George Perle

George Perle (May 6, 1915 – January 23, 2009) was a composer and music theorist.


Perle was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. He graduated from DePaul University, where he studied with Wesley LaViolette and received private lessons from Ernst Krenek. Later, he served as a technician fifth grade in the United States Army during World War II. He earned his doctorate at New York University in 1956.

Perle composed with a technique of his own devising called "twelve-tone tonality". This technique was different from, but related to, the twelve-tone technique of the Second Viennese School, of which he was an "early admirer" and whose techniques he used aspects of but never fully adopted. Perle's former student Paul Lansky described Perle's twelve-tone tonality thus:

Basically this creates a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches which then function as a [[tonic (music)

In 1968, Perle cofounded the Alban Berg Society with Igor Stravinsky and Hans F. Redlich, who had the idea (according to Perle in his letter to Glen Flax of 4/1/89). Perle's important work on Berg includes documenting that the third act of Lulu, rather than being an unfinished sketch, was actually three-fifths complete and that the Lyric Suite contains a secret program dedicated to Berg's love-affair.

After retiring from Queens College in 1985, he became a professor emeritus at the Aaron Copland School of Music. In 1986, Perle was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Fourth Wind Quintet and also a MacArthur Fellowship. In about 1989 Perle became composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony, a three-year appointment. It was also around this time that he had published his fourth book entitled The Listening Composer.

He died aged 93 in his home in New York City in January 2009. He was subsequently buried in Calverton National Cemetery. On his headstone are inscribed the words "An die Musik."

A growing number of younger artists have come to appreciate Perle as a composer ahead of his time. In the run-up to his 100th birthday celebrations the composer-pianist Michael Brown released a well received CD of a sampling of Perle's work for piano.

Perle was married to the sculptor Laura Slobe from 1940 to 1952; the couple were members of the Socialist Workers Party. His second wife, Barbara Philips, died in 1978. Perle was survived at his death by his third wife, the former Shirley Gabis Rhoads, two daughters, and a stepdaughter.


Swift differentiates between Perle's 'free' or 'intuitive', tone-centered, and twelve-tone modal music. He lists Perle's tone-centered compositions:
  • Sonata for Solo Viola (1942)
  • Three Sonatas for Solo Clarinet (1943)
  • Hebrew Melodies for Solo Cello (1945)
  • Sonata for Solo Cello (1947)
  • Quintet for Strings (1958)
  • Sonata I for Solo Violin (1959)
  • Wind Quintet I (1959)
  • Wind Quintet II (1960)
  • Monody I for Flute (1962)
  • Monody II for Double Bass (1962)
  • Three Inventions for Bassoon (1962)
  • Sonata II for Solo Piano (1963)
  • Solo Partita for Violin and Viola (1965)
  • Wind Quintet III (1967)

    Partial bibliography

  • Perle, George (1962, reprint 1991). Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1978, reprint 1992). Twelve-Tone Tonality. University of California Press..
  • Perle, George (1980). The Operas of Alban Berg. Vol. 1: Wozzeck. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1984). "Scriabin's Self-Analysis", Musical Analysis III/2 (July).
  • Perle, George (1985). The Operas of Alban Berg. Vol. 2: Lulu. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer. California: University of California Press.
  • Perle, George (1992). "Symmetry, the Twelve-Tone Scale, and Tonality", Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), pp. 81–96.