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The World of Maurice Eisenberg


By Maxine A. Colman

The expansive warmth and enthusiasm of Maurice Eisenberg reflect his conception of the real function of music. Mr. Eisenberg does not talk in terms of form or period--these he calls only the "vocabulary" of music--, nor does he dwell on esthetic doctrine. His concern is for the expressive power of the art which he describes radiantly as "the most potent means of communication between men."

This is also a sign of Mr. Eisenberg's serene self-confidence. He has been a pupil of Pablo Casals for forty-two years ("I will always be his pupil") and in fact lived next door to Casals in Spain for fourteen years. But although he talks as if the fire of his inspiration were borrowed from his master, it would be hard to imagine a more creatively independent personality.

Eisenberg has not polished away his American and Jewish backgrounds; he does not take culture for granted.

Indeed, he delights in remembering how atypical his early career was. "In my day, everyone was a child prodigy. They all had great teachers, and made debuts at the age of six." Eisenberg, on the other hand, although he was born into a musical family--his father was a cantor--did not start music lessons until he was nine. Even then it was the violin that he began to study. The reasons he recalls for changing to the 'cello are a mixture of pragmatism and romanticism: "There was only one violin, and I had to share it with my brother. The music teacher wanted to organize a quartet and needed a 'cello; also, one day I had seen a 'cello standing in a corner of my teacher's living room. For some reason I was attracted to it." So it happened that the violin teacher began reserving fifteen minutes at the end of each lesson for work on the 'cello.

Two or three years after the young musician won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the Philadelphia Orchestra dismissed all of its German players, among them a 'cellist. Leopold Stokowski happened to hear Eisenberg play, and engaged him. He was just fifteen, easily the youngest person ever to play in an American orchestra. "I had to lie about my age to get a union card," muses Eisenberg. "I said I was seventeen."

When he left the Philadelphia Orchestra he did not go to Europe but to the New York Philharmonic, again an exception to the rule. ("I had never thought of Europe. It was Casals who made me go.") Casals first heard the young man in New York and invited him to become his only pupil in Spain. Eisenberg finally made his debut in Paris at the comparatively advanced age of 26.

It seems as if the gods were on his side every step of the way, from the first 'cello in the corner. Perhaps this explains the fact that Eisenberg is a thoroughgoing optimist. When discussing the restrictions the USSR places on her artists, for example, he concludes, "But freedom as an ideal will seep through. They won't keep it out." American composers, he feels, are not expressive enough, for they still confine their ideas by imitating techniques. "But they will learn. Artists should be sent as ambassadors to enemy countries in order to break through barriers with music, an irresistible force in cementing human relations."

This is not to say that Eisenberg glosses over problems, but rather that as an activist, he thinks of them always with projected solutions. As a consequence of his emphasis on music as personal expression, he is especially disturbed by any role which presumes to mediate between performer and audience. Thus he feels that critics often know nothing about the music which they pretend to analyze after one hearing, and would rather have musicians give their own critical appraisals.

Eisenberg saves his most scathing remarks for those he calls "middlemen" and the commercialism that inevitably accompanies such a Renaissance in art as America is having. His solution is characteristically practical: federal aid to the arts. "Every other country has a ministry of Beaux Arts, and we can depend on our tradition of a free society to prevent attempts to control expression." "Besides," he adds with a chuckle, "everything else is subsidized by now."

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