Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Charles Rosen at 80

A Reputation in Music Built as Much on Writing as Playing

by Stuart Isacoff
Wall Street Journal
Novemer 13, 2007

The Musical America Annual Directory, the classical-music industry's bible and award-giver, has just named pianist Charles Rosen "instrumentalist of the year." At age 80, Mr. Rosen might well wonder why it took so long. But the honor is unusual for another reason: It is being given to a man who is universally recognized as one of our most esteemed writers on music and culture.

If asked, he'll tell you that his great ambition from the start had been simply to play the piano. And recent concerts in New York and London of some of Beethoven's most difficult piano music drew reveries from the critics, who called his interpretations "poetic," "masterly," and "a lava-flow of invention."

Nevertheless, his formidable reputation rests as much on a lifetime of scholarly musings, artfully displayed in such books as "The Romantic Generation," "Critical Entertainments," "Sonata Forms," "Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen," "Arnold Schoenberg," "Piano Notes," "Romanticism and Realism," and "The Classical Style"-- the last a recipient of the National Book Award. (In a show of typical Rosenesque modesty, mention of the award elicits the proviso that one of the jury members resigned in protest over the decision.)

"I'll tell you why I started writing," he confides when we get together at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where he has resided since childhood. "It began with a recording I had made. On the record jacket, the record company printed an unfortunate quote about Chopin's Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, which said the music 'staggers drunken with the odor of flowers.' And for this Chopin Nocturne in B Major, in which the contrapuntal work is extraordinary," he says with a chuckle rushing to the piano to demonstrate the complexity of the composition by spinning out musical lines like partners in a multitiered conversation, "they quoted critic James Huneker, who called it 'faint with a rich, sick odor.' I thought that was all too silly, so I began writing my own liner notes. Then a publisher, who was told they were good, took me out to lunch and offered to publish anything I wanted to write. So we signed a contract."

Mr. Rosen's life story, in his telling, has been occasioned by other, similar moments of serendipity. His decision to pursue a Ph.D. in French literature at Princeton University is a prime example. "I always wanted to be a pianist, but 1 went to college because that's what a lot of my friends were doing. After all, I can't practice more than four hours a day, anyway. I didn't really care what I got a degree in -- I was too proud to get it in music, because I knew more music than most of the graduate students by that time, and I was a bit snotty in those days. It turned out that the most intelligent man in school was the head of the Romance languages department, so I took a degree in French.

"Then came a graduate fellowship," he reports matter-of-factly. "I could live on that at Princeton; and since I had a piano I was also able to practice every day. Once I got my doctorate, though, they threw me out."

Though he may make light of it, that rich background in language, as well as in art and history, frames the prose that has been critically hailed, as in a recent review by the Financial Times, for its "luxury of insight and cultural allusion." Any serious conversation with Mr. Rosen will find him running to the piano time and again to demonstrate a point; and any of his essays will likely be peppered with references not only to musicians, but also to poets, painters and literary figures. What other music expert, writing about 19th-century Romanticism, would reference literary critic Friedrich Schlegel, who first defined the term in 1798? Schlegel's definition-- which includes an embrace of everything in life animated by humor, a transcendence of easy categories, and a sense of sailing on the wings of poetic reflection -- seems, I suggest during our conversation, to fit perfectly the output of that eminent classicist, Mozart. "Well then," he responds, "you are in agreement with the greatest music critic who ever lived, B.T.A. Hoffmann, who called Haydn and Mozart Romantics."

That kind of intellectual arsenal puts any potential adversary on shaky ground. Indeed, in person, his weathered face, piercing eyes and husky bearing seem to signal two things at once: this is a man of experience and knowledge; and it would be best not to challenge him frivolously. Consequently, Mr. Rosen's minor dustups, such as the one he had with pianist Alfred Brendel in the pages of The New York Review of Books, can hold the same kind of guilty allure for observers as that experienced by drivers passing a pileup on the highway.

The argument with Mr. Brendel involved a highly technical issue about Beethoven's intentions in the final fugue of his late Sonata, Op. 110. "I can show you the music," he says, as once again we're off to the piano, and he deconstructs and reasons through various interpretive possibilities with impeccable logic. "I didn't want to argue," Mr. Rosen explains, "but I got annoyed, because instead of saying there are different ways of looking at it, he said, 'Mr. Rosen has misinterpreted.'" So the pianist responded with a scholarly analysis, and capped it off with a quote from Proust's grandmother, "who said there were three things she knew: how to receive guests; how to play a Beethoven sonata; and how to cook a steak with potatoes. The criteria were the same for each: a certain sobriety, modesty, lack of ostentation." Mr. Rosen plays down the incident, but the judgment of most musicians was that (as pianist Andras Schiff has put it) he won with a knockout.

Mr. Rosen's sights are not always trained on the historical past, however. He is an avid champion of contemporary music, especially that of Elliott Carter, who will be celebrating his 100th birthday next year. Indeed, he is participating in a Carter festival in Torino, Italy this coming January. Despite the risks involved, I pose a challenge: Mozart wrote of composing music that would appeal both to sophisticated musicians and to ordinary concertgoers simultaneously. Aren't contemporary composers like Carter, who produce incredibly thorny, complicated works, failing to live up to their responsibilities to general audiences?

A small smile forms as Mr. Rosen listens to my question. "You have to remember to whom Mozart was writing," he responds. "It was his father, who was afraid that Mozart would write avant-garde music that no one would like. But I understand what you are saying. The whole of what we call 'modernism' is, unfortunately -- and I do say unfortunately -- the best of the art we have in the 20th century. And it's very difficult for the amateur to appreciate. How many people actually read Joyce's 'Ulysses,' let alone 'Finnegan's Wake,' all the way through? The reason I have written about Mallarme is that everyone agrees that he is one of the two or three greatest poets of the 19th century. Yet his poetry is unintelligible to 90% of most college students in France.

"The problem is that with painting, if you don't like it, you go on to the next painting. With music, you have to sit there for 20 or 30 minutes listening to something you don't understand, and you resent it." However, this situation has precedents, he explains. "There is a letter of 1811 by Zelter, who became Mendelssohn's teacher, to Goethe, about a strange composer named Beethoven. People who heard his music for the first time, wrote Zelter, were horrified. Then they heard it again and they became passionate advocates, 'like advocates of Greek love.' He compared liking Beethoven to a sexual perversion! But the point is that they changed their minds. And they kept hearing it because the musicians kept playing it. The same was true of Mozart's music in Paris."

This would seem to offer a ray of hope for the lasting impact of modernist works. "But I don't know what will happen in the future," he concludes. "I never predict. I take things as they come."

For another article on Charles Rosen click here.

Mr. Rosen last performed at the PSU Piano Series (now Portland Piano International) in October 1996.

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