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Charles Rosen, 1927-2012

By (December 16, 2012) No Comment

Charles RosenThe life of a concert pianist is fraught with anxiety. He or she must contend not only with some of the greatest and most difficult music ever created, but the unforgiving judgment and changing taste of the public and its critics. One must be born with talent, begin studying as a child, and have the will to practice like a Russian gymnast. The great energy required to stand out tends to make shut-ins out of those fortunate enough to succeed. Glenn Gould gave up the public stage as soon as he could. Vladimir Horowitz disappeared for years at a time. Martha Argerich no longer feels safe enough to perform solo repertoire. And when Sviatoslav Richter finally allowed someone to make a documentary about him, he was already near death. Few pianists leave any writings (Artur Rubinstein, an anomalous raconteur, left two volumes of chatty memoirs), and fewer still branch out into other arts. One exception is the recently retired Alfred Brendel, who writes often about music and composes mischievous poetry in German. The other is Charles Rosen, who died on December 9th at the age of 85.

Rosen was a polymath: not only a fine pianist but a teacher, scholar, and writer who took joy in explaining music and literature to his students and readers. Born in 1927, he started music lessons when he was four, and at the age of 11 he left Julliard to study with Moriz Rosenthal, a legendary virtuoso and one of Franz Liszt’s finest pupils. (Liszt, in turn, was a pupil of Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven.) Rosen also studied music theory and composition with the Austrian composer Karl Weigl, and at the age of 23 he made his New York concert debut. At the same time he was pursuing a more traditional education. Rosen had graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1947 with a dual bachelor’s degree in music history and romance languages. Afterwards he studied in Paris as a Fullbright scholar, earned his MA at Princeton, and then went back for a PhD in French literature, which he received in 1951 – the year of his New York debut. He would go on to teach at MIT, Stonybrook, Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford, and the University of Chicago.

The Classical StyleCompared to some of his peers Rosen’s recorded legacy is small, but still precious. Perhaps his greatest pianistic gift was clarity, which made him ideally suited to the polyphony of Bach, the complications of late Beethoven, and Schoenberg’s pointillist neuroses. He made the first complete recordings of Debussy’s etudes, Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto, and many of Boulez’s piano works. His rendition of Bach’s Art of the Fugue is still among the greatest on record, as is his recording of the last five Beethoven sonatas.

Writing came to Rosen by accident. He was disgusted with the sleeve notes to an early Chopin recording, which described one of the nocturnes as “staggering drunken with the odour of flowers.” “I had many thoughts about the piece,” he told an interviewer for the Guardian. “That was not one of them. So I started writing the sleeve notes myself. People liked them and after a while a publisher took me to lunch. Before he even offered me a drink he said he would publish whatever I’d like to write.” His literary debut was The Classical Style, a brilliant study which won a National Book Award and is still the most popular book on the subject.

Rosen followed The Classical Style with books about the sonata form, Schoenberg and the Romantics. He was a great critic, writing regularly for the New York Review of Books about music, literature and art. His prose was sharp and witty, and like his piano playing, clear and inviting. Rosen’s last monograph was the wonderful little Music and Sentiment, which I reviewed earlier this year. In it he wrote that “the greater and the more profound our experience of music becomes, the more we expect the performers to create more than just a pleasing sound, but to move us by illuminating and setting in relief what is most significant in the musical score.” His best recordings did that, and his prose did, too. They will do the same for future generations.