Composer George Perle was born in Bayonne, NJ, May 6, 1915, though he grew up in farms in Indiana and Wisconsin (Kozinn 2009). His parents were both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and neither had any musical training; his mother was a housewife and his father was a housepainter (Cummings n.d.). Perle’s first exposure to music was when he heard an aunt play Chopin’s Étude in F minor. About this, he said, “It literally paralyzed me . . . I was extraordinarily moved and acutely embarrassed at the same time, because there were other people in the room, and I could tell that nobody else was having the same sort of reaction I was” (Kozinn 2009). When his mother told him he could write his own music, he realized this was a critical revelation that assisted him in finding his creative side (“Cummings” n.d.)
Perle’s earliest musical education was received in Chicago, and he studied composition with Wesley LaViolette DePaul University from which he graduated (“Biography” n.d.). After that, he studied privately with Ernst Krenek before World War II interrupted his studies while he served in the U.S. Army (“Biography” n.d.). When the war ended, he enrolled in the PhD program at New York University to study where he studied musicology, and his thesis was the inspiration for his first book, Serial Composition and Atonality, which is still published today (“Biography” n.d.). After graduating, he taught at a variety of institutions, including the University of California at Davis, the University of Louisville, Yale, Columbia, the state University of New York at Buffalo, and finally at Queens College of the City of New York where he retired from in 1985 (Kozinn 2009).
During his studies, he “discovered the composers of the Second Viennese School, particularly Berg, whose 1926 “Lyric Suite” represented for Mr. Perle a way around what he saw as the limitations of conventional tonality” (Kozinn 2009). He developed a form of his own that was related to twelve-tone tonality; Paul Lansky, a former student of his, described Perle’s technique as creating a hierarchy among notes of chromatic scales, so they all relate referentially to one or two pitches that then work as a chord or a tonic note in tonality. This system then creates a hierarchy in intervals, then in larger collections of chords and notes in the same way the twelve tone set does (“About” n.d.). About his own compositions, in an interview Perle said, “I’m a composer because I’m a composer” and does not believe that his work was in any way influenced by current or popular music, further adding, “I had a language and I developed it. Critics have found connections between my music and jazz. I didn’t look to put it in. It’s just not even an issue for me” (Holwin n.d.).
Perle is both a cultivator and an innovator, but leans more toward innovation. He was influenced greatly by the music of composer Alban Berg, of whom he was considered an expert, and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system (Kozinn 2009; Cummings n.d.). The essence of this method is as his student Lansky described, and also that Perle believed if the 12 notes of a chromatic scale are considered equally, there could be more “expressive possibilities” than with the seven note minor and major scales typical in Western music (Kozinn 2009). Kozinn adds, “The difference between Mr. Perle’s method and strict Serialism, though, was that he did not insist on predetermined and rigorously ordered tone rows (or note sequences). He was equally free in his use of rhythms and dynamics” (2009).
Perle received a Pulitzer Prize for his Fourth Wind Quintet (“About” n.d.). Some consider his best works to be Serenade No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, Wind Quintet No. 4, Six Études for Piano, and Critical Moments 2 (Kozinn 2009). Interestingly, Perle chose to “withdraw” some of his works from his body of music, mostly ones composed before 1970, including String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 6 and Symphony No. 3 (Kozinn 2009).
About George Perle (n.d.). Artists MTV. Retrieved 17 Nov. 2012 from http://www.mtv.com/artists/george-perle/biography/
Biography (n.d.). George Perle Official Homepage. Retrieved 17 Nov. 2012 from http://www.georgeperle.net/bio.html
Cummings, Robert (n.d.). George Perle Biography. Allmusic. Retrieved 17 Nov. 2012 from http://www.allmusic.com/artist/george-perle-mn0001439927
Holwin, Mic (n.d.). Those Were The Days. Or Were They? American Composers Orchestra. Retrieved 17 Nov 2012 from http://www.americancomposers.org/millen1.htm
Kozinn, Allan (24 Jan. 2009). George Perle, a Composer and Theorist, Dies at 93. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/24/arts/music/