In Memoriam

George Perle
Photo by Johanna I. Sturm.
Courtesy of George Perle

George Perle’s longtime colleague Leo Kraft said it best when he once described Perle, in the best sense, as a “note composer.” For George, it was always about how pitches related one to another, how harmonies were formed and how they progressed over time. In short, how music actually worked. He thought about music on a profound level, and his ability to discover aspects of a work and then explain it was remarkable. His books on the operas Wozzeck and Lulu are effectively definitive, and Serial Composition and Atonality is considered a clear-headed introduction to the inner workings of the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and other touchstones of 20th century music. Perle’s own compositions show a rare depth of thinking and sophistication. His music is highly expressive, emotionally satisfying, and intellectually stimulating; he did not write for the sake of effect in music, but rather for the effect the music would have on the listener.

I was an undergraduate music student at Queens College (CUNY) when I began private composition lessons with George. (The details are given in Volume 33 of Theory and Practice, discussed below.) Of course I didn’t know then, but I was present at a turning point in George’s work and a crucial one in my own as a composer. George became my mentor in every important sense. I was a fledgling composer with lots of nerve, little knowledge, and still less experience. George took me on after looking at my compositional attempts and hearing my story—that at school I had asked around for “the best composer,” to which George said, “And they sent you to me?” In exchange for lessons I would do the occasional errand, and I realized even then I had gotten the better part of the agreement.

George taught me a lot about composition. He was a stickler for details even in the sketch stage; dynamics, tempi, articulations, all were important from the very start. He argued with me once about using a fermata: “Why not just write out the duration you want?” he demanded. Perhaps more importantly, he taught me different ways to hear music. Lessons included analysis, compositional exercises, and the results of my own creative impulses.

George was working on several things then: composing, of course; his regular teaching duties at Queens College; analysis, usually of some 20th century masterwork; and proofreading galleys for the third edition of Serial Composition and Atonality. But he was also working with Paul Lansky on what George was then calling the “twelve-tone modal system.” He introduced me to the system, which he had begun developing in the early 1940s, and in the process helped me find this new way to hear music. Music no longer had to be tonal in the traditional sense; it could have centricity, what Perle defines in Serial Composition and Atonality as “the stabilization of a specific pitch or collection of pitches as a focal element of the work or of large segments of a work.”

The twelve-tone tonal system is based on the use of cyclic sets, in which the unfolding of a single interval generates either an ordering of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale (minor seconds/major sevenths, and perfect fifths/perfect fourths, each generate all twelve pitch classes) or of partitions of them. Using such sets gives both predictability and variety, so that a full statement of a twelve-tone row is unnecessary. Harmonies are derived from two paired and aligned sets; one set can be an inversion of the other. The resulting harmonies are varied but predictable, giving composers the capability to create music in ways that go beyond traditional tonality but offer satisfying harmonic motion.

My lessons evolved from tonal composition to using post-tonal elements. George soon began teaching me to use his system as well. I had no idea then that he was using me as a sort of guinea pig in this regard. My initial attempts to use Perle’s system were, to be blunt, failures. In retrospect I was not yet prepared to compose with it, but George’s perspective on how music fundamentally operated—focusing on the sense of centricity—had made its way into my psyche. My music became increasingly influenced by twelve-tone tonality. Even now when I write otherwise traditionally tonal works, symmetry and inversional complementation—the hallmarks of twelve-tone tonality—are a part of my compositional language.

My private studies with George ended with my completion of the B.A. The first edition of his book Twelve-tone Tonality was published two years later, during my M.A. studies, again at Queens College. After a long hiatus I went to New York University for a Ph.D., which I earned in 1995. My dissertation, Harmonic Motion in George Perle’s Wind Quintet No. 4, brought me back to George’s now much advanced way of thinking. Once again, George provided insight. At the time he was working on the second edition of Twelve-tone Tonality, and he provided me with a couple of charts that demonstrated relationships within the system on a higher (synoptic) level than ever before, as well as copies of his sketches for the wind quintet.

A few years ago Dave Headlam of the Eastman School of Music spearheaded a special conference on George Perle’s music and theories. From that conference came the notion of a festschrift issue of the Music Theory Society of New York State’s journal, Theory and Practice, with articles from the conference and as well as new materials. The co-editors, Headlam and Philip Stoecker, were getting ready to put the issue into print when George passed away at the age of 93. The festschrift has become a double issue tribute to George. There are a variety of analyses of music by Bartók, Berg, and, of course, Perle himself, as well as other musical discussions and personal reminiscences. In addition, several contributors have paid George tribute as only composers can, by writing pieces in his honor. The contributors include Elliott Antokoletz, Bethany Beardslee, William Bolcom, Leon Botstein, William Theophilus Brown, Vasili Byros, Michael Callahan, Elliott Carter, Mark DeVoto, Steve Dibner, Henri Dutilleux, Gretchen Foley and Susan Levine, Daniel Gustin, Patricia Hall, Dave Headlam, Douglas Jarman, Paul Lansky, David Pitt, Charles Porter, Bruce Saylor, David Schober, Patricia Spencer, Philip Stoecker, Charles Wadsworth, Christopher Winders, and myself. My apologies if I have omitted any names.

A final note: When I began lessons with Perle, he immediately took notice of my music notation. This was before personal computers and programs like Finale and Sibelius existed, so most unpublished music was still hand copied. He took extra time to teach me the basic mechanics of music copying, even what pens and inks to use. It was this training that enabled me to earn sufficient money as a copyist to put myself through school, and that in turn gave me enough experience to help me gain my first job out of college as an editor at a major music publishing house. I will be eternally grateful to George Perle for all of this and more.


Steven L. Rosenhaus

Dr. Steven L. Rosenhaus is a composer, lyricist, arranger, conductor, and author who serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Composition at New York University.

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