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A Composer’s Composer

George Perle died this weekend, at the ripe old age of 93. Little-known and little heard by the general audience, Perle was a name virtually every composer of the last half century knows. His book Serial Composition and Atonality passed through most of our hands at one point or other in our study; it and his later Twelve-Tone Tonality caused a lot of us to seek out performances and recordings of his poised, extremely lucid and limpid works.

Big-name appreciation is rare enough anymore for composers, as to almost seem a fluke. Given that, the place to pay attention to is who composers themselves appreciate. George Perle certainly had that kind of “cred”, and he’s still alive and vital for his comrades-in-music.


Comment from Christian Carey
Time: January 25, 2009, 3:11 pm

I enjoy his wind quintets and piano music very much. Also the books on Berg and the theory books Steve mentioned in his post. I especially like his provocative essays in the Listening Composer (


Comment from Ed Lawes
Time: January 25, 2009, 5:28 pm

I just blogged about this too, heard the news via Alex Ross’s blog. Hardly heard any of his music (yet) but those two books (Serial Compostion… and Twelve-Tone Tonality) were and still are important books to me and many others presumably. I just ordered the ‘listening composer’ too. RIP.

Comment from zeno
Time: January 26, 2009, 3:06 pm

From the famous MacArthur Music Fellowship class of 1986 – Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and Charles Wuorinen – I believe that only Mr Perle _subsequently_ went on to become a composer in residence of a distinguished American symphony orchestra – in this case, the San Francisco Symphony in 1989 (following upon Mr Wuorinen who was composer in residence of the San Francisco Symphony from 1985 to 1989.)

I remembered hearing delayed SFS broadcasts of very interesting piano concertos by both Mr Wuorinen and Mr Perle from the late 1980s period, both of which I believe were recorded (both by Alan Feinberg?). (The late 1980s were more widely known for American cultural achievements in post-modernism and experimental opera, such as Glass, Hwang, and Sirlin’s ‘One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof’ (1988) – premiered in Vienna and W. Berlin.) Perhaps because Hugo Weisgall did not have a MacArthur (or did he?), the San Francisco Opera felt free to cancel his commissioned opera “Esther” in 1990; which Christopher Keene proceeded to resurrect for the then fairly vital New York City Opera in 1993 (the opera had a libretto by Charles Kondek, and staging by Jerome Sirlin of 1000 Airplanes fame.)

Mr Wuorinen succeeded John Adams as composer in residence of the SFS. Mr Adams apparently served the SFS as composer in residence from 1978 to 1985.

Comment from jamescombs
Time: January 26, 2009, 9:33 pm

RIP George Perle. I believe he introduced me to tone rows in a textbook I checked out from the library back in 1992.

Comment from Sparky P.
Time: January 27, 2009, 12:15 am

I remember Perle coming to Peabody in ’86 (or so). A kind gent. The only piece of his that I was familiar with at the time was his fifth string quartet and after a talk, listened to that piece. I remember as the piece was started we all gathered to look at the scores, but I stepped back to let other folks in on it. One of the professors (who sadly passed away a couple months ago) was kind of surprised, thinking I was avoiding it, but I convinced him that I knew the piece quite well. So a big thanks for Mr. Perle to come to my school.

Comment from zeno
Time: January 27, 2009, 7:54 am

“caused a lot of us to seek out performances and recordings of his poised, extremely lucid and limpid works.”


Since there seems to be somewhat more familiarity here with Mr Perle’s writings than with his works, I’ll note that Bridge Records recently prepared a two-CD, 2 and a half hour retrospective of 12 of Perle’s best and lesser known works. (Available for about $30 — the price of a single culture ticket in this area.)

It includes the Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra and the Serenade No. 3 for Piano and Chamber Orchestra. (I don’t believe it includes any of the wind quintets which, I think, are all available on a single CD.)

Comment from Judith Lang Zaimont
Time: January 28, 2009, 12:41 pm

I had the good fortune to have been in two classes George taught ( Queens College , 40-odd years ago). The transcendent class was an honors seminar on Wozzeck ( a complete semester); here his incredible joyous fascination with the sheer materials of the music struck us all in full force: His excitement and joy at unlayering discoveries – something fresh for him every time, and something he wanted and needed to share — was palpable, and is still strong in memory.

Added to this is his artistic generosity, which ran deep. Among my several good memories of this cherished professor is his staying late after the NY premiere of Parable to have a good discussion with me about the piece ( at one point asking a true composer’s question, “how long did it take you to write?”).

Never less than genuine in his art and person, George Perle was a composer’s composer. and a mensch.