Romantic Music and Composition

THE VERY PHRASE ROMANTIC MUSIC AND COMPOSITION calls to my mind three virtuoso exponents of the piano, each of whom I got to know – albeit too briefly – with their idiosyncrasies, wit and wisdom during my last two tenures in the 1970’s of working 3 years each for orchestras in the States – namely, the Rochester Philharmonic and the Florida Philharmonic. I’ll be concluding this post with musical references to the latter organization.


First and foremost there was Claudio Arrau, followed closely in my tightly knit pantheon of Romantic pianists by Shura Cherkassky and Jorge (George) Bolet.

shuracherkasskyAlas, they are no longer with those of us who hunger and, indeed, hanker for music in the Romantic mold performed by consummate artistes who delve deeply into the very essence of the work at hand, be it a short prelude, a lengthy sonata, or a concerto.

Of course, there is a wealth of discography one may draw upon when in the mood for listening to Romantic music or a composition of the Romance era, but the ‘in-the-flesh’ experience of a live performance can rarely be replicated.


Beginning with Chilean-born Arrau (1903-91) – shown in the top picture – after he established his permanent residence in America in 1941, he was already a commanding and consummate pianist in Europe,  much in demand here in the U.S. when not traveling abroad on a demanding concert schedule. During his storied career, he achieved international respect for the stupendous extent of his repertoire and the high finish of his pianism.

Ukrainian-born Cherkassky (1911-95), that small, gnomic figure (pictured center above) who could seem unprepossessing and at times self-effacing, was considered one of history’s greatest pianists, as well as the last direct link to the Romantic piano tradition of Chopin, Liszt, and Anton Rubinstein.

Cherkassky overcame poverty, prejudice against his Jewish origins, and unhappiness from his ambivalence over his homosexuality to forge an impressive touring and recording career, an enormous musical repertoire, and an intriguing personality both on stage and off. From his sensational 1923 American debut tour to sold-out concerts on six continents, Cherkassky retained his brilliance throughout a seventy-five year professional career.

And, finally, there was Cuban-born Bolet (1914-90) – seen above right – who made his American debut in new York in 1933. He became one of five American musicians invited for a four-week tour of Western Germany as guests of the German Republic in 1954, the first time a foreign government served as host to American artists. He was best known for his performances of Franz Liszt, who happens to be my favorite composer as I write. Also, of the three pianists, he was the one I got to admire on a personal level, as he was a continuing presence in Miami, both as a performer and a broadcaster during my tenure with the Philharmonic. We’re seen together when I interviewed him for Miami’s The Fugue of January 1979.


Which leads me to my concluding piece on that institution……..

The excitement of spearheading the resurgence of the Florida Philharmonic is encapsulated in a half-minute video broadcast featuring the orchestra with myself at the keyboard just before the beginning of the 1978-79 Winter Season Concerts. Let me explain…..

At the time, I was much into George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F that he completed a year after his celebrated Rhapsody in Blue. It was commissioned by the New York Symphony Society, which introduced it under the direction of Walter Damrosch, with the composer as soloist, on December 3, 1925. As the new General Manager and a concert pianist to boot, I was persuaded by my British Music Director, Brian Priestman, to be a part of the musical ad by performing the opening of the concerto’s last movement, Allegro agitato, that starts with an ebullient orchestral eruption of color and percussive piano rhythm.

Afterword: Unfortunately, I never got to meet Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89) although I heard him on stage on several occasions. The last time – when he was down in Florida for a concert in Miami Beach – he was, sad to say, not at his best although his Scriabin selection still brought to the fore his deeply romantic interpretation of that composer’s music.

References: Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Wikipedia.

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