Fortnightly Musical Review
Prepared by Richard Kitson
Online only (2018)
A rather unique music journal, The Fortnightly Musical Review [FOM], was published in fifteen issues by the French Printing and Publishing Co. in New York City from January 4 to November 29, 1928. All issues consist of eight pages printed in two column format. The editors David Barnett and Edward Robinson and three contributing editors (Stephen Berne, Thomas Glahn and Arthur Ulnic) create an extremely honest and penetratingly critical investigation of the current state of musical life in the major American metropolitan center at the height of the era of prosperity which followed the end of the First World War. These editors claim a conspiracy of silence, maintained in current circles of musical criticism, to be at the root of many problems perceived. Musical performance and criticism, they claim, suffers from the widespread belief that everybody possesses the insight to recognize excellence in music readily. A motto found in the Forward to the first issue, is taken from Robert Schumann, who admonished “the critic who dares not attack what is bad is only a half-hearted supporter of what is good,” best expresses the extremely critical tone of the journal’s attitude toward contemporary music criticism. Despite the frank critical stance of the journal, the important contemporary music critics Olin Downes and Samuel Chotzinoff praised the worthiness of the undertaking.
Each issue is organized similarly and contains one or two studies about the strengths and weakness of a particular composer or performer, and an editorial dealing with the problems of current musical life in the United States, all written by the editors; an article about a particular composition or a serious problem concerning the organization of musical institutions and their activities or about music education; columns featuring reminiscences or musings about popular musical compositions of the established repertory; and reviews of current concerts and operas and occasionally books about music.
The essays dealing with particular composers expose perceived weaknesses in compositional technique and the composers’ musical philosophies. A discussion of Maurice Ravel probes the composer’s lack of interest in portraying any deep, fundamental or disturbing human emotion and dismisses him as a stylist and a breeder of hothouse elegancies. Consideration of Igor Stravinsky as a composer is said to require complete revision of one’s aesthetic pre-suppositions and prejudices. A call for demonstrations against the modernistic, dissonant compositions of Alfredo Casella, Edgard Varèse, Arnold Schoenberg and Straivinsky is expressed openly. American composer of operas, Deems Taylor, is seen to use a musical language borrowed from Wagner and Richard Strauss, but realized as a disconnected, rambling jumble without tonal sense. George Gershwin, a punster turned poet, is denied the role of the long-awaited great American composer owing to his reliance on jazz and a patchwork of songs for the musical content of large scale compositions. Twentieth-century industrialism and creeds of materialism and cynicism bring defeat the Richard Strauss’ creative spirit. American composer and spokesman for the League of Composers, Aaron Copland, is seen as the creator of fine-sounding and glowing phrases about the utterly worthless music of Roy Harris, George Antheil and Roger Sessions.
Essays about performers probe any number of problems and weaknesses. Pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski’s fabled accomplishments which first enshrined his name are said to have vanished. Violinist Fritz Kreisler displays an anomaly in playing with a wonderful tone but with a lack of sensitivity bordering on vulgarity. Members of the Flonzaley String Quartet rely on long-since acquired polish and finesse to cover up fundamental deficiencies of weak tonal equipment. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky’s platform manner of insinuating elegance covers up his empty correctness of style and artistic limitations. Arturo Toscanini’s interpretations fail from a lack of interest in expressing those experiences which originally gave birth to the music.
Musical institutions are not spared from exposure of their deficiencies. The League of Composers is characterized as a worthless and parasitical organization existing in its inflated self-esteem. The merger of the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony societies’ orchestras raises considerable concern for the employment of musicians as does the creation of the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra, an outcome of the merger.
No defense or justification for the editors’ position is offered in the Valedictory printed in the final issue. Rather, the editors’ quarrel with the industrialization of the contemporary world and a society uncongenial to art in its highest manifestations is re-emphasized.