Saturday, January 24, 2009

George Perle, 93, was an exponent of 12-tone "tonality" in music composition


The New York Times today reported the passing of composer George Perle (1915-2009) at the age of 93. There is a detailed obituary on p A17 of the Saturday, Jan 24, 2009 Times by Allan Kozinn, here.

According to the article, Perle was an exponent of a system called “12 tone tonality” which was a middle ground between atonality and traditional tonality. On its surface, the term suggests extreme chromaticism, already developed by Liszt and Wagner. Liszt, in fact, wrote a piece called “Bagatelle without Tonality” which gains its effect with lots of diminished seventh chords as I remember (somewhere on an old Vox or Turnabout recording from the early 1960s).

Perle had also written extensively about music theory (just check Amazon; many of the books are quite expensive, still) and had performed a lot of research on Viennese exponent of atonality, Alban Berg, particularly the opera Lulu (with work on the supposedly unfinished third Act), and the Lyric Suite.

Berg, in fact, to many people sounds almost like a logical extension of postromanticism; a lot of Lulu (especially the excerpted “Symphony”) sounds lush and romantic – the atonality is carried out as ultimate chromaticism, beyond Wagner. Schoenberg seems less so, perhaps (after Gurre-Lieder, that is, which is one of the most extravagant postromantic symphonic-cantatas ever, even trying to outdo Mahler). Compare Berg, for example, to Pierre Boulez, who sounds ascetic in comparison.

I found a website, "Allmusic", where one could sample some of Perle’s music, here; I had trouble making the site work (both Mozilla and IE), but I did hear samples of some of it. It did not sound “lush” to me like a lot of Berg. So I did the “good citizenship” thing (at least for copyright law and for the economy) and ordered a CD of his orchestral music from Amazon, an Albany CD with the Seattle Symphony; I should have received it next week.

Remember the inauguration? I suppose everyone heard the 4 minute chamber piece (“Air and Simple Gifts”) by John Williams (a British composer who is known most of all for film music, with his Richard Strauss-like style, but he also has atonal or hypermodern concert compositions like a well known Violin Concerto). The piece was a bit pensive and modern, somewhat recalling the mood of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Barack Obama was sworn in right after the piece concluded. The Chief Justice was distracted enough by the emotion of the moment that he flubbed a word. . Here’s an AP Review of the piece by Mark Steinberg.

The illustration above is a photo of two handwritten pages from my own “Third Sonata”, from the first movement, near the start of the “development section.” Note the annotation “without tonality.” I composed this around February 1962, after a traumatic period of my life (documented elsewhere on these blogs). I recorded the entire piece on a piano at the First Baptist Church in Washington DC in February 1991 on a DAT tape. In my next life phase, whenever, I’d like to get set up and get all of this entered into a computer so it is performable. I think the 50-minute piece actually works. But the “senza tonalite” is supposed to be an experiment in reflecting “emotion” without the gravity of a specific tonal center

Update: Feb 1

The Albany CD Troy 292 has four works by Perle, the first three with the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz, the last, the Royal Philharmonic conducted by David Epstein. The works are: The Sinofinetta #2 (1990), in which the outer movements are scherzos, the Piano Concerto #1 (1990), with Michael Boriskin at the piano, the Adagio (1992), and Three Movements (1960). The works sounded a bit manipulative and conjured up less emotion than I'm used to with, say, Alban Berg.

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