George Rochberg

Posted on December 5th, 2009 by


With George Rochberg at Newtown Square, 2001. At work on Caprice Variations.

With George Rochberg at Newtown Square, 2001. At work on Caprice Variations.

George Rochberg -Caprice Variations

Conversations and Commentaries

listen: Rochberg-Pachelbel Variations (Authorised Transcription by Peter Sheppard Skaerved) I Solisti di Zagreb (directed by PSS)

(From conversations in Philadelphia, London, and Saarbrücken 2001-2002)

In Banja Luka, I first ‘got’ ‘Caprice Variations’, or rather; it finally really took hold of me, of my soul. This recital hall is in the ‘Banski Dvor’ the old seat of local government. When I arrived, the long list of legends who had loved playing there was read out to me; Rostropovich, Gilels, Richter, Oistrakh…I was initially cynical. Musicians will say next to anything to be loved, or even to get out alive after a concert. My cynicism was utterly confounded. The hall is wonderful; a late 19th Century ‘shoe-box’ with a slim gilded gallery around 3 sides. The acoustic is warm and clear, any musician’s dream. However, the stage features one of my pet hates; it has to be approached from the floor level of the Hall, via an exposed set of steps. Whether attached to the stage of a dreary hall in Darmstadt, or London‘s glamorous, but disastrous Barbican, such an arrangement always feels like the steps up to the guillotine, and I ascend the steps imagining Berlioz…Marche aux supplice. The long walk to the stage is bad enough at the best of times.

Curiously, ‘Caprice variations’ begin with an overture, Variation 1, Allegro Energico, somewhat reminiscent of Telemann. This is distinguished by absolutely no memorable thematic material, nothing but the cadence that will be central to the whole set. I have often wondered if this is a joke aimed at sui generis virtuoso violin music, all the more ironic, as the cycle can be seen as a transformation of the most widely recognised show piece ever written for the instrument. George liked the impact of this variation played at ‘full pelt’

The first time that I met George Rochberg, he talked about Wordsworth. More to the point, he talked about Wordsworth’s couch. George had identified the couch on which Wordsworth lay and composed ‘Daffodils’ ; he knew this because, as soon as he walked into Wordsworth’s ‘Dove Cottage’ in Cumbria, he saw the couch and immediately intuited that he and the poet worked in similar ways. “Look,” he said “he would lie on this leather couch and then, in the middle of his dreaming, working the poetry out, he would rise from the couch, go over to his desk and write.”

“For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.”
(Poems 1807-‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’-William Wordsworth
Lines 19-24)

George knew this, because that is how he liked to compose. In fact, Wordsworth had successfully described the very act of composing, somewhere between a ‘vacant’ or a ‘pensive mood. ‘Talking about the composition of ‘Caprice Variations’, he described lying on his couch, dreaming the music, working it out, his eyes closed. When he was sure that each variation was worked out, entirely in his head, without an ink-stroke in sight; then and only then, would he leap up, like Archimedes vaulting out of his bath, ?????? !!, rush to his desk and write it down. Of course, George’s choice of Wordsworth, if coincidental, was, at the very least, appropriate, serendipitous. Wordsworth’s greatest work, regarded by many people as the greatest poem in the English language, was of course, his ‘Prelude’ even if George draws more attention to ‘Daffodils’. Is the ‘Caprice Variations’ George’s ‘Prelude’?

In Variation 2, Presto, the notion of Mahler is first introduced, and the extreme language of the ‘Mahler’ Variation 44, Scherzo suggested for the first time. Of course, the 5th Symphony has been historically important to Rochberg’s music, particularly Mahler’s negotiation between baroque and modern style, as Skorik would put it, his ‘Stylistic Play’. The 5th and 8th Symphonies, provided him with the jumping-off point for the epochal 3rd Quartet [insert Metier CD no], which has much in common with the ‘Caprice Variations’, and replays the fugue from Mahler’s finale.

Variation 3, Allegro molto e con fuoco, reveals yet another ‘ghost in the machine’, Feruccio Busoni. It was Busoni who most proudly eroded the divide between arrangement and whatever counts as ‘pure’ composition, simply put, he insisted that the very act of composition itself was an act of transcription, that the one thing that a composer could not do was escape from the sentence of arranging his own ideas. Of course, Busoni himself might be seen as victim of his own creative fallacy, as he will never escape from his most famous ‘work’, his transcription, not of his own music, but Bach’s Ciaconna, the most renowned piece straddling the divide between variation and passacaglia. As Busoni himself knew, Bach’s architectural masterpiece was itself a titanic piece of overwriting, appropriation and arrangement, drawing from sources ranging from Corelli to Marais, all of whom were themselves drawing from the same well, the sexual abandon of ‘Les Folies d’Espagne’, which legend had it, could drive its listeners to sensual hysteria, and which was as much the victim of Papal opprobrium as the ‘Tarantella’. George draws Paganini, with us, back to the archetype.

This pair of couplets might be seen as the first overt reference to Bach in ‘Caprice Variations’. Variation 4, Poco Allegro ma quasi Recit, is not so much a simple variation within the set, as it is a ‘double’ of Variation 3. Bach uses the notion of the ‘double’  in his B minor Partita, which far from being a eight movement suite, must en effet, be seen as  a set of  four movements expressed in two ways. In Bach’s case, the result is that each pair of movements can be played simultaneously as two -part inventions. This is an important aspect for both composers. The point of chaconnes, variations, or couplets, is not that they can be played in different orders, simultaneously, even stacked up vertically, but that compositionally, that is how composers think, that there is really no difference between material experienced sequentially or contrapuntally; all of these points of view, in the glistening labyrinth of the composer’s imagination are one and the same, and different. A mirror on which to dwell. Spiegl im Spiegl… The title of Variation 27, Aria,  is significant; it is almost as if Rochberg were at last acknowledging that this set of variations is a homage to Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, albeit for the violin, but with a similarly free conception of the notion of variation and fantasy.

Variation 7, Presto, is the first time that the ‘ghost’ of Beethoven makes an appearance in the cycle, raising the question, all be it elliptically, of his great sets of variations, all the way from his first published work the ‘Dressler’ Variations WoO36,  to the sublime A major that crowns his  Quartet Op 131. This, of course, is the tonality lurking behind the Caprice Variations. The Op 74 Quartet, whose Scherzo movement is directly quoted here, was the first and only one of Beethoven’s own cycle to end with a variation movement, and also to evoke other instruments overtly, just as ‘Caprice Variations’ does; that quartet is appropriately nicknamed ‘The Harp’. This variation has to wait a long time for its own variant; denied a ‘Theme’ until the end of the work, each snippet of material, each colour, reaches out across the architecture of the whole, looking for resonances and ramifications that remain unresolved until the appearance of Paganini, unmasked, at the end, ties up these proleptic loose ends.

George experimented with hearing one of the Brahms/Paganini transcriptions, Variation 12, Andante con moto, immediately after the first Schubert-ian Variation 6, Poco allegretto, ma con rubato, emphasising the syntactical link. Again, this was another variation which he obviously felt as being profoundly sensitive, and he drew particular attention to the ‘tiers’ in the chain of harmony in the ‘b’ section. When it came to the next Brahms movement, Rochberg spoke of the metric freedom (we agreed that this was pianistic freedom) necessary to bring off Variation 13, Feroce energico, and authorised  my extra octave at the end, though I later succumbed to bad conscience about this outbreak of violinist’s vanity, and removed it, embarrassed. The question is, when the violin is pushed so far, how much can it, should it, attempt to sound like a piano?

Variation 18, Allegro Fantastico, is where the true ‘crisis’ strikes for the first time in the guise of the opening yawps of George’s 3rd Quartet. Wraiths of the 3rd Quartet and the piano trios drift in and out of the cycle, treated like the shades of other the other composers who surround them. This Fantastico looks forward to a chain of like-named movements in the last quarter of ‘Caprice Variations’, leading up to the final, drifting ‘Fantasy’ movement that unveils the Paganini which concludes the piece.

We worked on Variation 20, Quasi Cadenza; andante con molto espressivo, as a reminder of the lost ‘grande manière’ of violin playing…for me, this, in my time, was best evoked by the glorious lyricism of players such as Joseph Gingold, the last representative of the playing of the Belgian composer-virtuoso Eugene Ysaÿe. And naturally enough, the giant Walloon’s spirit lurks behind not only this variation, but over the whole cycle. In 1929, Ysaÿe, ageing and unable to play the violin due to paralysis in his arm, sketched out a cycle of 6 ‘Sonatas’ dedicated to 6 violinists that he admired, in one 24-hour sitting. This was a truly Rochberg-esque gesture; George’s memoirs are the story of the musicians who played his music, much of which is itself not far from being  compositional portraiture of those very players, be they Isaac Stern, or the Concord Quartet. Eugene Ysaÿe’s,  far from the vignettes of a Virgil Thomson, is transcendental depiction, in Liszt-ian vein, of Szigeti, Bartok’s great collaborator, Jacques Thibaud, whose obsession with Bach is pilloried in Berlioz-ian manner, the multi-talent and teacher, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, who had dedicated his Recitative and Scherzo Caprice to Ysaÿe, Manuel Crickboom, who, as the second violin of Ysaÿe’s Quartet, premiered the Debussy Quartet, and Manuel Quiroga, who was mugged in New York, and never played ‘his’ piece. In this collection of violinists resides the spirit of the ‘grand manner’, the sheer elegance, romance and bravado, which this Quasi Cadenza evokes, if it is not clear quite what it is a Cadenza to, though it is answered by Variation 46, Con Bravura, Georges most explicit evocation of the violin playing that he remembers from his childhood.

In Variation 24, Allegretto, the joke is back on vain violinists. George draws attention to the two poles of nineteenth century performance; Joachim and Paganini. Two D major concerti are referenced, the 1st Paganini Concerto, and the Brahms concerto written for Joseph Joachim, whose approach was completely opposed to the devilish Genovese. Of course, the joke is more complex; by now, the audience will have forgotten the earlier transcriptions of Brahms’ virtuoso piano variations on the same Paganini towards which ‘Caprice Variations’ is inexorable moving.

As I began playing Variation 32, Allegro assai: burlesco, George’s wife, Gene and George both started to sing:

“I walk along the street of sorrows,

The boulevard of broken dreams.”

… Exaggerating the pathetic weeping violin melody, and the (Weimar-esque) nastiness of its accompanying figuration; this conflict mirroring that of Variation 31, Molto Adagio. In that variation, George had demanded what he referred to as a ‘Verdi-esque’ conflict between the lyrical element and its threatening ostinato, for an expressionistic unevenness in its execution that ran clean contrary to the simplicity on the page.

I had chosen ‘Caprice Variations’ to finish my concert in Banja Luka, in fact, making up the entire second half. About 2/3rds of the way through, that is, after playing non-stop for nearly an hour, I came to the very slow Variation 34, Molto Adagio. This musical de profundis is the beginning of yet another ‘trilogy’ but also stands at the very crux of the cycle, its ‘golden section. These three movements might be seen as a de profundis-agon-in paradisum, almost as if Rochberg was placing a Beethovenian crisis and panacea, even a Heiliger Dankgesang, at the heart of the piece. Plodding quarter-notes slide lugubriously under a keening drone, not unlike an air-raid siren’s ‘all-clear’ signal.

Variation 37, Barcarolle, is another of the variations where George conducted with enormous insistence of sensitivity and tenderness. The result was an intensification of the already heightening sense of the incipient presence of Mahler.  He bewailed the lack of chamber music by that composer and was very particular about the inner voices of the development. The pianissimo subito in this movement echoed the one in Variation 36, Largo Sereno, a movement of similar emotional depth, which George ‘conducted’ equally expressively, resulting in an endless ‘opening’ of the movement, climaxing in an ‘Adagietto’ subito.

In a gesture worthy of Bernd Alois Zimmerman, who attached the Jarry-esque ‘merdre’ to his conflation of two Stockhausen piano pieces in his piano trio masterpiece ‘Presence’, Rochberg archly up-beats Variation 41, Allegro Molto, with the Dvorak-ian ‘Tin Pan Alley’ of Variation 40 George spoke if the middle sections of the Dvorak Slavonic Dances, their restraint, and his wonder at the sheer infectious invention of them. He seems very keen that  Variation 40, Robust; do not rush,  should be played rather delicately; I actually think that the ‘robusto’ direction is a little unfortunate and simply refers to the firmness of underlying pulse that is necessary to play this, rather than the nature of the attack. It is impossible not to see this variation in the context of Rochberg’s status, prior to his turning-point opus, ‘Contra tempus et mortem’, as a perceived arch-serialist of the American hard-line. Now George returns to the very language that he challenged, and shows how much it is actually part of him, drawing a visionary, unprecedented link between Webern’s language, stretched to breaking point and the world of romantic virtuosity.

In addition, this variation pushes the solo instrument and the lone player completely over the edge of what it can actually do, both contrapuntally and tonally. Suddenly, at this, the most overtly dramatic moment of the whole cycle, the player is revealed enfeebled, the instrument at the point of collapse, struggling under the combined weight of the late nineteenth orchestra and late romantic harmony at critical mass.

Mindful of George’s injunction to play it, quoting Koussevitzky, ‘vild (sic), but controlled’, I was nervous about the fractured manner in which I played this variation. However my performance met with:’ don’t play it any other way’, which is at once liberating and intimidating, and now the onus of responsibility clearly is resting upon me…

George Rochberg had a very physical, almost corporeal response to Variation 42, Nocturnal; slow, making a movement worming across his stomach-‘as if something is moving in my gizzard’. I mentioned Haflidi Hallgrimsson’s use of brush imagery for such passages, which he greatly liked.

The great Armenian violinist Manoug Parikian once said to me: ‘You know that the greatest tragedy is that’ Mahler could have written the greatest violin concerto, but, I don’t know why, he never did…’ Mahler also wrote next to no chamber music, just the torso of a Brahms-ian piano quartet. Here, in Variation 44, Scherzo, the scherzo of the 5th Symphony is given the virtuoso treatment, where a thundering symphony is rendered in the smallest medium, where the hubris of unaccompanied violin playing reaches its apogee, or nadir, depending on the listener’s point of view. George approved of my very orchestral approach to this variation. We talked of trying to get the bustle of a whole section of violinists sweating away.  In the context of our Bach discussion re Variation 43, I suggested, and he concurred, that the illusion of a ‘Passion’ crowd scene was a propos.

Curiously, most of the associations which we have with Paganini, the devil’s violinist are anachronistic to the Caprices. This diabolic image of the virtuoso was, to a degree, foisted on Paganini, by his hysterical audiences, increasingly fascinated with the Gothic, and then an image that he fostered. The most beautiful portrait of the violinist, an exquisite drawing by Ingres, is far from the popular imagination, a classical one, more how we might picture more sobre contemporaries such as Baillot, or Maurin.  No doubt, Paganini’s undoubtedly enthusiastic endorsement of his acquired diabolic persona was a partial ommagio to the Istrian violinist, Guiseppe Tartini, who famously dreamt of the devil sitting on the end of his bed, playing fantastic music, to him, which upon waking, he wrote down as Il trillo di diabolo, which Paganini attempted to answer, with works such as Le Streghe, ‘The Witches’, the music which so affected the young Berlioz. In point of fact, there is absolutely no hard evidence that he ever played this or any other of the caprices in public. This was Paganini’s own intellectual cycle, his transcendental celebration of man in extremis, his Goya-esque Caprichos.  Arguably, the diabolic association with Paganini’s 24th Caprice was as much to do with appearance of the Dies Irae in his Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini, evoking the very orchestral piece which was Berlioz own response to the Paganini ‘myth’, Symphonie Fantastique.  This image of the devil in the dream became-all pervasive; even Stravinsky felt that he had to the endorse the thematic material of his very own piece of devil-music ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’, by claiming, according to Robert Craft, that is was played to him in a dream..

A week before he died, George said to me: ” You know, I have spent my life making a lot of noise, a tremendous racket.. I think that the time has come to be quiet, to leave the noise making to others. It’s your turn now…”

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