George Perle was an American composer who forged his own highly personal style from Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Using some of the basic features from serial methodology, Perle combined them with certain elements associated with tonal music to fashion what has been called his "twelve-tone modal method." His Cello Concerto (1966) and Second Serenade (1968) are notable examples of this style. Perle also wrote works in what he viewed as a freer style, that still incorporated twelve-tone techniques, as in his 1958 String Quintet.
Both of Perle's parents were East European Jewish immigrants, neither with a background in music, his father being a housepainter and his mother a housewife. They took their family to Indiana in George's early childhood. Up to the age of seven, he had received no exposure to classical music. A relative from Russia, who was a good amateur pianist, then moved into their household and introduced him to serious music. While the experience was a profound one, it temporarily left the young Perle with a false impression: his female cousin had conveyed the impression that all music had been composed and nothing new was needed. His mother, however, assured him he could write his own music, and Perle later declared that this was a critical revelation, one that had helped to develop his creative side.
Perle advanced quickly in his childhood and teen years. He would go on to study composition with Wesley LaViolette from 1934 to 1938 at DePaul University. Following graduation, he took instruction from Ernst Krenek (1939 - 1941) and earned a master's degree at Chicago's American Conservatory of Music during that period. He would earn a doctorate at New York University in 1956. In 1949, he joined the faculty of the University of Louisville, where he would remain until 1957.
It was in 1937 that Perle was first exposed to Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, from examination of the score to Berg's Lyric Suite. Perle wrote some solo instrumental works during his student years: the Little Suite (1939) and Modal Suite (1940), both for piano, the Viola Sonata (1942) and the Three Sonatas for Clarinet (1943). His Rhapsody for orchestra, came in 1953, and the String Quintet five years later, shortly after he had taken a faculty post in composition at the University of California at Davis (1957). In 1960, he had composed his Fifth String Quartet and the following year his incidental music to Aristophanes' The Birds.
Perle joined the faculty of Queens College of the City of New York in 1961. In the early 1960s, Perle became a champion of the music of Alban Berg, attempting to complete the opera, Lulu, a task eventually taken on by Frederic Cerha. In 1968, Perle founded, with Stravinsky and Redlich, the Alban Berg Society. In the decade of the 1970s, Perle produced significant works for piano (Suite in C, 1970), Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani (1979), and other works in a variety of genres.
In 1985, Perle retired from his teaching post. The following year, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his Fourth Wind Quintet, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship. He remained very active, serving as composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony in 1989 - 1991. (He had been composer-in-residence three times earlier for the Tanglewood Festival: 1967, 1980, and 1987.) Later works included his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1991) and Transcendental Modulations (1993). In 1994, he served as Visiting Distinguished Professor of Music at New York University.