in 1945, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for the counterpoint and composition courses of Rosario Scalero and Gian Carlo Menotti, taking a BMus in 1948; recommended by Menotti, he taught there himself for six years.

In 1949 Rochberg was awarded an MA by the University of Philadelphia, and in 1950 he travelled to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. There he met Luigi Dallapiccola, Italy's leading modernist composer, whose music made a deep impression on him. But his life continued to revolve around Philadelphia. In 1951 he was appointed music editor at the music publishers Theodore Presser there and was quickly elevated to the post of director of publications.

Rochberg's first representative compositions – including the first version of his First Symphony, begun in 1948 – show the imprint of Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky. But he soon turned to serialism (the strict chromaticism that banishes any sense of key and rhythmic regularity), finding it – as many other composers claimed – the logical path for modern music; he felt, he later wrote, that he was "living at the very edge of the musical frontier, of music itself".

In works such as David, the Psalmist for tenor and orchestra (1952), the 12 Bagatelles for piano (also 1952), the Chamber Symphony for nine instruments (1953) and the Second Symphony (1955-56; it was premiered by his former teacher, Georg Szell, in 1959 – and is about to appear on a Naxos CD), he perfected his serial technique, reaching a rare degree of refinement in works like the Cheltenham Concerto for solo winds and string orchestra (1958). Yet he had already begun to find serialism constraining and experimented with the superimposition of different tempos as a way of increasing the expressive possibilities of the idiom. Its limitations were about to hit him far more forcefully.

In 1960 Rochberg was appointed chairman of the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania. Any happiness the new job brought him was short-lived. In 1961 his 17-year-old son, Paul Rochberg, a poet of considerable promise, fell ill with a brain tumour, and three years later he died. Rochberg was devastated – and he found that the musical language he had been using did not allow him to express the sheer human emotion of the things he wanted to say. He turned his back on music for a year and then sat down to reconsider his creative options.

He concluded that serialism, which rejected any link with tradition, was far too exclusive: "There is no greater provincialism than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past" – although he never turned his back on serialist technique itself and it remained a part of his composer's armoury.

Of course, he now had to find his own voice again. For a while, he experimented with collage, quotation, stylistic cross-reference. The clearest public statement of his change of direction came in 1972, with the appearance of his Third String Quartet. It was unashamedly tonal, late Romantic, Mahlerian (indeed, he quotes from Mahler and Beethoven in the piece), melodic – emotional.

His erstwhile modernist colleagues were horrified and poured scorn on the apostate. Rochberg took the punches and landed a good few of his own in reply. Serialism, he said, was "finished, empty, meaningless". "Modernism ended up allowing us only a postage-stamp-sized space to stand on. We cut the rest away." The composers who then dominated American classical music were largely academics, isolated from the concert-going public; no wonder they felt threatened when Rochberg identified the gulf between their music and the world outside their groves:

there can be no justification for music, ultimately, if it does not convey eloquently and elegantly the passions of the human heart . . . the insistence on ignoring the dramatic, gestural character of music, while harping on the mystique of the minutiae of abstract design for its own sake, says worlds about the failure of much new music.

Rochberg's own new musical language was one where you might notice footholds in earlier composers but it soon coalesced into a style with an intensity all of its own, a syncretic idiom which embraced the "maximum variety of gesture and texture and the broadest possible spectrum . . . from the purest diatonicism to the most complex chromaticism".

The explosively powerful Fifth Symphony (1984-85) calls in fierce atonal passages, Stravinskian rhythmic energy, quotations from Mahler – but instead of being juxtaposed in contrast, as in the "polystylism" of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, they are integrated into a coherent symphonic discourse. Rochberg explained his aims with characteristic bluntness:

The hope of contemporary music lies in learning how to reconcile all manner of opposites, contradictions, paradoxes: the past with the present, tonality with atonality. That is why, in my most recent music, I have tried to utilise these in combinations which assert the primal values of music.

Rochberg's most successful work was his 1974 Violin Concerto, which Isaac Stern played no fewer than 47 times in 1975-77. But its audience was not hearing the piece as its composer intended: Stern found it, at 52 minutes, too long and had insisted on 14 minutes of cuts. In 2001 the British conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee worked with Rochberg to re-establish the original score, and his recording, with the violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, also British, was released by Naxos in 2004, to whoops of praise from the critics.

In Rochberg's presence you sensed greatness: Aaron Shorr, Sheppard Skaerved's duo pianist, found that the "laser-like perception and clarity of his musical ideas were a revelation and inspiration". But, although you felt awe, there was also something which encouraged trust, as Sheppard Skaerved discovered when he came to give the first public performance of the reconstructed Violin Concerto:

As I walked on stage, I was horrified to find that George had been placed right in the front row, little more from two metres from me, and right in my eyeline as I played. I need not have worried. As the piece started, George fell into the customary reverie in which he listened to music, his eyes closed, his hand tracing the phrases, the ebb and flow of the concerto, in the air.

I gave myself up to this unconscious conducting, and allowed him to direct my performance; his understanding of his masterpiece was certainly greater than any I could ever imagine, and he revealed architecture and depths beyond my ken.

While his composing career evolved, Rochberg's academic life continued – and he was a deeply valued teacher. The composer-conductor Jose Serebrier was at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s:

He was like a friend more than a teacher in that he looked at the music not as an instructor or a colleague but as a listener. Therefore his comments were most unusual. He would say something like: "This passage is beautiful but too short – see what happens when you double its length." He saw music as a spatial experience.

In 1968 Rochberg stepped down as head of department but retained a chair in composition; in 1979 he was appointed Annenberg Professor of the Humanities, and he continued to teach until his retirement in 1983. Thereafter, until his death, his house in Newtown Square, Philadelphia, became a Mecca for young musicians hoping to tap into his sagacity.

Rochberg wrote words as fluently as he wrote notes. His fellow-composer William Bolcom collected his writings in 1984 as The Aesthetics of Survival: a composer's view of 20th-century music; it was republished in an expanded edition last year. Latterly he had been working on a theoretical examination of chromaticism and an autobiography, originally entitled "Five Line and Four Space"; in an e-mail a few months ago, he told me he had revised the title to a more accessible The Making of a Composer in America: reflections on my music and its performers.

He leaves behind a huge catalogue of works, including an opera, The Confidence Man (after Hermann Melville), six symphonies and seven string quartets. There would have been a seventh symphony, which Rochberg said would have been his fiercest and darkest – but in his old age he lacked the physical strength to complete it. For composing wasn't merely an intellectual pursuit for him:

I always threw myself heedlessly into a work and didn't care how it made me feel. And by the end of it, my stomach was shot to hell.

In the end, his views on composing were very simple – and he relished complexity:

Everyone must find his own voice . . . All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time.

Martin Anderson