Turning from 12-tone

MODERN music has seen a lot of rethinking during the last eight or nine years , particularly along the lines of an awakening to freedom, on the part of numerous composers, to write more what they truly feel than what in each one's case would be the professionally expected or ''proper'' thing. The search for a more personal, honest musical language has brought on a time of change and redirection for many composers, not to mention occasional bewilderment for the public and anxiety for some publishers.

One noted American composer whose career has been long, and whose ''time of turning,'' as he calls it, has probably been made more dramatic thereby, is George Rochberg.

Rochberg established himself early on as one of the brightest, freshest exponents of the 12-tone serial method. His works from that period (early '50s to around 1963) not only are masterfully constructed but are immensely engaging and make great musical sense as well. Certainly the Symphony No. 2 of 1956 stands as a towering achievement in the international 12-tone manner.

But by the mid-'60s, Rochberg says, the severity of serialism led him ''to question a style which made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquillity, grace, wit, energy!'' His withdrawal was prolonged, as he came to view serialism and its cross-pollinated cousins in other arts as part of the age's ''cultural pathology.''

Rochberg's antidote to all this, however, poses problems of a different kind, for he has reached back to modern music's roots (Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, et al.) and fervently reclaimed today's heritage of that music's ineradicable spiritual force and redemptive energy.

Amen. Very good. But his manner of doing this, compositionally, has been to place, alongside movements of a more familiar, gritty texture, whole swatches of perfectly plausible Schubert or Mahler or Beethoven, with very few stylistic hints that these sections were actually penned in our day.

Much of what Rochberg has written since the 1970s has received great, loving attention as that which has centrally brought humanism back to music. He undoubtedly has the widest gamut of harmonic and melodic ''languages'' of any composer today: from still atonal, modernist gestures to the virtually pure Schubertian balm. And surely his heart is in the right place, for a renewal is exactly what art music has desperately needed for more than a quarter-century.

But the confusion he plants for the listener, and the challenges presented to musicians, especially in works like his latest string quartets, are in their own way just as problematic as others posed by the nihilistic composers of the '60s. In Rochberg's case, it is: How far back into the past can we reach for musical expression that adequately attends to the job of speaking of, or refracting in some legitimate way, our own times?

I share Mr. Rochberg's desire to dump our notions of ''originality,'' which have become so overimportant, ego-ridden, and grotesque. And my vote is totally on the side of debunking the myths of the tortured hero-composer, replacing these with efforts toward music that conveys openly and spreads palpably a sense of grace and sanctity among human beings. What he has done certainly commands respect, but in the end its apologists fail to reverse the music's strong evidence that here is an attempt to grab some of the inspired musical glow of fairly distant epochs and present it pretty much undigested by contemporary experience - which amounts, in terms of musical sense, to offering quoted music, even if the quotations are original. The pure ''Old Master sound,'' juxtaposed with Rochberg's more familiar, mature sound, simply comes off as insufficiently thought through.

It is possible that large numbers of the people who have embraced these works since the '70s are so hungry and ready for a revival of music's capacity to feed , that they are willing to turn to such large chunks of bona fide 19th-century art. It is possible to imagine that our discontented musical times have brought many listeners to that readiness; but it is not possible to imagine that the same transplanted idiom will continue to nourish them for terribly long.

One of the most salient features of Rochberg's dwelling on the styles of Schubert and Mahler is that it brings out an excessive dominance, in his musical thought, of the Germanic ideal. And, truth to tell, this idea, with its underlying theme of linear musical evolution that flowered into Mahler, wilted into serialism, and dissolved with the 1960s Darmstadt school, has lain at the root of most of the ''cultural pathology'' of which he speaks.

A work that is devoid of the quoting urge, however, is his Violin Concerto of 1974, which rings quite true as a successful infusion of those reviviscent energies into a work of complete integrity and heart-rending impact.

Despite what may be miscalculations, Rochberg remains a first-class creative composer, with a distinguished career, and is to be watched with fascination for where he heads next.

A George Rochberg listening list:

* Symphony No. 1 (Louisville S-634).

* Symphony No. 2 (Columbia CSP CMS-6379 - out of print).

* Violin Concerto (Columbia M-35149).

* String Quartets Nos. 4, 5, 6 (RCA ARL2-4198).

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