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University of Georgia

Trauma, Anxiety, Belatedness, and Sonata Structure in Rochberg’s Second Symphony

I interpret George Rochberg’s Second Symphony (1955-56) as a narrative of trauma, anxiety, and belatedness through a hermeneutic reading of sonata form. This analysis emerges through: (1) a biographical account that situates the work as a reaction to World War II, (2) an understanding of influential anxiety cast within a “myth of serial tyranny,” and (3) a philosophy that associates Rochberg’s compositional style and theoretical prose with a generalized notion of belatedness.

For Rochberg, serialism captures the “cultural vacuum” caused by World War II (he was drafted during that conflict)—it was the modernist language that best portrayed the trauma of war. In the Second Symphony (the first major American dodecaphonic composition), I interpret his 12-tone writing, his theorizing about it, and his application of sonata form as an organizing structure through Bloomian-inspired readings of anxiety. Composed as a continuous large-scale sonata with subsections (including a sonata first movement), the Second Symphony’s background and an interpretation of thematic content clarifies readings of the form. Combining the sonata principle with his implementation of row forms to delineate formal boundaries (and his generally curious treatment of the series) points toward the past; it reminds one of the practices associated elsewhere (such as the Second Viennese school, his studies with Dallapiccola, etc.).

Weaving together these strands of form, serialism, trauma, anxiety, and belatedness leads to a hermeneutics of sonata structure underexplored in the scholarly literature. By being belated, Rochberg’s Second Symphony encourages us to approach form, as culturally informed listeners, from multiple pathways.


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Dickie Lee is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. Before that, he was a Limited-Term Assistant Professor at UGA and also Lecturer of Music Theory at the University of Colorado. He received his PhD from Florida State University in 2017 and his Master’s from Temple University in 2013. His research areas focus on music and meaning and agency.

Dickie Lee

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