Music: Farewell—Two Profiles in Courage

Because this month marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Bela Bartók, I had thought that this column would be dedicated to him. However, the death of two of my heroes has intervened, and it is of them that I must speak. Though they may be largely unfamiliar to you, my hope in writing this column is that they no longer will be. On May 29, George Rochberg died at the age of 86 in Pennsylvania; two weeks later, on June 13, David Diamond passed away in New York just shy of his 90th birthday. They were great American composers whose significance will only grow as the measure of greatness is restored in the aftermath of the disaster through which they lived and against which they strained with every fiber of their beings.

They became my heroes because of the courageous stand they took not only in writing beautiful music but also in insisting that it was right to do so at a time when such music had been practically derided out of existence. It was during the reign of the “coterie of twelve-notery,” as it was called by English composer Robert Simpson, or of the “serial-killers,” as they were labeled by American composer Ned Rorem. The Schoenberg Second Viennese School of systematized atonality had triumphed to the point that Diamond was told point-blank by his colleagues that he was in the path of history, and he had better get out of the way or suffer the consequences.

And suffer he did. If condescension could kill, it was tried in the remark to Rochberg’s wife, Gene, when she was asked, “Why is George writing beautiful music? That’s already been done.”

My first exposure to them came in the mid-1970s, as I was exploring 20th-century American music and wondering at the crisis by which it had been gripped. I recall my leap of heart and faith at hearing two notable releases: Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Diamond’s Symphony No. 4, written in the mid-1940s, on New World Records; and the Concord String Quartet’s performance of Rochberg’s Third String Quartet, composed in the early 1970s, on the Nonesuch label. When I first listened to the Diamond piece, I sat there stunned that music of such majesty, emotional warmth, and breadth of spirit could exist—had existed for three decades—and not be widely celebrated and embraced. What was the rest like?

The Rochberg Quartet amazed me because Rochberg himself had been the leading American exponent and practitioner of serial music. Here, he returned to tonality and had written a 16-minute set of variations in the second movement of such mesmerizing beauty that it seemed to come from a world that I had thought was lost forever. Attached to the quartet was a manifesto against serialism that is one of the finest things I have ever read. It was a devastating critique from within the ranks of the avant-gardists, and they never forgave him for it—or for the three other Concord Quartets he wrote, to say nothing of the passionate Violin Concerto and other such works. In the manifesto, Rochberg diagnosed egotism as the spiritually corrupt impulse behind the desire to erase the memory of Western culture and to begin again with the unfettered self as the standard. He declared that art “is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artist’s ego” and therefore called for “regaining contact with the tradition of and means of the past.”

Diamond, who had never abandoned that past or spent time in the serial camp, was firm in saying, “I do not believe there is any such thing as atonal music.” His diagnosis of the avant-garde was the same as Rochberg’s: “It was ego. Ego plus opportunism.” For him, as well, “Music that does not nourish you spiritually is not music, only aural sensations.”

In the 1970s, I could never have imagined that, a quarter-century later, I would have the privilege and thrill of talking with these men by phone and corresponding by mail—even personally visiting with Rochberg a number of times—about these very things. I got to thank them, which I had so wanted to do, to tell them how much their work meant to me, and to ask them if I had gotten it right in terms of my appreciation of their work.

Talking with Diamond was a lesson in living history. Without an ounce of pretension, he would refer to his conversations with Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland, and other musical greats who would come alive before my eyes. He knew them all. Less expected were his expressions of admiration for Catholic converts Julian Green and Edith Stein. He loved the pictures of Stein in the Crisis article about her martyrdom, a subject that I thought might be particularly sensitive to him as a Jew (“Edith Stein” by Laura Garcia, June 1997). I was quite startled when, in our interview, he told me, “Only two great figures hold my spiritual, theological attention.

They are, as my father used to call them, Joshua Ben Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth, and Moses.” Their spirit, he said, brought together with “my musical spiritual force, I think that’s what the future will be in sustaining my own music.” I was overwhelmed when Diamond wrote a jacket blurb for my book, which includes a wonderful interview with him.

Though he was perhaps the greatest American symphonist, Diamond told me that he thought that his substantial chamber works, especially the twelve string quartets, would not be discovered until after he had died, just as Shostakovich’s were neglected until after his demise. Thanks to the great dedication and artistry of the Potomac String Quartet and the enterprise of Albany Records, all were recorded and issued while the maestro was still with us. When he died, I called Steve Honigberg, the cellist who leads the Potomac String Quartet, simply to salute him and to tell him and his partners that they had done a great thing for a great man in his lifetime.

Rochberg was a member of the Greatest Generation. He had been badly wounded while fighting in Patton’s Third Army outside of Mons. He was patched up and thrown back into the front lines. Some years after the war, he stared death in the face again. This time it was the face of his young son, who was fatally afflicted with cancer. This loss turned Rochberg irreparably against serial music, which, he said, was bankrupted by its inability to express grief, love, or hope.

Without any explicitly religious basis for it in his own beliefs, Rochberg arrived at his hope for eternity in a Socratic way: from experience. As he wrote in the new preface to his recently reissued book, The Aesthetics of Survival, “Art remains crucial to our sense of ourselves as human and why we insist, against the brute fact of our brief existence, on the survival of our inmost, immaterial essence.” So he strove “for authenticity linked to the longing for immortality” and against “the forgetting of being.” I shall never forget his eyes lighting up when, in response to my quoting Schoenberg’s remark that he “had been cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty,” Rochberg said to me: “But I have re- embraced the art of beauty but with a madness.”

When I called Gene Rochberg to express my condolences and ask after the fate of George’s extraordinary, unpublished memoirs, she so generously asked if I also knew of Diamond’s passing. I said I had heard and that “two giants are gone.” “Well,” she said, “to make way for the new.” “Yes,” I impulsively responded, “but it was George who made that way possible.”

Rochberg and Diamond are labeled neo-Romantics. But Diamond warned, “My music isn’t goo-goo-eyed Romantic slop. There’s a certain acerbity to it, but it does have a big melodic flow.” That is true of both of them, perhaps with a bit more acerbity in Rochberg. However, the expression of the human spirit in these two champions does reach for the region of highest hope and yearning for the day when all the tears will be wiped away.

Unfamiliarity with the music of these two heroes brings to mind the old conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Now two giant oaks have fallen. Can you hear them?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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