Welcome to

   Pianonoise!

"Last year I gave several lectures on ‘Intelligence and the Appreciation of Music among Animals.’ Today I am going to speak to you about ‘Intelligence and the Appreciation of Music among Critics.’ The subject is very similar."

--Erik Satie

 
    Home    About     Listen     Site Index     Godmusic     Blog  012 < >












The Sunshine Composer Answers His Critics....
(the music of Moritz Moszkowski)

picture of Moszkowski "I took my first step before the public in my earliest youth", writes Moszkowski, "following my birth, which occurred on  August 23, 1854. I selected this warm month for the event in hopes of a tornado, which also plays so prominent a part in the biography of great men. This desired tempest, in consequence of favorable weather, did not occur, while it accompanied the birth of hundreds of men of much less importance. Embittered by this injustice, I determined to avenge myself on the world by playing the piano...."

By the time Moszkowski penned these words in 1886, the myth of the mad genius was at its height. Beethoven had died during a thunderstorm, shaking his fist at the heavens, according to legend, anyway, Schumann had spent his last years in an asylum--it was even claimed that a violent rainstorm accompanied Mozart to his grave (probably not true). People seemed to need to associate violent upheaval with creative genius; flights of passion, after all, are what constitute greatness, right?

It's a very Romantic notion, and it did not serve Moszkowski all that well. If he had been born in the age of Mozart, this relatively even-tempered maestro might seem more a product of his age.  But rationalism was on the out, emotionalism was the current that measured artistic endeavor, and composers all over Europe were turning out dreary, ponderous symphonies of great length and deadly seriousness, trying to prove themselves heirs to the great Brahms who was beginning his last decade, lucky to have achieved the acclaim of all Europe while still alive, and of whom a critic said, rather unkindly, that "when [Brahms] is in a really fine mood, he sings 'the grave is my joy'."

One could argue that this misrepresented Brahms entirely, a man who had recently turned out two symphonies of a very cheery nature, but it cannot be argued that the most famous works of Beethoven during the 19th century (and even today) were those relative few in which he was most serious, most "heaven-storming," and that Brahms, trying to emulate his great predecessor, had felt the need when trying his hand at the symphony for the first time to write a work of much gravity. Throughout the next century, composers would try their hand at works of great 'depth', or at least somberness, and frustrated conductors would keep asking for something the public would more easily appreciate.

Moszkowski could have led by example. He became known as the "Sunshine Composer." Much of his music is lighter, wittier, and less pretentious than that of his contemporaries, and for much of his life he had a strong following. That following did not include many critics, however, particularly when Moszkowski tried his hand at works like the Symphony or the Concerto; pieces which had become the epitome of length and ambition. Here is some critical 'acclaim' for his Piano Concerto:

"[the themes of the piano concerto] are too slight, its workmanship too facile for a concerto. There is grandeur, there is delicacy, there is abundant cleverness, but more than this is needed in equipment when one composes a piano concerto the first movement of which takes up more than 100 pages of ..score..."

"The concerto...may perhaps be no great work, but it is sure to become popular"

"We do not expect heaven-sent inspirations from Moszkowski, and his latest work does not disappoint"

Taken out of context, these remarks seem entirely wounding to pianist who was making such a popular stir. It should be noted, however, that these reviewers also do two things. They are quite detailed, and honest, about the triumphant impression that Moszkowski was making with the public--one critic noted that "if it had been recognized that he was another Wagner or Beethoven the enthusiasm could hardly have been more deeply expressed."   And they are often impressed themselves, with the tunefulness, the geniality of his works, with his formidable pianistic technique, and with the picture of  "a composer who writes as he feels, who never strikes attitudes...but aims at charming our senses with melodious, euphonious, and artistically-made music."

What they nearly unanimously decide is out of his reach is the ability to deeply stir the soul. The concerto, they assure us, will probably not leave a permanent mark.

 
Looking back from a hundred years in the future we have to concede that they were right. At least, mostly. Moszkowski's concerto did nearly disappear without a trace along with the rest of his output almost with his death. That it can now be found in several recordings is as much because the increasingly crowded field of classical pianists is looking for something to record for their small public besides the Beethoven Sonatas for the umpteenth time as it is because of the music itself.

But they were correct in their praise as well. Moszkowski's music is often tuneful, cheerful, and a fine antidote to the pitiless gravity that characterizes so much of the 'great' piano literature. When it came to writing a piano concerto, however, a thing which in his time had come to resemble an epic saga in which a larger than life pianist-hero tries valiantly to subdue a powerful, snarling orchestra, his contemporaries felt that he had overstepped his boundaries. He could write disarming, short piano pieces, but the piano concerto required the mentality of a titan, not a charmer.

There is a sense in which this overwhelming proclamation of his age is merely a prejudice. After all, Mozart would not have considered the concerto to require a Hercules of either the listener or the performer. It was only after Beethoven that the symphony and the concerto became the grandiloquent, weighty statements at the summit of all creative works. But Moszkowski, it must be said, himself submitted to this prejudice. His concerto is several hundred pages in length and 40 plus minutes in performance. It is just the thing to listen to if you've had a rotten day, the first theme in such good spirits that it does sound as though, in the words of one critic, that here was a man who never truly suffered. But it is also too long.

I myself do not play much Moszkowski, though I will probably learn more. Some of it is infectious. It is hard to escape the sense that the music will never be able to say something of ultimate importance, however. Moszkowski was made aware of this shortcoming more than any other by his critics. He responded, perhaps, by trying his hand at a few symphonic works and the concerto, either because he too felt compelled to see whether he could demand more of his talent in this regard, or simply because in those days everyone was writing symphonies.

 
He also responded with wit and humor. It is not necessarily the wit of a man who was not stung by criticism, but if he was affected by it, he also seems to have accepted his critic's remarks and gone on with his life and his art. In response to a request for the piano concerto, he writes these amusing words, cryptic enough that it is hard to tell how much of it is a shield against the world's barbs, and how much of it is Moszkowski enjoying the role of  a satirist:

"I should be happy to send you my piano concerto but for two reasons: first, it is worthless, second, it is most convenient (the score being four hundred pages long) for making my piano stool higher when I am engaged in studying better works."

The Maestro could also dish it out in fine fashion. Having a tremendous technical ability, he rarely missed notes, but was said to play coldly and without passion. A contemporary, Anton Rubinstein, played the piano with a great deal of fire, abandon, and, it must be said, inaccuracy. At one of Rubinstein's concerts, Moszkowski turned to a friend and said "Anton must be sick tonight. He got two of those top notes right!"

Eventually, Moszkowski's music went out of style, which meant that he would soon run out of money. The Etude magazine, once a popular organ for conservative music making in America, made an impassioned plea to send money to help the aging pianist. Beethoven died poor, the argument ran, Schubert got no financial help and his poverty hastened his end--if you'd had a chance to help these great men, you would have, certainly; here is your chance to do something for a genius while he is alive!  Moszkowski's friends, meanwhile, organized a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring 18 pianists in solos and in groups. For the finale, they had to get a conductor to mold all of those soloists with their fine egos into an ensemble of pianos, something that was common to 19th century concerts but is rarely heard today. It must have made quite a noise.

Moszkowski might have been amused.

 

The European maestro, who did not attend the New York concert, died before any of the money could reach him. His friends could never persuade him to tour America. Most of the biographical information above comes from an informal monograph in the Peabody library by Williard Luedtke, an enthusiastic admirer of the composer, who mourns the passing of the man's music by 1975 when the book was written. However, there now are a number of available recordings of his music, if there are far fewer books about the man himself.

                                                                                                                                 

michael@pianonoise.com