Since the early 1970s George Rochberg has been one of the most controversial figures in American music. His struggle to escape the strictures of serial composition, which he had 20 years earlier hailed as the logical and unavoidable result of musical development, led him to re-embrace traditional tonality and abandon the concepts of "originality" and "progress" which had defined modernism during the twentieth century. Born in 1918, Rochberg received a bachelor's degree from Montclair State Teacher's College and subsequently enrolled at the Mannes School of Music, where he worked with Georg Szell and Leopold Mannes himself. After serving in the military during World War II, Rochberg studied at the Curtis institute until 1947, when he received a Bachelor of Music degree. A year later he received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to the Curtis Institute to teach. Impressed by the power of serial music during a 1950 stay at the American Academy in Rome, where he befriended 12-tone composer Luigi Dallapiccola. Rochberg then began to explore twelve-tone procedure in his own music, eventually producing a string of expressive works in that language, including the Second Symphony, (1956), and the Twelve Bagatelles for solo piano, (1952). Also from the 1950s come a number of important theoretical treatises on aspects of twelve-tone technique, specifically the ramifications of what is known in modern music theory as the hexachord.
By the early 1960s Rochberg was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations of strict serialism, and his last truly twelve-tone work, a piano trio, was completed in 1963. Experimentation with quotation (i.e. the presentation of a snippet of older music within a newly composed framework), as in the Music for the Magic Theater, left Rochberg dissatisfied. With the Third String Quartet of 1972, Rochberg publicly rejected the musical status quo, returning instead to a thoroughly tonal idiom, juxtaposed with bitter, often violent atonal music. The slow movement of the quartet is a set of variations composed in a style reminiscent of Beethoven, while the finale seeks to replicate Mahler. While the quartet was hailed by some as a masterpiece. and as the best hope for music in the future, others were less impressed, seeing instead a motley compilation of stylistic cliches which added up to something less than the sum of its parts. Masterful performances by the Concord String Quartet, for whom many of Rochberg's subsequent chamber works would be written, did a great deal to promote Rochberg's new musical aesthetic. Subsequent works, often cast in staggeringly large molds, such as the 50-minute, seven-movement Piano Quintet of 1975, follow in much the same vein as the Third Quartet.
During his long career Rochberg served in a number of administrative and faculty positions. From 1951 to 1960 he worked for the Theodore Presser publishing house. He maintained a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania from 1960 until the mid-'90s.