George Rochberg 2018

Posted on December 9th, 2017 by

In 2018,  I will be returning to the music of one of my favourite composers, and some one that I was lucky enough to call friend, George Rochberg. This will lead up to a performance of ‘Caprice Variations’, at St John’s Smith Square, in October. . My collaboration and friendship with the great George Rochberg began in 1998, at his cottage in Newtown Square, Pa. It was in this room that we would meet and play, talk, argue, and dream of music.

Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing his ‘Caprice Variations’ in some detail, using extracts from some of the (hundreds) of letters we exchanged, up to his death in 2005.

George and I spoke and length, and repeatedly over the years, about the meaning of what he called the ‘CVs’. Paganini’s Theme (from his 24th Caprice-itself a much smaller set of variations) appears at the end, not the beginning. One of George’s many ideas about the theme was that Paganini was a channel for music which had come before and after him. Four years after the picture below was taken, we came up with a way of revealing he them in a way which made  the point. This final version, which was, very much his wish, was that, in the cloud of harmonics which ends Variation 50 which precedes the Theme, I should turn my back to the audience, and play the theme following, pianissimo, ‘quasi lontano’. 

Working on Caprice Variations with George Rochberg. Summer 2000, Newtown Square. Photo, Gene Rochberg

But I would like to begin with the variation which I am revising today: 

No 41: Allegro Molto (After Webern Passacaglia, Op 1)

This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of writing for the violin. In fact, George liked it so much that he used it again, in one of his last works ‘Rhapsody & Prayer’. He drew a straight line from Paganini to Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia, which itself refers back to the 17th and 18th Century.  Rochberg’s own relationship with the work of Schoenberg and his two great students was akin to Jacob and the Angel, and the extreme physicality of this 40 seconds of violin music is a model of that agon-ised dialogue. The enormous leaps across the instrument. and the bone-shivering demands on the left hand are the human condition in extremis. Here’s my newly revised score. Even decades into my relationship with the piece, there’s always work to do…

Rochberg sets up a conversation between Paganini and Webern.

Listening to the track, you will notice (you could hardly fail to ) that my performance is fairly wild and very far from clinical. I made two versions of this when I recorded it and send them to George. One is a faithful rendition of the score,  and in the other one, I pretty much exploded on the violin. He was adamant: ‘The crazy one … this is what my music does’, he insisted on the phone, when I asked him which he would choose.

Shortly before he died. George completed work on an extraordinary memoir ‘Five Lines, Four Spaces – The World of My Music’ (University of Illinois Press 2009). He included some words on our work on ‘Caprice Variations’ together. Here they are: 

From George Rochberg ‘Five Lines Four Spaces’



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…”