Rosenthal was born at a time of the post-Romantic period where some composers held onto the traditional ways of the past, others struck out in new directions, and some tried to chart a course right between the old and the new. The French school, which was still a continuing force in music, held onto its influencing position, while the German school ended its supremacy—partly from the effects of World War I when Germany was severed from the rest of Europe, and also from the feeling on the continent that the German school reflected "an older time and age." This was the time when Manuel Rosenthal entered the musical scene, between the aging Romanticism era and the vibrant twentieth century.
Rosenthal began violin studies at the age of nine and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1918, at age 14.
His conducting career began in 1934, when he became a percussionist and associate conductor of the Orchestre National de France. Rosenthal's musical career was interrupted by World War II, when he became a prisoner of war in 1940. Upon his liberation in 1944, he returned to the Orchestre National de France to become their principal conductor, a post he would hold until 1947. His other later posts included music director of the Seattle Symphony from 1948 to1951 and music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Liege from 1964 to1967. Rosenthal also served as professor of conducting at the Paris Conservatoire from 1962 to 1974.
Manuel Rosenthal's skill in orchestration shows the hand and techniques of Maurice Ravel, his teacher, who combined a great proficiency in his technical command of harmonic and rhythmic resources into the art of orchestration. With that background, Rosenthal orchestrated "Histoires naturells," which were three of "Cinq melodies populaire grecques." The "Histoires naturells" was a tribute to Jules Renard, which included songs accompanied by the piano with sounds of birds and crickets clearly portrayed. Rosenthal also produced the "Book of Recollections" in 1895 from Maurice Ravel's 'Souvenirs de M12'.
Rosenthal's best-known work as a composer was the 1938 ballet 'Gaîté Parisienne', based on the music of Jacques Offenbach. Jacques Offenbach had an influence on Rosenthal especially in Offenbach's rich and dramatic way of telling a musical story. Rosenthal captured the lively can-can dances and the lyric romantic strains which Offenbach used to show the French public that he had the means to produce a sparkling kind of music which "the Mozart of the Champs Elysees" could produce. In the ballet, Rosenthal not only replicates the simple melodic lines of Offenbach but also his hint at melancholy through the means of the melodic line.
Rosenthal was known for his avid determination as well as his wild temper, and he may have reflected the tone of his teacher, Maurice Ravel, in combining attractive musical idioms with those of more sinister connotations.
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