Franz Rosenzweig and Religious Music

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Franz Rosenzweig and Religious Music


Wolf, Arnold Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


IT IS ALMOST LUDICROUS TO THINK OF THE GREAT FRANZ Rosenzweig as a mere reviewer of phonograph records. The author of the masterpiece "Star of Redemption" can hardly be conceived of as a journeyman music critic for a semi-popular magazine. But he was, at least for several years toward the very end of his life.

That, too, defies expectations. As Rosenzweig lost more and more of his physical powers to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), to which he finally succumbed in 1929, he could communicate (through his wife) only with eye movements. And precisely then, apparently, he light-heartedly evaluated a number of performances heard in the new medium of the phonograph recording. Rosenzweig was early in recognizing the importance of the new form and, despite his enormous physical limitations, he wrote convincingly of these innovations.

The physically present public is no longer a circle, no longer a community, but rather a representative of humanity--it is this precisely in its colorful and haphazard combination. Its spatial expansion to the hundreds of thousands who share in the listening to the radio, its temporal expansion to the future listeners of the phonograph record that was recorded at the performance--this expansion is only the legitimate conclusion of the development that arose with the building of the first public concert halls and with the creation of the first works that were suitable only for them. (117)

Syracuse University Press has favored us with three volumes translated from Rosenzweig's Kleinere Schriften of 1937 and Zweistromland, published in 1984. Some translations are crucial interpretations of his major themes; some, like the reviews found in the Kasseler Tageblatt of 1928-29 are more peripheral, but, in some ways, all the more fascinating. It is delightful to follow Rosenzweig reacting to the great classics of (mostly German) music and to remember his courage in listening and describing them as he lay burdened by paralysis, hearing the music in his own sickroom concert hall.

As a record evaluator, Rosenzweig's taste stands the test of time. He saw in "Papa" Haydn not the genial minor talent that many of his contemporaries did, but the true founder of modern chamber and symphonic music. He recognized that Mozart, an incomparable genius, was too individual and ethereal to produce imitators, so that Beethoven follows not upon him, but after Haydn (who, of course, outlived the later-born Mozart). At the very beginning of the era of phonograph records, Rosenzweig already prophesies its future significance to bring music like the greatest of Beethoven's string quartets into every home for the repeated listening it requires.

There is the E-flat Major Quartet, op. 127, played (as also the Quartets in B Major and C Major) by a quartet in which one hears the bliss with which it plunges into the sea of inconceivable beauty. If only a company would decide also to produce the four younger siblings of this work, opp. 130, 131, 132, 135; it is the noblest and ultimately also the most gratifying task in the entire field of phonograph records of chamber music. (120)

For Mozart, with Rosenzweig's impeccable taste only the highest praise is sufficient:

If Mozart stands outside the line of development, that means in this case simultaneously: above the line of development. Certainly [this is so] in the case of the three symphonies of the summer of 1788. The smile of the E-flat Major Symphony, which glistens through tears; the tragic melancholy of the G Minor Symphony that is present in all the movements, even the minuet; the serene radiance of the C Major Symphony--no jubilation, no power, no ecstasy of Beethoven's symphonic work can rise above it. (146)

His interpretation of Schubert is even more remarkable in the early twentieth century, which saw in Schubert an untamed native talent, full of potential and full of melody, but decidedly inferior to his contemporary, Beethoven. …

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