American composer, teacher, and musical theorist George Perle (1915-2009) was heavily influenced by the atonal twelve-tone compositional style of 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but Perle developed his own style, which he called twelve-tone tonality. Perle’s work is distinguished by its lyricism and wit.
The twelve-tone technique developed by Schoenberg means that all 12 notes of the musical scale are sounded equally in a piece of music, with no one note receiving more emphasis than another. Perle, however, did not use a strict, predetermined order of note sequences, as the twelve-tone system does.
Perle began his musical studies as a teenager in Chicago. By the early 1940s, he had discovered composers such as Schoenberg and Alban Berg and was profoundly influenced by Berg’s Lyric Suite. After serving in World War II, Perle obtained his doctorate in musicology from New York University in 1956. He began a long teaching career that took him to a number of universities. He retired from his position at Queens College of the City University of New York in 1985.
Perle was for many years known more as an author and musical theorist. His work, Serial Composition and Atonality (first published in 1962) became the standard text in many music conservatories on the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Anton Webern (composers who led what was known as the “Second Viennese School”). Perle’s compositions gradually gained greater recognition, however, particularly when he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1986 for Wind Quintet No. 4. The same year, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (known as the “Genius Grant”).