Manuel Rosenthal (b. 1904)
A MEETING WITH MANUEL ROSENTHAL
How did you come to composition?
M.R.: Rather by chance. When I was seventeen I was a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire and I had already written some pages to which I did not attach much importance. With ink and paper… it is so easy to compose. At this time I was studying the violin in Jules Boucherit’s class. My teacher had had the good idea of setting up an examination in January, organized in the same way as the test at the end of the year. We had to play a set work, then a piece chosen from three, and to sight-read something. One of my friends, who appreciated my first attempts at composition, suggested to Jules Boucherit that he ask me to compose the sight-reading work. The idea amused me; I agreed and one evening wrote a little piece. I thought nothing more about it until, some weeks later. I received a letter from the Societe Musicale Independante, an association that had an executive committee of Maurice Ravel, Sergey Prokofiev, Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, announcing that my Sonatina for two violins and piano was among the works on the programme of the 100th concert of the S.M.I. I was thunderstruck… Persuaded that it was a joke, I immediately called the friend who had been at the origin of the work. He knew nothing of this letter and then asked Jules Boucherit, who admitted that he had been the one who sent my score to the S.M.I. My sonatina was played and after the concert I met Nadia Boulanger, who gave me great encouragement. My career as a composer really began…
What was your position in the aesthetic debates of the period?
M.R.: I was very early interested in everything that was going on. The period was a rich one for all the artistic disciplines and I was quickly introduced into the circles known as “avant-garde”. As far as concerns Les Six, I thought there was a certain exaggeration in the attitude of these artists - but on the other hand I was attracted by their spirit of freedom, in spite of the weaknesses of their compositions. They brought in a little fresh air.
What was your opinion of Claude Debussy?
M.R.: By chance I had discovered him very early on. I remember one week- end having read through the score of Pelleas on a little harmonium. There was there a language that was very new but that did not break completely connections with what had gone before. I found that formidable technique and a very disciplined imagination was needed to make a true revolution. It was at this moment that I became involved with Debussy. He remains for me the model of the free musician who does not dismiss the past nor deny the spirit of the country in which he was born, his position as a French musician.
And of Maurice Ravel?
M.R.: Until I was twenty-two, in spite of all the encouragement I had received, I hesitated to dedicate myself to composition. I had the impression that I lacked the equipment for this. It was Maurice Ravel who really ordered me to devote myself to it. But he was similarly at the origin of my career as a conductor. One day when I was at Monfort-L’Amaury for my composition lessons, Ravel was late. He explained that he had spent the morning with those in charge of the Pasdeloup Concerts and had asked them to devote one of the programmes of the following season to my compositions. I was mad with joy. Then he told me that I would conduct the orchestra. That seemed to me impossible; I had never been in this position before. I then passed terrible months, asking myself how to behave with a hundred musicians in front of me, what I should do, what I should say to them …The day of the rehearsal came. Shaking, I began to work with the orchestra. Then the break came. I stepped down from the podium and found myself in the presence of Rene-Bhaton and Desire-Emile Inghelbrecht, both of them permanent conductors of the Pasdeloup Orchestra. “How long have you been conducting, young man?”, Inghelbrecht asked. “One hour”, I answered. “Very well … go on all your life, you are made for it”, he said.
Why did Ravel choose you?
M.R.: Ravel did so much for me, spoke so much about me, that one day I asked him why he was attracted to my music. He answered: “I believe you have outstanding melodic gifts”.
From the point of view of musical language, did Ravel allow you to show something that was only yours?
M.R.: Here and there he had some important things to say. I remember, for example, having one day received for one of my works the congratulations of a publisher who advised me to give priority in my future scores to whatever contributed to my own originality so that one could easily recognise the composer. When I reported this to Ravel, he was very angry and told me to forget this advice: “Never try to pin down what they say is your character. If you have one, it will be clear in spite of you”, he told me.
And in orchestration? Did he show you his secrets?
M.R.: Knowing Ravel’s genius as an orchestrator, I thought I was going to learn very quickly the secrets of this art. He made nothing of it. It took me two years, in fact, to understand what orchestration was. And I understood when I thought about Ravel’s ideas: one day he had compared for me the art of orchestration to that of a magician.
Coming now to the orchestral works and songs on this compact disc. It is a sort of musical portrait of Rosenthal the composer.
M.R.: Yes, in fact. It is a thing that gives me great satisfaction in this recording. In the space of little over an hour it gives a very complete idea of my work, with, in addition to the songs, orchestral work that is restrained and colourful, Les petits metiers, a work for full orchestra, and Musique de table. This last belongs to a category that is little exploited, the concerto for orchestra. In this composition, under the pretext of a Pantagruellian meal, one hears the instruments of the orchestra as soloists, in sections and all together. It is a very difficult score, intended to underline all the instrumental possibilities of sonority and virtuosity, and I am very satisfied with the interpretation offered by the Orchestra of Nancy which has brought out certain details much better than other groups: I think, for example, of a wonderful tuba. I performed this work first with the Orchestre National. Then the BBC Orchestra played it … after having refused to do so, arguing its great difficulty. The same thing happened with the New York Philharmonic. I then suggested that they should hear the Orchestre National…They finally accepted.
Basically, the listener who enjoys a concert knows nothing of the complex life of an orchestra. He has in front of him an “enterprise” of a hundred people who live together for one sole thing, music. This is perhaps the moral lesson of a concerto for orchestra such as Musique de table.
Les petits metiers is an earlier work?
M.R.: Yes. It dates from 1933. Originally it was a suite for piano commissioned by Magda Tagliaferro that I later orchestrated. In this score I have put my memories of the urchin I once was in the streets of Paris. They were full of the songs of the trades-people, glazier, knife-grinder and so on. But I did not forget the wet-nurses who fed the new-born children of richer families, the soldiers or the little telegraph-boys, urchins of twelve or thirteen years old who carried telegrams by bicycle. In short, all those little trades that favoured exchange between people and contributed to a very French and very cheerful atmosphere.
And the vocal works?
This programme shows my interest in the voice in three different ways. First the Deux poemes de Jean Cassou belong to a collection for which I had the idea, the Album Musical de la Resistance, in which I asked some of my friends in the resistance to set poems.
In quite a different spirit are the three songs on poems by a friend, Marie Roustan. These poems are very urbane, very light, but I took particular care with the orchestration.
As for the three Prieres courfes, they cultivate a reduction in the use of the orchestra in order to bring out the meaning of the text. Apart from my stage-works, these give a complete over-view of my vocal compositions.
Hannah Krooz and Frederic Castello
English version by Keith Anderson