Stitching Together a Life

Within biographical accounts of the life and career of George Rochberg, authors have understandably focused on the impact of the premature death of his twenty-year-old son, Paul, on his musical language and philosophical embrace of humanism as a new direction for postwar music. But as a scholar whose work explores the impact of World War II on musical creativity, I found myself drawn to another traumatic experience within the composer’s life: his service as an Army infantryman in the European theater. What might we learn—both about Rochberg specifically and about artistic responses to trauma—if we retrained our focus on this earlier experience?

Most scholars (including myself) had assumed that his combat service was with the 261st Infantry Regiment, based on three musical pieces written during his basic training service at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. When I contacted the National Archives to confirm this basic detail, I met with my first roadblock: Rochberg’s official service files had been destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. After inquiring with the State of New York (another dead end), I made my way to the Army War College to speak with an expert in military history. He provided me with the Order of Battles for the 261st Infantry, a chronology of their important battles and known stopping points. More inconsistencies presented themselves. For example, Rochberg had mentioned he had been wounded in Mons, France in early fall 1944, but the 261st had never seen combat in that region. Was it a case of faulty memory, or was my guiding assumption about his service incorrect?

Paul Sacher Foundation, archive and research center for 20th and 21st century music in Basel, Switzerland

To answer the question, I journeyed to the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, Switzerland, where Rochberg had deposited the majority of his personal papers. Clues surfaced in unlikely places: the dates and locations noted in his military sketchbook; the handwritten date in a book he received while recuperating from a serious injury in a British hospital; the scenic descriptions embedded in two fictional stories he wrote on the front; the names of soldier friends remembered in his love letters to his wife; the vivid flashbacks recorded in his journal nearly fifty years later. Armed with a new trajectory, it became clear he had been wounded in the Falaise Gap, most likely near Mons, Belgium – an area that had been trafficked by the 357th Infantry Regiment, not the 261st. My hunch was confirmed only at the end of my stay in Basel, as I opened some of the final boxes of uncatalogued material. There, tucked away in the bottom of the penultimate storage file, was his decommissioning file for Company “C” of the 357th Infantry regiment, which had been assigned as a replacement company to the 90th Division of Patton’s Third Army from Camp Shelby.

Why does any of this matter?

Because sometimes the circuitous research path yields more insight than any simple confirmation would. Even if I had never stumbled upon the official file and been left only with my hypothesis, my broad search advanced my own conceptualizations about the impact of trauma on his later compositional and intellectual work. Personally, I also like to think that it drew us together in the process.

In my book, the tale that unfolds is stitched together from bits and pieces drawn from published interviews, oral histories, unpublished correspondence, love letters, photographs, military documents and maps, music sketchbooks, marginalia, and scraps of papers strewn throughout two continents. It is a quality I believe that the collagist composer might have found amusing.


This guest post was written by Amy Lynn Wlodarski, associate professor of music at Dickinson College.

George Rochberg, American Composer
Personal Trauma and Artistic Creativity
by Amy Lynn Wlodarski
Hardback / 9781580469470 / £56.25 or $74.25

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