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George Perle Theorist and Composer Championed Atonal Music Dies

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Scholar, theorist and composer George Perle, always highly regarded by his peers, began to draw wider public attention only after he won a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship in 1986. The American music theorist and scholar who was widely regarded as the composer who put a human face on atonal music, has died. He was 93.

Always highly regarded by his peers, Perle began to draw wider public attention only after he won a Pulitzer Prize -- as well as a MacArthur Fellowship -- in 1986 for his Wind Quintet No. 4.

“His music is a special language," wrote Princeton University composer Paul Lansky, “and while each piece sings uniquely and individually, his language is consistent, convincing and all his own. It reveals no sense of arbitrary abstraction, formalism or the whims of fashion. The notes are alive with a life, breath and purpose which only a superbly gifted musician can create."

New York Times critic Allan Kozinn wrote in 2005: “One thing that separated Mr. Perle from so much of the serialist pack was that his music, whether serial or not, is driven by a deeply expressive and often lyrical impulse."

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants May 6, 1915, in Bayonne, N.J., Perle grew up on farms in Wisconsin and Indiana. He discovered his calling with his first musical experience when he was 7--hearing his aunt play Chopin's Etude in F minor.

“It literally paralyzed me," he said in a 1985 New York Times interview. “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."

When he later told his parents that he wanted to compose, his mother said “that if that was what I wanted to do, I should do it."

He earned a scholarship to study at DePaul University in Chicago, and while there discovered the piano score to Alban Berg's “Lyric Suite" for string quartet. The event changed his musical life.

“I took it to the dormitory piano, and within the next five minutes my whole future direction as a composer was established," Perle told the Chicago Tribune in 1990.

“It had seemed to me that it was no longer possible to write music that was really significant, because the traditional means of harmonic progression and structure no longer worked." But Berg's piece showed that “a new musical language was developing that would be as integral to the chromatic scale as the major/minor system had been to the diatonic scale."

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