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Composer, Teacher George Perle Dies At 93

American composer George Perle, a respected theorist, teacher, author and eloquent advocate for atonal music, died at his home in Manhattan Friday, Jan. 23. He was 93.

Although Perle embraced the 12-tone compositional formula devised by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century, he developed his own take on the method. That gave his music its own style — at turns lyrical, thorny and witty.

"My definition of 12-tone music is not the same as those people who think that 12-tone music needs to be atonal," Perle told NPR in 1993. The composer explained his own sound in his book Twelve-Tone Tonality, published in 1977.

Perle also wrote extensively about Viennese composer Alban Berg, another early adopter of the 12-tone method. In the 1960s, Perle was among the first to discover that Berg's unfinished opera Lulu was actually more complete than anyone had previously thought. Largely due to Perle's discovery and advocacy, the final act of the opera was completed (by Friedrich Cerha), and the full three-act version received its premiere in 1979.

Perle earned the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1986 for his Wind Quintet No. 4. That same year, he was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Perle was born in Bayonne, N.J., in 1915. He began his musical studies at DePaul University in Chicago in the 1930s, and with the distinguished Austrian-American composer Ernst Krenek in the 1940s. After a stint serving as a chaplain's assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII, Perle finished his music degree at New York University.

Perle became a successful teacher himself, holding positions at University of Louisville, University of California-Davis and eventually the City University of New York, retiring in 1985. His book Serial Composition and Atonality, published in 1962, became a well-known music-conservatory textbook for studying the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Anton Webern.

Perle harbored no fear of writing challenging music, as he told NPR. He said that if he liked it, everyone else should like it, too — a view that might be viewed as stubborn, naïve or both.

"I don't understand the business of trying to be accessible," Perle said. "When I write a piece, I write a piece that I like and I want to hear, and that I think will be fun to listen to and fun to play. That's all you have to think about."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.