The Kennedy Center

Critical Moments 2 (2001)

About the Work

George Perle Composer: George Perle
© Richard Rodda

George Perle, composer, teacher, and theorist, was one of the most prominent and influential figures in 20th-century American music. The son of music-loving Russian immigrants, Perle was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, on May 6, 1915, and started playing piano at an early age. He began his undergraduate training in 1934 at DePaul University in Chicago as a composition student of Wesley La Violette, and later earned a master's degree at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago (1942) and a Ph.D. in musicology (with Gustave Reese and Curt Sachs as his principal teachers) at New York University (1956). He also studied privately from 1939 to 1941 with the noted Austrian expatriate composer Ernst Krenek. Perle began his distinguished teaching career with an appointment to the faculty of the College of the City of New York in 1948 after completing a stint in Europe and Japan in the United States Army during World War II. He later taught at the University of Louisville (1949-57), University of California at Davis (1957-61), and Queens College of the City University of New York (1961-84); his visiting teaching and composer-in-residence positions included The Juilliard School (1963), Yale (1965 66), University of Southern California (1965), Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (1967, 1980, 1988), State University of New York at Buffalo (1971-72), University of Pennsylvania (1976, 1980), Columbia University (1979, 1983), University of California at Berkeley (where he delivered the prestigious Bloch Lectures in 1989), and Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida (1990). From 1989 to 1991 he was composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony.

George Perle's many distinctions included the Pulitzer Prize (1985, for his Wind Quintet No. 4), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1966, 1974), and election to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1978). He received commissions from some of this country's foremost institutions, including the New York Philharmonic, Library of Congress, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Fromm Foundation and United States Information Agency. Perle was also a leading authority on the theory and history of 12-tone music: his Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, a standard reference work in the field, appeared in its sixth edition in 1991. His other writings include 12-Tone Tonality (expounding his personal compositional idiom), The Operas of Alban Berg (his research on Lulu led to the completion of that work from the composer's own materials) and many articles on various aspects of 20th-century music theory and history. He won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for his writings on several occasions. He died at his home in Manhattan on January 23, 2009.

In 1996 Perle composed a work titled Critical Moments comprising six aphoristic movements for the New York New Music Ensemble. Five years later eighth blackbird won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, which included a commission for a new work by Perle. The instrumentation of the ensemble was the same as that for the earlier Critical Moments, so Perle fulfilled the commission with another set of succinct movements that he called Critical Moments 2, which eighth blackbird premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York on March 5, 2002. "The instrumentation of these nine short, self-contained, and strikingly individual movements for six players," Perle wrote, "corresponds to that of Pierrot Lunaire, except for the substitution of a percussion part for the quasi-spoken (Sprechstimme) vocal part of Schoenberg's work. I had taken much pleasure in the composition of a set of six such pieces in 1996, and was already strongly inclined to undertake such a project again when an unexpected commission from the Naumburg Foundation gave me an opportunity to do exactly that for eighth blackbird. The nine movements range in duration from 45 seconds to two minutes, and there are quite definite structural details in many of the pieces that make their brief duration seem exactly right. Above all, I would say, each piece has its own ‘expression,' in the sense in which Emerson uses that word in his essay The Poet: ‘Every line we can draw in the sand, has expression.'" Russell Platt, composer, critic, and classical editor of The New Yorker, wrote of the character of the work, "On the face of it, ‘critical moments' refers to especially intense episodes of experience-and each one of Perle's little movements-as of a denouement, however quiet and subtle its atmosphere may be. But ‘critical' also implies the acts of evaluation and examination, and as such may be a door, however modest, into the composer's Lilliputian formal strategies. A number of the Moments state a strong idea at the outset-enunciated by one player or by a group of instruments-and return to it in altered form after a diversionary idea quickly counters the first one." Michael Maccaferri, clarinetist for eighth blackbird, added that "each movement is a microcosm of counterpoint and harmony, with every note serving its own specific purpose and direction."