A while back I read a fascinating book published by University of California Press on Bartok and Hungarian nationalism. I thought I wrote about that book but I have not, actually, it turns out. But I picked up another book from the press on Bartok that caught my eye and in the Epilogue West chapter Danielle Fosler-Lussier writes about the influence of Bartok on George Rochberg's Third String Quartet. Five movements in Rochberg's work call back to the five movement palindromic approach to cyclical works in Bartok's fourth and fifth string quartets. Rochberg's opening salvo in his Third evokes a lot of Bartok, maybe too much Bartok for those who are already into Bartok. Fosler-Lussier proposes that when Rochberg turned his back on serialism and twelve-tone he turned back to a mixture of Mahler and Beethoven, yes, but also just as clearly Rochberg turned back to Bartok.
Rochberg's work is as niche as it gets in classical music and I learned of his work through a fellow I knew from my college days but I learned more about him through the blogging of Kyle Gann. I have, obviously, gone to the trouble of quoting Rochberg a few times when he says stuff I find intriguing or that I agree with. But for all that there is something about Rochberg's work that, however much I can find things to admire about it, doesn't quite stick with me. I will never love Rochberg's Third String Quartet the way I love the third string quartets of Bartok or Shostakovich. But what is it about the quartet that makes Rochberg's work seem okay but not altogether memorable?
Now I've written in the past about how Roger Scruton has said that Rochberg turned back to tonality and how my counter-proposal is that Rochberg introduced ostentatious code-switching into his quartets.
And let's quote Rochberg again, for sake of review:
The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
… the twentieth century has pointed—however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual—toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries. …
Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”) [which you can hear here]
Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method.
Polystylistics were becoming a thing in that period and whether it was Schnittke or even pre-"his sound" Arvot Part experiments in stylistic contrast and juxtaposition were going on. Rochberg's embrace of stylistic shifts in his third quartet was revolutionary because he had mastered the high modernist norms of the academic scene he was part of. But Fosler-Lussier made the point about Rochberg and double-coding back in 2007 and, beyond that, nailed something that I wasn't able to put into words.
from Music Divided: Bartok's Legacy in Cold War Culture
University of California Press
copyright (c) 2007 by The Regents of University of California
The openly polemical aspects of Rochberg's Third Quartet were crucial to its musical importance; at the same time, they work counter to certain of its expressive purposes in ways that weaken the work's artistic impact. The polemical stance of the quartet encourages the reading of styles as signifiers--that is, rather than the gestures or nuances within a style conveying meaning, here the mere evocation of the style is treated as sufficient to transmit the meaning. ... Once the listener has learned to attend to the boundaries between styles as the carrier of meaning, it is difficult to shift back into the mode of listening where nuances within the style matter, and this substantially weakens the expressive force of the third movement and of the quartet as a whole. Although Rochberg maintained that his primary interest was reviving a language for genuine expression of a kind that existed in earlier traditions, some of his music clearly privileges the polemical, meta-musical, or even sloganlike use of tonal styles, such as the entire movement based on the much overplayed Pachelbel Canon that he included in his Sixth Quartet. The political goal of rehabilitating expression often seems to be at odds with the project of actually expressing something, and this is a serious obstacle for Rochberg's music. [emphases added]
Wow, yes, that's a fantastic way of putting it. Rochberg's Third uses styles as signifiers and Fosler-Lussier has written what I couldn't find words for to describe what feels like a shortcoming in a string quartet I do admire, but admire more than I love. As someone wrote in email correspondence years ago, Rochberg had balls of steel to reject serialism when he rejected it but he may be more of a pathbreaker who opened the gate for other composers to do more interesting things with the ideas he was exploring.
I have found Rochberg's writing and music useful but in a way he's more useful for what I think he didn't manage to convince me he did. Or, let me be friendlier about this, I think the Caprice Variations constitute a more interesting direction within his work than the Third Quartet by exploring the possibility of continuity across the borders of styles that get unified by way of variation technique and variation as a large-scale form. Now Ferdinand Rebay did that in his Historisches Suite for flute and guitar decades earlier and there was nothing postmodernist about that, so I wouldn't say what Rochberg did was postmodernist and Taruskin pointed out in his Oxford history that Rochberg rejected the label of postmodernist. What Rochberg was grappling with was how musicians and composers could deal with a disconcertingly new and global sense of what he called pluralism. Or as Leonard B. Meyer put it, in Western European terms the ideology of pluralism in the West seemed bigger than the amount of pluralism it needed to account for in European societies and the more non-Western societies came into contact with European cultures the more doubtful it was that the Euro-centric conception of pluralism was actually pluralistic enough to encompass the global pluralism observably in the, well, globe.
The book is officially about Bartok but along the way of highlighting how indebted to Bartok's work and styles Rochberg was in developing the Third Quartet Fosler-Lussier zeroed in on something about the Rochberg quartet that's been bugging me.