The culture war takes many forms—or, perhaps, we should say that the war has many fronts, and that the musical conflicts arising from this war are significant ones.  Thus, we are convinced, when we approach a car that delivers a pounding reverb of bass, that the driver is not only cultivating a hearing loss that will solve one of his problems but committing an act of aggression and making a political statement by asserting such aural ugliness in public.

Ugliness has been a principle of modern art for quite some while.  There was a time when ugliness, or at least the affectation of novelty, was regarded as an attack on civilization, as, for example, at the premiere of Le sacre du printemps in the Paris of 1913.  Nowadays, we may have to consider the possibility that beauty might also be a weapon, or a threat, to established order.  Not long ago, I read about the manager of a mall in California who eliminated an infestation of hostile teenagers by piping in some classical music.  The mall rats fled like rats.  A few days later, I was rather astounded to emerge from my vehicle at a strip mall, only to hear in those bleak, unlovely, but at least empty environs the sound of the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54.  I figured someone had read the same news item I had—and, by the way, nice composition, that: It goes just great outdoors on the concrete and the asphalt with Toyotas and Hondas and Nissans and pizza slices and bagels and lottery tickets and trash cans.

To close the gap between our environment and the music that is displaced in it, we would have to go back in time somehow to grasp the 19th-century sensibility; and, if our vehicle cannot be Wells’ time machine, then I do not know a better way than through Mitchell’s and Evans’ new book about Moriz Rosenthal, whose account of a nearly vanished cultural abundance is broad, varied, and convincing, and not only in matters musical (though, of course, for Rosenthal, piano music is primary).

Born in 1862, in what was then Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Moriz Rosenthal was soon studying with Chopin’s most important pupil, Karol Mikuli.  Not long after, the family moved to Vienna so the boy could work with Rafael Joseffy, who had studied with Liszt and Tausig, and later he studied with Liszt himself.  In his early days, Rosenthal seemed to have been a second Tausig, a master of technique and a powerhouse of strength and energy.  But the flash factor was always modulated by the subtlety of rhythm and color he had absorbed from Mikuli and Joseffy, and by his native intelligence and taste.  His travels and his encounters with Anton Rubinstein, Brahms, Mahler, Busoni, and many others, he wrote about himself.  The letters, essays, and reminiscences that have been gathered by Mitchell and Evans amount to an autobiography supplemented by elaborate and scholarly chronologies, notes, and a discography.

These pages are also graced by a Preface by Charles Rosen, that eminent pianist and writer who was, at a young age, a pupil of Moriz Rosenthal.  Rosen has not only the memories of his experiences but the perspective to understand those memories of a man who played “like a gentleman.”  Rosen remembers sitting between Rosenthal and Josef Lhevinne at one of the last Carnegie Hall recitals by Josef Hofmann, and then being backstage with all three of them.  I myself relished learning of Rosenthal’s criticism of Von Bülow’s tempo some 60 years before at a certain point in the fourth movement of the Chopin B minor Sonata, as I can well remember hearing Rosen play that piece superbly.  (I was sitting next to the daughter of a pupil of Busoni when I heard it.)

Rosenthal was more than a great performer.  He was a man who interrupted his career in order to study classics and philosophy, who spoke many languages, and who was a waspish wit, delighting in disputation.  There are many instances of great humor and irony in his reflections, but I think also that there is, in another key, some awareness of the dialectic of history.  Rosenthal had to leave Europe in the late 30’s to escape the new barbarism and died in 1946 as an American citizen.  The pattern of his life and the shape of the new dispensation had not escaped his notice—and about that, he did not joke.

He thought that something noble had vanished from Europe and the West, and he said so, identifying a turning point in World War I.

Among the many splendid things that the war killed, it killed the idea of personal bravery, of personal heroism. . . . The throb of splendor, of heroism, attendant upon the hazards of personal encounter in war, fell into the discard with the arrival of shrapnel and tanks.  And a “tank and shrapnel” philosophy extends beyond the battlefield into every human act.

The spirit of postwar cynicism had crept into music making as well.  How was the romantic repertory to be expounded in an alien and contradictory environment?

We know something about Rosenthal’s answer from the old shellac recordings he made in the 20’s and 30’s, and even the 40’s, some 17 of which are included on a CD that comes with this volume: The vivid sound images add much to the fullness of the 19th-century legacy.  Rosenthal’s Chopin Mazurkas are revelatory in their rhythmic freedom and flex.  His Chopin Sonata in B minor has been deplored by some, but not by me.  I think it shows the structural thinking and the severity that put Rosenthal in a league with Busoni.  The Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2, is a superior performance, and the Etude in C, Op. 10, No. 1, is the greatest historical version of that piece, and maybe even the greatest, period.  These recordings and others will satisfy the curiosity that must be provoked by the opportunity here afforded; and, for that opportunity, we must acknowledge the informed and valuable work of Mark Mitchell and Allan Evans.


[Moriz Rosenthal in Word and Music: A Legacy of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Mark Mitchell & Allan Evans (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 185 pp., $36.95]