George Perle

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George Perle
George Perle 1991.jpg
Perle in 1991
Born(1915-05-06)6 May 1915
Bayonne, New Jersey, United States
Died23 January 2009(2009-01-23) (aged 93)
OccupationComposer, music theorist
Spouse(s)Laura Slobe (1950–1952) (div.)
Barbara Philips (died 1978)
Shirley Perle

George Perle (6 May 1915 – 23 January 2009) was an American composer and music theorist. As a composer, his music was largely atonal, using methods similar to the twelve-tone technique of the Second Viennese School. This serialist style, and atonality in general, was the subject of much of his theoretical writings. His 1962 book, Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern remains a standard text for 20th-century classical music theory. Among Perle's awards was the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Wind Quintet No. 4.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Perle was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. He graduated from DePaul University, where he studied with Wesley LaViolette and received private lessons from Ernst Krenek. Later, he served as a technician fifth grade in the United States Army during World War II.[2][3] He earned his doctorate at New York University in 1956.[4]

Perle composed with a technique of his own devising called "twelve-tone tonality". This technique was different from, but related to, the twelve-tone technique of the Second Viennese School,[5] of which he was an "early admirer" and whose techniques he used aspects of but never fully adopted.[4] Perle's former student Paul Lansky described Perle's twelve-tone tonality thus:

Basically this creates a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches which then function as a tonic note or chord in tonality. The system similarly creates a hierarchy among intervals and finally, among larger collections of notes, 'chords.' The main debt of this system to the 12-tone system lies in its use of an ordered linear succession in the same way that a 12-tone set does".[6]

In 1968, Perle cofounded the Alban Berg Society with Igor Stravinsky and Hans F. Redlich, who had the idea (according to Perle in his letter to Glen Flax of 4/1/89[citation needed]). Perle's important work on Berg includes documenting that the third act of Lulu, rather than being an unfinished sketch, was actually three-fifths complete and that the Lyric Suite contains a secret program dedicated to Berg's love-affair.[4]

After retiring from Queens College in 1985, he became a professor emeritus at the Aaron Copland School of Music.[4] In 1986, Perle was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Wind Quintet No. 4 and also a MacArthur Fellowship.[4] In about 1989 Perle became composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony, a three-year appointment. It was also around this time that he had published his fourth book entitled The Listening Composer.

He died aged 93 in his home in New York City in January 2009.[4] He was subsequently buried in Calverton National Cemetery. On his headstone are inscribed the words "An die Musik".[3]

A growing number of younger artists have come to express their appreciation for Perle.[citation needed] In the run-up to his 100th birthday celebrations the composer-pianist Michael Brown released a well received CD of a sampling of Perle's work for piano.[7]

Perle was married to the sculptor Laura Slobe from 1940 to 1952; the couple were members of the Socialist Workers Party.[8] His second wife, Barbara Philips, died in 1978. Perle married Shirley Gabis Rhoads in 1982.[9] He was survived by two daughters, and a stepdaughter.[9]


Richard Swift differentiates between Perle's 'free' or 'intuitive', tone-centered, and twelve-tone modal music.[10] He lists Perle's tone-centered compositions:

  • Sonata for Solo Viola (1942)
  • Three Sonatas for Solo Clarinet (1943)
  • Hebrew Melodies for Solo Cello (1945)
  • Sonata for Solo Cello (1947)
  • Quintet for Strings (1958)
  • Sonata I for Solo Violin (1959)
  • Wind Quintet I (1959)
  • Wind Quintet II (1960)
  • Monody I for Flute (1962)
  • Monody II for Double Bass (1962)
  • Three Inventions for Bassoon (1962)
  • Sonata II for Solo Piano (1963)
  • Solo Partita for Violin and Viola (1965)
  • Wind Quintet III (1967)

Selected publications[edit]

  • Perle, George (1962, reprint 1991). Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1992) [1978]. Twelve-Tone Tonality. University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1980). The Operas of Alban Berg. Vol. 1: Wozzeck. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1984). "Scriabin's Self-Analysis", Musical Analysis III/2 (July).
  • Perle, George (1985). The Operas of Alban Berg. Vol. 2: Lulu. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1992). "Symmetry, the Twelve-Tone Scale, and Tonality", Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), pp. 81–96.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lansky, Paul (2009) [2001]. "Perle, George". Grove Music Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.21345. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Perle, George (2007). "Biography". Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  3. ^ a b George Perle at Find a Grave
  4. ^ a b c d e f Kozinn, Allan (24 January 2009). "George Perle, a Composer and Theorist, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  5. ^ Perle 1992, p. [page needed].
  6. ^ Chase, Gilbert (1992). America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, p. 587. University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-06275-2.
  7. ^ Schweitzer, Vivien (11 May 2014). "Paying Homage, Vivaciously and Somberly: From Michael Brown, an Evening of George Perle". New York Times. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  8. ^ "Guide to the Laura Gray Political Cartoons GRAPHICS.013". Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  9. ^ a b Pasles, Chris (31 January 2009). "George Perle dies at 93; theorist and composer championed atonal music". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  10. ^ Swift, Richard (Autumn 1982 – Summer 1983). "A Tonal Analog: The Tone-Centered Music of George Perle". Perspectives of New Music. 21 (1/2): 257–284 (258–259, 283). doi:10.2307/832876. JSTOR 832876.

External links[edit]