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Musical Portraits – Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers by Paul Rosenfeld
Tastes change. Fashion is changing. Assumptions, through which each new era interprets its aesthetic prisms, change, but often unpredictably as we push the limits without being aware of their control. Maybe it’s called culture, and maybe we’re all trapped by its inherent commercial pressure. And we only rarely notice changes in our ability to respond to stimuli, often surprisingly when we draw our experience from a different culture, a different aesthetic, and perhaps another time. This is precisely why examining criticism from the past can be so rewarding and, in a way that writing in its contemporary world, can be challenging. This was the kind of experience that oozed from every page of Paul Rosenfeld’s Musical Portraits.
These “Commentaries of Twenty Modern Collectors” were published in 1920, having previously appeared as occasional pieces elsewhere. A hundred years later, of course, the first challenge is the meaning of the word “modern” in its title, especially when the list of presented collections begins with Wagner and ends with Bloch. Personally, I have nothing against classifying Bloch as “modern” in the 1920s, but the inclusion of Wagner certainly defies the definition, since he had been dead for over 35 years.
But reading Rosenfeld’s text, one quickly realizes Wagner’s involvement. For the author, Wagner’s work bridges the gap between the feudal world and the modern world. His influence and influence were still so great, his achievements still considered so important, that this work of critical evaluation began only in his name. Rosenfeld sees his musical dramas as manifestations of a new industrial age, describing the unprecedented power of the new coal-fired civilization.
Strauss, Richard, of course, comes next. A pure genius, he is at least judged on the evidence of his early symphonic poems, which approach the realization of the Nietzschean dream with colors that suggest impressionist painting. By the time we get to Salome, however, she has become “a bad composer”, “once such an electric number, so lively, so talented” has turned into one “sad, outcast and stupid”. Rosenkavalier is judged as “lonely empty and flat and blue, without joy or blue”. One must remember that this was 1920 and that Richard Strauss still had more than 20 years left in his creative life.
Mussorgsky’s “Wonderful Oscillation” was an expression of the true essence of Russian folklore, culture and rural life. Liszt, on the other hand, offered work like “satin dresses that hide ugly, boneless cheeks”, “designed by the pompous and classical Palladio, but in neck and other cheap materials”. The effect was alive, but the substance was close to zero.
Berlioz, on the other hand, grew up. His music was considered barbaric, radical and revolutionary, “next to which so much modern music is lacking”. He was the first to write directly for the orchestra as an instrument.
Cesar Franck is at pains to devote a good part of his chapter to the discussions of Saint-Saens. However, it can be appreciated that the author judges his work more than that of this more famous composer, who seems to be only looking for increasing opus numbers. Franck’s music itself is seen as an expression of the silent majority, those who feel “abandoned, alone and powerless”, the army of social workers. The basis of this is that Franck himself had to work for a living.
Claude Debussy, by contrast, already seems to Rosenfeld to have achieved the status of a god, so exalted in terms of aesthetics and other human achievements, that he cannot be considered to have ever composed a bad note. The piano of this most perfect living musician becomes “satin and licorice”, his orchestra glows “with flickering flames… delicate violets and silvers and rose colors”.
Ravel is something of a problem child, certainly impressive, but his judgment is not entirely to be trusted, no matter how interesting he is. “Allowed to remain in all his masculinity, the child we all were,” he seems to receive a pat on the head to encourage him to try harder.
Borodin, a proud true nationalist, suffered from “false nobility”. But his music, like an uncut and uncut piece of porphyry or malachite, is perfect in its natural, unpolished state. Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, is simply ornate and beautiful, but also absurd, while Rachmaninoff offered a production that was “very soft and gentle and elegantly elegiac, just very dull”. It was the music of the pseudo-French culture of the upper class of Saint Petersburg.
Scriabine, however, “awakened all his hidden animality at the piano”. He wrote music that “straddled the border between ecstasy and agony”, perhaps bittersweet for humans. But Stravinsky was the ultimate realist. A product of industrialization, he produced “huge masses of heavy metal, molten piles and sheets of steel and iron, glistening adamantine coils.” The emotion in his music was so real that one could smell the sausages being cooked in Petrushka’s showroom.
Four contemporary “German” composers are dismissed entirely, Strauss bankrupt, Reger grotesquely pedantic, Schoenberg intellectually polluted and Mahler banal, even though only two of the four were actually German. In particular, Mahler’s scores were “sadly weak, often harsh and banal”. Much of Rosenfeld’s criticism seems to stem from an inquisitive distrust of Mahler’s sincerity in converting from Judaism. Reger’s music, the author judges, is unlikely to attract a revival, and the composer himself is described as “a bloated, myopic, thick-lipped, slurred-voiced mouse who has eaten on the organ couch.” Let’s say no more. Schoenberg is a sad being, formalist and intellectual. It smells of the laboratory and involves listening to some abstract scholastic demands. We still discuss music.
Of course, Sibelius personifies nationalism, Finnish nationalism. As it emerges from its dominion under the Russian yoke, the Finnish identity suddenly realizes that it has a beautiful landscape, meadow and forest.
Loeffler, amazingly, keeps a full log. Maybe it has something to do with his choice to live in the United States. Ornstein will be a name that may be unfamiliar to 21st century music lovers. At the time, he was a 25-year-old talented pianist who was beginning to compose difficult and intense compositions. And finally Bloch is credited with putting non-European and Eastern influences into Western music. He is praised for his preservation of his Jewish identity and culture, which suggests that Mahler might have received a milder criticism if he had not rejected the faith and thus allowed those authors to equate the composer’s clarinet writing with klezmer. .
In the words of Paul Rosenfeld, opinion often presents a sloppy show, mixing prejudice and observation and prejudice with insight. He describes his appreciation of these twenty composers through the distorting lens of his aesthetic, derived from the assumptions of his own age. When we read this short and detailed work, we quickly realize that we do the same. Only the language and introduction are changed.
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