Rochberg Sonata Analysis by Carey Skinner

Recently, as part of my final Music History course at Rice, I researched and analyzed the composition style of George Rochberg’s Viola Sonata. Specifically, I spoke with my professor and did research on how Rochberg bridged the gap between Serialism and Romanticism. This is a much-abridged version of my findings.

George Rochberg’s early works, particularly his First Symphony and First Quartet, feature “traces of Bartók’s melodic and harmonic practices, presented without quotation marks or irony.”1 In the early years of his career, Rochberg was less concerned with following the changing tides of composition in the twentieth century than with creating something beautiful. The vast majority of what he wrote was influenced by styles from past eras, and he often quoted other composers as a sort of tribute within his own works.

When he was twenty-one, Rochberg was drafted into the army and had to leave his studies at the Mannes School of Music. He was wounded in Normandy, France, and returned to the United States to continue raising his family. He was embittered by the war and frustrated upon his return in trying to live up to the “masters” of Romanticism such as Beethoven and Brahms. It was then that, like many of his contemporaries, Rochberg turned from the influence of Bartók in the early 1950s upon learning about twelve-tone music from Luigi Dallapiccola. He decided to embrace twentieth century music. It was with this new knowledge that he became known for joining the beauty of the Romantic era with the grit and complexity of twentieth century composition practices.2 From that point onward, and for the next decade, Rochberg composed almost exclusively with the twelve-tone method.

In 1964, however, Rochberg’s son Paul died of a brain tumor. The ups and downs of Paul’s illness are cataloged in the correspondence between George Rochberg and István Anhalt.3 It comes as no surprise that this traumatic event was a turning point in the life and work of Rochberg. It was then that he “abandoned serialism in favor of compositional practices common to earlier music,” and in doing so also returned to his study of Bartok’s compositions, “Using it not ironically, but as an expressive resource, a language he had earlier trusted to convey both pathos and austerity.”4 In his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Rochberg continued to implement the stylistic and harmonic tools of Bela Bartók.

In his book Five Lines, Four Spaces, Rochberg mentions his study of Bartók’s music and “[Bartók’s] way with chromaticizing an extended form of tonality,” and how it opened up a new world of possibilities. He says these “tonal extensions . . . spilled over” into how he heard things and how he composed. He specifically mentions how he became fascinated by the tri-tones created by the relationships between the intervals F to C and B to F-sharp. Rochberg refers to this equal division of the twelve chromatic tones as “the musical hieroglyph,” to “emphasize its symbolic, magical property.” Rochberg uses this property throughout the sonata both in the melody and in a wider harmonic scope.5

Figure 1

0207a Figure1

Margaret McDonald mapped out Rochberg’s use of tri-tones in her dissertation, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979),” and the following description is based on her analysis. In the opening two measures, the viola outlines the hieroglyph with statements of perfect fourths (F to C and B to F-sharp), which ultimately emphasize the minor second between F and F-sharp. McDonald explains that these groupings harmonically represent F major and B major. In figure 1 (above), Rochberg’s introduction of the important tri-tone motive is apparent in how he moves from F major in measure 1 to B major in measure 2, then back to F major in measure 3. These keys, being a tri-tone apart, represent the beginning of an overarching theme in the sonata of this dissonant relationship. Rochberg continues with the tri-tone harmonies throughout the work (see McDonald’s analysis in figure 2 below).

Figure 2

0207b Figure2

The grand-scale emphasis of tri-tones is supported by the same dissonance in both the melody line in the viola and the chords of the piano. Perhaps what is more interesting, however, is how Rochberg uses this interval to subtly imitate Bartók by emphasizing the minor second, a sound extensively explored by Bartók.

One strong example of Rochberg’s use of the tri-tone can be found in the second movement. It starts with a repeated chord in the right hand of the piano (see figure 3 below). The tri-tone is from F-sharp to C but with an F-natural on top, also forming a perfect fourth. This emphasizes the minor second between F-natural and F-sharp. When the viola enters in the third measure, all four pitches from the beginning: F, C, B, and F-sharp are present between the harmony and melody. With that chord still being repeated in measure 7 of this movement (see figure 4 below), Rochberg alters the original left-hand chord from a perfect fifth between D and A to a tri-tone between D and A-flat, once again placing emphasis on the change from the perfect to imperfect interval.

Figure 3

0207c Figure3

Figure 4

0207d Figure4

A crucial aspect of this work that must be addressed is its overall structure. For example, Rochberg loosely observed the traditional sonata form for this work but set his music apart by how he chose to break the structural rules. One way in which he did this was with his decision to forgo the expected uplifting final movement. Of this movement, the composer says:

The kind of last movement I knew I could not add—(that in fact I detested)—was a fast, concluding movement in order to fulfill a purely perfunctory function. If anything, I would have to speak the language and expressive character of what preceded it. I rejected the idea of a stormy finale—(the a kind of “battle scenario” merely to round off the old fast–slow–fast structural format) . . . I settled on writing an epilogue, one that had a sense of “remembrance of things past,” a musical recollection of major idiomatic elements that were characteristic of the opening . . . I needed to write a fantasia—a free, open, unhampered musical flow that went from thought to thought without being bound into a tight formal structure . . . despite its restless, constantly changing motion from idea to idea, it ends the work with a sense of deep repose and resolution.6

To fully mesh the old and the new, the perfect and imperfect, Rochberg knew the sonata needed a free-form restatement of previous important themes and motives in place of a conventional final movement. It is because of those kinds of decisions and innovations that, even with all of his imitation, Rochberg cannot be criticized for being unoriginal. The unusual conclusion to such an intricate work sets it apart as uniquely and quintessentially Rochberg.

When the first thoughts of all of these complex materials were forming in George Rochberg’s mind, he was not setting out to write a viola sonata. His work began on a violin sonata so that he could explore the close partnership between two musicians and specifically so he could write for a gifted violinist that he admired. Being separated from his work while at war, these thoughts were pushed into the background. Upon being commissioned to write a work in honor of William Primrose’s seventy-fifth birthday, Rochberg realized the potential for his old sketches. Had it not been for both the joyful and the mournful events in his life since the first conception of this work, the viola might not have this powerfully complex piece in its repertoire, nor would future composers have been able to learn of his creativity from a piece that combines multiple styles and practices so well.

“At the heart of the differences between tradition and the avant-garde lies the problem of language.”7 Rochberg begins the last chapter of his book with this statement. He talks at length about different twentieth century composers and how they approach the problem of language before continuing: “In a culture that moves rapidly from one radical vision to another, the problem of language intensifies. Each new departure must concentrate on its single image in order to produce even a modicum of works sufficient to state the idea behind the new radical aesthetic.”8

The twentieth century is set apart from other eras of music in its diversity and the aspect of constant change. George Rochberg was one of those few composers from this era who harnessed the ability to incorporate the past without getting left behind from the innovations of the future. He was able to create works with beautiful romantic melodies and characteristics without forgetting what era he was living in. The ways in which he used Bartók’s ideas paved the way for a new generation of musicians and composers by setting an example of open-mindedness and ingenuity.


[1] Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, Bartók’s Legacy in Cold War Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 158.

2 Margaret M. McDonald, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979)” (Ph.D. diss., University of California Santa Barbara, 2010), 4–8.

3 István Anhalt and Alan M. Gillmor, Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of István Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961–2005 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), 1–45.

4 Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, 158.

5 George Rochberg, Gene, Rochberg, and Richard Griscom, Five Lines, Four Spaces: The World of My Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 223–31.

6 Ibid., 228.

7 Ibid., 260.

8 Ibid., 261.

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