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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
George Perle

George Perle

Cradled in the deep green woods on the hill above Tanglewood is Seranak, the Koussevitzky estate, to which virtually every major contemporary composer has been invited to spend anywhere from a leisurely evening to an entire working summer at the internationally-celebrated Berkshire Music Center. On the way to the main house, up a curvy garden road, stands the "composer's cottage", a comfortable two-part structure consisting of living quarters and a separate, detached studio given over to Tanglewood's annual composer-in-residence. The composer thus honored this summer was George Perle, whose Concertino for Piano, Winds, and Timpani was performed towards the beginning of the Festival of Contemporary Music and whose Short Symphony received its world premiere at the end of "Fromm Week", with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Perle recalls with a mixture of nostalgia and gratification that he had, in fact, been the composer cottage's very first occupant during the summer of 1967. Now, thirteen years later, a strange thing has happened which seems to be the reward for a lifetime of working and waiting and working some more: the world has discovered that George Perle, besides all the other things he is and has always been, is one of the major composers of our time.

He is not, after all, the first to be widely acclaimed for off-shoots of creativity, rather than for the creativity itself. Bartok was at first known to all but a small circle of initiates as Hungary's leading folk music authority and a brilliant pianist, rather than composer. There are many other such examples. And it is certainly understandable that a person who has had as much public notice in areas which have more readily captured the public's imagination, as is the case with Perle, should also have been misunderstood and neglected. Every reasonably informed person has read newspaper accounts of Perle's disclosure of the Third Act of Alban Berg's masterpiece, Lulu. (Perle is quick to remind that, although it had been known that a third act had been suppressed and locked away from the eyes and ears of the world, little thought was given to its eventual unveiling). In his article, "The Complete Lulu", a blow-by-blow description is painstakingly constructed. Even more startling a display of musical detective work exposed, to the delight of a scandalized world, the revelation that Berg's widow's widely touted tale of her ideal marriage to Alban was not altogether accurate; that Berg had, in fact, had a passionate love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin; and that this relationship had given rise to a secretly coded musical expression in the form of a vocal line and text, hitherto unknown, to one of Berg's best-known compositions, the Lyric Suite. After the first public performance of the true and authentic work, the publisher squashed subsequent performances (for reasons that bear further investigation!), leading one chronicler to write "Auf Wiedersehen, du ewige Geliebte!" His Berg scholarship is so authoritative that Perle was called upon by the Metropolitan Opera's music director, James Levine, to go over the opera with him before the Met's first production of Lulu.The second volume of The Operas of Alban Berg, devoted to Lulu, is now in preparation, the Wozzeck volume just having been most handsomely published by the University of California Press.

More parochially-involved musicians know Perle not only through his work on Berg, but also through the two most widely read analytical works in this field, Twelve-Tone Tonality and Serial Composition and Atonality: an Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Written with penetrating lucidity, these books weave a unified and indestructible thread through the fabric of western music. Triadic tonality is discussed and the progress of the chromatic tone is followed to the point where it has successfully obliterated tonal function. The basic structure of three centuries of western music having been thus undone, the question arises as to where to go from here. The answers are finite: chaos, chance, or a new harmonic organization which can effectively replace — in the ear and mind of even the amateur — the musical and psychological components of the triadic system. Perle deeply believes, both as composer and analyst, that the last of these possibilities is his chosen direction. Steven Ledbetter has written in his illuminating program note on Perle's Short Symphony: "The problem to be dealt with was basically the same one that worried Schoenberg: as music became ever more chromatic and less clearly tied to a tonic key, as chords became more complex and ambiguous in their harmonic significance, how was it possible to write music that did all the things music has always done — to distinguish primary melodic lines from secondary, accompanimental lines, to project a satisfying formal shape, to provide an ebb and flow of tension and release? . . . Perle's analytical insights helped him to formulate his own compositional technique . . ."

These are the questions which have preoccupied Perle throughout his life, and which he discussed comprehensively with his students and composer colleagues at Tanglewood. As one observes and listens to him, one is continually struck by his many dualities. It is as if one were looking simultaneously at both sides of a coin. Rarely does one encounter a person of greater humility, especially when he discusses the great arc of western musical heritage. And yet, he is keenly aware of his particular interests and doesn't think twice about rejecting elements, no matter how popular or 'In", if they fall outside the parameters of his predilections. (His formidable critical apparatus is applied most stringently to his own work, and he thinks nothing about withdrawing compositions of his which no longer meet his own requirements.) He is an intensely serious man, lacking patience with trivia and superficiality, but capable, on the other hand, of a great range of humor, from mocking irony to racking belly laughs. He says that he isn't modest ("I happen to think that I'm a very significant composer"), but that he isn't willing to tug at sleeves or knock on doors to gain recognition ("I'll probably complain, but I'll wait for people to discover me for themselves.") His encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall of the most minute details will astound; just as his unconcerned gaps in many mundane logistical (or political) areas will amuse and sometimes bewilder. Even physically, he encompasses polarities, sometimes appearing tweedily youthful, like a fun-bent sophomore; and at other times seeming guru-wise and agingly contemplative.

We asked what 20th century composers he most particularly admired. "Stravinsky, Schoenberg. Berg and Webern, obviously. Bartok. I'd say that's it. I think we're in an interesting situation, because this is probably the first time in hundreds of years that we've had a period without any composer recognized within his own lifetime as having that kind of stature. Stravinsky was the last one. When I was young, there were still a lot of great figures: Sibelius, Strauss, Ravel, Hindemith. These were people who had written music which a lot of people did not understand. But every one of them had written something that was already in the repertoire. It's quite possible that the history of music is not going to continue in terms of tremendous figures. It doesn't worry me particularly. I think the history of music will manifest itself in different ways. I give very little thought to things like that."

Born in 1915 in Bayonne, New Jersey, across the Bay from New York City, he was raised on farms in Wisconsin and Indiana. His musical studies began in Chicago, and it was there that his fascination with a new way of constructing music began. He came across the score to Alban Berg's Lyric Suite on his teacher's piano and asked to take it home. He describes the revelation as the event which instantly changed his life. Yet his evolving musical consciousness was uniquely American and no mere transplant of what was occurring in Europe. Much later he was to write that "the concept of atonality and serialism cannot be equated with the works of a group of Viennese modernists any more than the concept of tonality can be equated with the works of a group of Viennese classicists." If pragmatism is a typically American trait, Perle's was already evident in the '30's when, in addition to writing his own music and analyzing that of others, he became a director of the New Music Group of Chicago and, with composers Robert Erickson and Ben Weber, presented many first performances of works by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, American composers.

Then came World War II and, typically enough, Perle saw army service in both the European and Pacific theatres of operations before winding up at New York University for post-graduate studies and a doctorate. As one of the nation's most inspired teachers of musical theory, analysis and composition, he has been principally affiliated with the Universities of Louisville and California (Davis) and, since 1961, CUNY's Queens College. He has held two Guggenheim Fellowships and is the recipient of many honors and awards, including membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

His canon of works is not large, although he has written in virtually all media except opera. The critical establishment has treated him with surprising unanimity over the last decade, ranging only in degree from admiring deference to unreserved acclaim. His following among a growing group of performing artists is equally devoted and enthusiastically committed. Unlike the performance graphs of some composers which sky-rocket suddenly before plummeting into often undeserved oblivion, Perle's performance log has shown a slow but steady rise, each season registering more performances than the previous one. One has the feeling that his music is on the threshold of acceptance into the repertory's mainstream and the public's awareness.

We asked him about the many reports one reads about composers' and audiences' secession from serialism, often described as a long-overdue liberation from an impossible and stifling orthodoxy. "I think that's idiotic," he shot back, "and mouthed by people who never understood anything about these principles in the first place." (His own music incorporates certain highly personal and flexible serial elements, but only with relation to pitches and intervals, and never with other musical components such as rhythms, dynamics, etc.) He is, of course, aware of other approaches to musical composition such as improvisation or controlled chance techniques, but they do not interest him and he has never made use of them. "Perhaps it's irresponsible of me, but I simply never think about those things."

Hearing Perle's music, especially the more recent works such as the Six Etudes for Piano, the Concertino, the hauntingly autobiographical Thirteen Dickinson Songs, and the Short Symphony, one becomes aware of a truly unique quality. These works seem to bridge gaps among the primary forces of our century's musical thought. They show us, perhaps for the first time, that there are far more similarities in the tone realms of the modern classicists than dissimilarities. It is entirely consistent that we hear in Perle's music a unification of musical attitudes often regarded as irreconcilable, and that the points being bridged represent the aesthetic of the very composers Perle most reveres: Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok, Schoenberg and Webern.

An intensely private person, George Perle moves in a world of his own making and dreams his own dreams. He senses the limitations which time puts on all of us and chooses with care the persons, thoughts, and energies which occupy his life. He puts it simply and movingly: "To me, there is a terrific reality in the nature of western music. Being able to create in harmony and structure and tones that move from one place to another. And I think I know how to do that. I think I can do it in — quotes — 12-tone music. That seems very important to me. And I think my music is accessible. And if it's not accessible to everyone, well, there are enough people to whom it is so that I can exist in my small world."

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