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The Problems with Rozsa and Lanza?

In response to an ongoing thread at SOLO HQ (to which I contributed more recent comments here and here), artist Michael Newberry takes me to task on my views of composer Miklos Rozsa and singer Mario Lanza. I respond at SOLO HQ here, but duplicate those comments for my Notablog readers below. I make additional comments here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Comments welcome, but readers may wish to join the discussion at SOLO HQ.

Update: I've initiated a discussion of the question of "artistic integrity" at the Miklos Rozsa forum. Start here.

Playing with fire, eh?

The thing I find most objectionable in your post, Michael, is this assertion: "The problem that I see is that Chris doesn't know about artistic integrity and he insists to call people with an understanding of it or people that have it snobs. That is unjust."

I will admit to not knowing enough about the technical aspects of painting and sculpture, for example, in order to make an informed judgment about an artist's integrity or technical brilliance. I can only tell you what I like in these arts, and my tastes vary from Michelangelo to Monet.

But in music: I'll gladly play with fire. I've studied music, played an awful violin, taught a course on the history of jazz, and have been surrounded by musicians my whole life (including a virtuoso jazz guitarist brother, a terrific jazz vocalist sister-in-law, and a couple of professional opera-singing cousins). I spend every day of my life listening to music. I have eclectic tastes that range from the great classical compositions to contemporary R&B; I have a musical palette that makes room for Beethoven, the Blues, and the Beatles. Even among My Favorite Songs, one will find composers and artists from Puccini, Haydn, and Bach to Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, and Led Zeppelin.

So, let us begin.

First, Michael, look carefully at the paragraph you quoted. When I spoke of snobs, I was speaking primarily of the "avant-garde" of the 20th century who embraced "silence" and "traffic horns" as music, and who then condemned people like Miklos Rozsa because his music was too "melodic" and of another era. They were right. It is melodic, and it is of another era, and like many who still captured Romanticism in their music, Rozsa spent a lot of time composing for film (and this was not his only sphere of composition).

I am astonished to read that you have neither the patience nor the goodwill to discuss Rozsa in-depth, but to assert, as you do, that he lacked artistic integrity, is simply that: an assertion. Plenty of people work for hire and take direction: If an architect is hired to build a gas station, he builds a gas station---not a gymnasium---according to his own vision; and if the vision of the architect matches the needs of the customer who pays for it, a gas station is built. If a painter is hired to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his artistic integrity is not being violated because he has a limited canvas and must adhere to a religious theme. Rozsa matched the needs of the director who paid for his compositions, but he had mega-guts in never sacrificing his artistic integrity, his vision, in composing the pieces for the screen that remain among the most formidable achievements in film scoring ever written. And his wonderful concert works were composed for some of the finest instrumentalists of the 20th century, including Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman, who both celebrated the Rozsa legacy.

You can say you don't care for Rozsa's work. You can even tell me that you don't like my artistic tastes. C'est la vie. But to tell me that I have no understanding of artistic integrity is remarkable on the face of it. We have different tastes, Michael. But the chief difference is: I don't belittle the achievements of a Leontyne Price (whom I love), or many of the great classical composers (whom I also love) as a means of celebrating the achievements of people in jazz, R&B, or film scoring.

And many classical musicians don't feel the necessity to belittle the achievements of, say, their brothers and sisters in jazz either. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin played a magnificent classical piece; but he bowed before the improvisational genius of violinist Stephane Grappelli, and in all the albums they recorded together, Menuhin (who played transcriptions) couldn't say enough about the artistic integrity of Grappelli. Violinist Itzhak Perlman said the same about jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Classical pianist Jean Yves-Thibaudet said the same about jazz pianist Bill Evans. He even recorded a tribute album to Evans, based on transcriptions of Evans' solos, which Thibaudet himself likened to Ravel, Debussy, Chopin, and Rachmaninov. And many classical opera stars stood in awe of the vocal genius of Sarah Vaughan, who was often called the jazz world's "Leontyne Price." These classical artists, and many others, celebrate the deep rhythmic and harmonic complexity of jazz (and jazz-influenced composition too: in the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Eddie Sauter, and Michel Legrand, to name a few). And such classicists, more often than not, cannot duplicate the improvisational genius they see at work within that genre. And, as an aside, that improvisational genius is on display in most cases, in concert halls and clubs, where the same formula as the opera house applies: "no retakes, ... no stalling, no charm can help you if you mess up."

As for Lanza: My original article on Mario Lanza clearly and unequivocally dealt with the tragedy of his life. In fact, the whole Cesari book that I reviewed is subtitled "An American Tragedy." That book and my review most certainly did not brush aside the tragedy: it was the whole point of the project.

But for what he did achieve, I can only say: Bravo, Derek McGovern.