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Moritz Rosenthal - If Franz Liszt Should Come Back Again

If Franz Liszt Should Come Back Again
An Interview Secured Expressly for The Etude with the Famous Piano Virtuoso and Liszt Disciple

Biographical Note

Moritz Rosenthal was born in Lemberg, Poland, December 19, 1862. His musical instruction began at the age of seven, with a local teacher named Galath, who was a viola player. His talent was immediately noted and ere long he commenced to study with Chopin’s famous pupil, Mikuli, who was then head of the Lemberg Conservatory. At the age of twelve he became a pupil of Joseffy in Vienna. His debut occurred in Vienna in 1876. His success was instantaneous, and after a tour of Roumania he was made Court Pianist of Roumania when he was fourteen years of age. From 1878 to 1879 he studied with Liszt at Weimar and Rome. In fact, he was associated with the great Hungarian master much of the time until 1886, when Liszt died at Bayreuth. He studied with him from 1884-1886. Feeling that a good classical training was necessary in his work as an interpreter, he studied at the Staats Gymnasium in Vienna and at the University, where he was a pupil in philosophy under Von Zimmerman and Brentano and in esthetics under Hanslick. In 1884 he appeared again in Vienna amazing the public and the critics with his enormous technical achievements. His high intellectuality and long study of esthetic values have given him a wide reputation for his masterly interpretations. In 1912 he was made Kammervirtuoso for the Emperor of Austria. Mr. Rosenthal is a cousin of Mme. Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler. His compositions are mostly for the pianoforte, the best known being his “Butterflies” and his wonderfully ingenious arrangement of the “Minute Valse” of Chopin (Opus 64, No. 1).


moritz_rosenthal.jpgHas Piano Playing Progressed in the Modern World?

“Anyone who had the great good fortune to study with Franz Liszt for any considerable period was so captivated with the marvelous individuality of the man, his wonderful musical gifts, his memorable playing and his vigorous mentality that the mere mention of the name conjures up a picture of one of the few really great masters in the long history of musical art. Listz’s (sic) playing was supreme in its day. He usually exhausted all of the superlatives of the critics; and with this naturally grew a kind of halo that I of all people should loathe to dispel. Art, however, is truth; and the artist is one who sees clearly, hears clearly, understands clearly and portrays clearly. All that I may say hereafter is done with heartfelt recognition of my personal debt to my master, but at the same time in the interests of the tone-art.

Liszt, if he lived today, would probably be the greatest of living pianists. His powers and his genius would make him that. But the Liszt that I heard, in 1876 and thereafter, and came to know as my friend and my teacher, has been surely equalled, if not surpassed, in technic and tone by several pianists of the present.

Liszt Would Delight in Advance

“If Liszt were living now, he, with his broad grasp, would be among the first to recognize this; and he would immediately set about to place himself at the top. Naturally, around a great man there grow traditions, legends and one might almost say superstitions. Liszt, himself, was thoroughly human in every sense. He was a man, first of all; an intensely human, thoroughly brilliant man, with a leaning toward religion, occultism and the mystic, but quite as mundane in some ways as any of the rest of us.

“If Liszt should return to us now he would be not only surprised, but also delighted with the tremendous advance in musical art—particularly in piano playing. He would be amazed at the great number of virtuosos. He would be fascinated by their musicianly tone and he would be astonished at the tempo with which certain of his compositions are ordinarily played in our concert halls.

“Take, for instance, Liszt’s own Don Juan Fantasie, considered by some to be among the most difficult compositions ever written for the piano. In the Champagne Song it was the custom to play much slower than the air is sung upon the stage. When I was twenty-two years old I played this for Liszt and he marveled at my speed. If I should play it to-day at the same speed as I played it then, people would think me to be very cautious—perhaps losing my powers.

“If Liszt should return now and come to America, he would stand amazed at the great demand for music in the new world. He would be amazed at the numerous fine halls, the music schools springing up everywhere, and it would delight the soul of this most progressive of all true and great pianists.

How Liszt Identified Genius

“What Liszt would say of the musical modernists is hard to tell. It must be remembered that Wagner had no greater champion than Liszt, when most of Europe was laughing at the works of that transcendent genius. Liszt’s penetrative mind realized the enormous genius of Wagner when others were deaf to it. At the same time, Liszt was not to be fooled. He was able to distinguish between great genius and men who merely pretended to be geniuses. He would want to “land” somewhere and not feel that he was forever staggering or swooning. Yet, I say, he would see the beauty in Debussy and Scriabine; and, with his penetrative mind, he would see the beauty before anyone else.

“There is much music to-day which I am sure Liszt could never grasp, because it is written outside the pale of human musical comprehension. A great genius—a Michelangelo, a Velasquez, a Corot—has a God-given sense of determining the permanent, the immortal in art. Liszt had this in music, and that is why he regarded some of his own original compositions, which had the note of immortality, higher than he did his numerous piano arrangements, written around other men’s immortal melodies to suit the musical market of the day. Of course, a great many of these arrangements, transcriptions and fantasies have become part of the most valuable pianistic literature of the concert platform. Yet Liszt would be delighted to see artists of the present day playing more and more of his original compositions. Fortunately, in recent years this has been the case. Few composers since the time of Liszt have approached him as a composer for the piano.

Superior Methods of Study

“The music student of to-day does not have to work in the way in which many of the students of my day were obliged to work. The whole matter of pianoforte education has been very much more carefully systematized through graded courses of study. The pedagogical methods are infinitely better. Thirty years ago, the teacher told you to bring this or that piece for your lesson. After you had played it you were told it was either good, bad or indifferent. The teacher’s parting injunction was, ‘Now practice hard; and come again in a week and I’ll hear you play it.’ Very seldom the teacher played the piece. There was little in the way of analysis, little in the way of the careful development of detail, little in the study of the harmonic construction of the work.

The pupil was dosed with technic in much the same way. There were the notes; what did one have to do but play them on the right keys in the right time. That constituted the average lesson. Of course, there were exceptional teachers, but they were few.

Students Now Able to Accomplish More

“The advance in the demands upon all who play the piano has been so enormous that the student has to work to-day almost four times as hard as when Liszt held his master classes at Weimar. But the student to-day, by means of better pedagogical methods, is able to accomplish so much more. He has so many other helps which are of value to him. The number of concerts is one thing. In Liszt’s day the really great pianists could be counted upon the finger of one hand. When one had enumerated Liszt, Chopin (marvelous genius, but restricted in his pianism though his physical weakness), von Bülow, Rubinstein and Tausig or Henselt, it was difficult to go farther.

Arm Weight in Tone Production

“Another advance that Liszt would notice, if he were to attend a succession of recitals at Carnegie Hall, is the occasional employment of arm weight in the production of singing tone. This I attribute to the influence of Rubinstein, who developed it more and more in his playing as he advanced in age. Rubinstein used his arms much more than Liszt in this respect. The beauty of the result is indisputable, but has not been adopted universally.

The Syncopated Pedal

Liszt would also be filled with the keenest pleasure by witnessing another advance in piano playing. I refer to the general adoption of the syncopated pedal, that is, putting down the damper pedal after the note is struck rather than when it is struck. Only in this way can a beautiful cantilena be preserved in melodic passages. Liszt knew of this. However, it was not widely used until the last twenty years. It has made a vast difference in the beauty of piano playing generally; and I consider it the most distinctive differences between the piano playing of forty years ago and of to-day.

Liszt would also be immensely gratified to find musicians, on the whole, giving a great deal more attention to general culture. Liszt was a broad-gauged man who saw the unwisdom of superficiality. He was cultured; and by culture he did not mean a few accomplishments, but, rather the serious study of the important problems of life and art.

Dr. Hanslick and Pure Music

“The emotional side of music made a strong appeal to Liszt. At the University of Vienna I studied for some time with Dr. Eduard Hanslick, the influential author of many works, including, On Musical Beauty: A Revision of the Esthetics of the Toneart. Hanslick was born in 1825 and died in 1904. Like many music critics, he studied music itself for a time, with a master, in his youth (Tomaschek); but never was a professional, practicing musician, in the larger sense. He surrounded himself with iron-clad theories of beauty, so thick that he could not see out to view the beauties of Wagner. I was repelled by his theories and left him very soon. Therefore I do not find myself in accord with Hanslick in any way. His theory—that music is ‘Ein Reihe Bewegte Tone’ (a range of moving tones), like the little bits of colored glass in the kaleidoscope, and nothing more, is hopeless to me. He tried to make the world believe that beauty in any musical masterpiece had nothing to do with any emotions, but lay in the musical tones themselves. This takes away the whole significance of music.

“Music is the expression of the emotions through a serious and gorgeously beautiful medium. Behind every melody there is the soul of a great personality. By the melody you can judge the greatness of the master’s emotional stature. It is the surge of a colossal heart and mind. So it is with Beethoven and Chopin’s music. It is the emotions of Beethoven and Chopin interpreted in tone. Hanslick would have us believe that music is recreated by the interpreter as an artisan puts together a mosaic, every stone in its place. Yet, in music, the interpreter recreates every time he plays, and his recreation depends not merely upon his digits or upon his mental conception of the piece, but also upon his emotional sympathy and understanding of the creator’s life and mood and inspiration.

“Thousands have read Hanslick’s works, which were translated into many languages; but I beseech the readers of The Etude not to be misled by them as was their author when he said, “The few flowers of the later Beethoven are surrounded by a contrapuntal picket fence.” Any theory that leads to such a conclusion as this, or that the B Minor Sonata of Chopin has only one really enjoyable movement—the Scherzo—had better be avoided. Far safer was the ideal of Liszt—a musical mentality beside which Dr. Hanslick was a pigmy.

Liszt Would Have Been Delighted

“As I have said, Liszt would be delighted with the modern use of the pedal. In some modern music, with its whole tone scale and its augmented chords (which by the way are trumped out before us as novelties, when Monteverde discovered them and Chopin and Wagner knew and used them judiciously) the pedal is sometimes used for ‘atmosphere.’ The result, only too often, is a fog as opaque as any of which London ever boasted. One must be extremely cautious of the pedal in such works, and also in polyphonic works, such as Bach, where a blur or a smear follows the confusion of tones.

“I rarely use the middle pedal on the grand piano. In fact, I find that very few pianists employ it. Very much the same effect may be obtained by depressing the damper pedal a very short distance. That is, the chords in the bass are sustained while those in the treble are not.

A Target for Amateurs

Liszt was bored by indifferent playing of any sort. His commanding position naturally made him the target for the world. He was forced to hear many very terrible amateurs. I recollect one instance of a Countess who had a son who persisted in playing the Chopin Valse, Opus 64, No. 1 (Minuute [sic] Valse), over and over again, until Liszt dreaded the sight of him. He played the Valse fairly well, and Liszt was at a loss to know how to get rid of him without insulting the Countess, with whom he was very friendly. He asked me to play immediately after him my own arrangements of the Valse, in which the famous first theme appears in thirds and sixths and is combined with the second theme in one movement. This is done in two ways: First the cantelina theme is in the left hand and the running theme in the right and then this is reversed. This multiplies the difficulties of the performance about ten times, to the average pianist. The young man listened to my arrangement of the Valse, with his mouth open, and never again bothered the master with his amateurish performances. Liszt summoned me very often afterwards to play this study for him and his visitors with the words: ‘Do play us now your Chopin with sauce piquante á la Rosenthal.’”


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