Charles Rosen, ever refining our approach to the arts of the past
By Michael Dirda,
Is there a more cultivated man alive than the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen? Years ago, at Cornell, I heard him play Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” to a packed audience. In 1972, “The Classical Style,” his incisive study of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, deservedly won the National Book Award. In 1995 “The Romantic Generation” — originally presented as the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard — applied the same precision of thought and analysis to the work of such concert-hall mainstays as Schubert, Liszt, Chopin and Berlioz.
But Rosen isn’t just a music man. With Henri Zerner, he brought out “Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art,” its chapters ranging
from “Caspar David Friedrich and the Language of Landscape” to reflections on the influence of academic art. Whether he scrutinizes a painting, a piece of music or a work of scholarship, Rosen nearly always uses his findings to build a larger argument or critique a flawed enterprise. He is particularly drawn to questions of canon, reception and audience — which isn’t surprising given his long tenure as professor of music and social thought at the University of Chicago. The pianist, after all, does have a PhD — in French literature.
As if recording, scholarship and teaching weren’t enough to occupy him, Rosen also regularly appears in the New York Review of Books. There he writes not just about music and art, but also about literature, reflecting on new editions of Rousseau and Sade, the genius of Montaigne, the poetry of La Fontaine and Mallarme, the career of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the American years of W.H. Auden.
All these last named literary essays appear in “Freedom and the Arts,” which brings together Rosen’s journalism from the past dozen years, along with a few pieces reaching back into the 1990s and even one to 1979 (“Resuscitating Opera: Alessandro Scarlatti”). The book also includes a half-dozen pieces about Mozart; long biographical appreciations of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Elliott Carter(whom Rosen justly reveres); judicious yet devastating reviews of “The New Grove Dictionary of Music” and Richard Taruskin’s six-volume “Oxford History of Western Music”; an examination of Theodor Adorno’s sociological music criticism; and several articles about opera.
However, Rosen opens and closes this essay collection with reflections on the artist and tradition, reminding us that revolutionaries are often far more deeply engaged with the canon than those who simply pastiche, in watered-down ways, its more obvious elements. Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky, he writes, “gave new life to the Western tradition while seeming to undermine its very foundations.” More surprisingly, Rosen worries that our current rage for rediscovering obscure composers and authors might swamp the canon with minor figures. “The history of music begins to collapse under the strain of too many works.” We simply “cannot look at every picture, read every book; critical evaluation is not so much ideological as practical. . . . Some of the past has to be suppressed for the rest to become visible.” He also points out, however, that to appreciate new music and literature, one usually needs to be exposed to it regularly: Much that initially sounds rebarbative or is read with difficulty will release its beauty and pleasure only over time.
In several essays Rosen emphasizes how much of our older serious music was never meant to be presented in a concert hall. Most of the early keyboard repertoire was intended for private or semi-private delectation. “Only two of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public during his lifetime.” Similarly, “Few members of the musical public today know that if we wish to experience Schubert’s song cycles as Schubert’s contemporaries would have heard them, we must imagine them as being sung to a few friends.” Certainly the deepest pleasure of music derives from an engagement with its making, by working through a printed score. One might argue that Bach’s “Art of Fugue” gives more satisfaction to those who play it than to those who hear it.
As Rosen stresses, up until the 20th century, many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own. Even symphonies were widely available in piano reductions for four hands. Such listeners were consequently grounded in an active understanding of the score. Alas, “learning to sing and learning to play the piano have been supplanted today by collecting records.” In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.
For Rosen, greater knowledge always brings greater pleasure. Consider: I once heard the elderly Arthur Rubinstein play a concert in Marseille. Many conservatory students were there, clutching pocket scores as they made their way to the cheap seats in the upper balconies. Early in the program, when Rubinstein was perhaps 20 seconds into a Chopin ballade, a youthful voice suddenly and loudly shouted out: “Plus vite” — “Faster.” Discourteous, yes, and Rubinstein never faltered or sped up. But that cheeky student was engaged with the music far more than the gently dozing audience.
Throughout “Freedom and the Arts,” Rosen stresses that a full appreciation of the arts requires “a juggling act that keeps the nostalgia of the past and the exigencies of the present in balance.” Take opera. All too often, he notes, contemporary opera productions misrepresent Mozart or Wagner by egregiously, often outrageously, modernizing the action and setting, usually in an effort to generate publicity or buzz. Nowadays, even the singers are upstaged by the set designer. “Rethinking the entire work to give it a novel meaning undreamt of before is the easier and cheaper route, but only speciously creative,” Rosen says. Instead, one needs to respect an opera’s “historical integrity and authority without necessarily insisting upon a routine repetition of the realizations of the past.” What we require is less attention to gimcrackery, and “new approaches that are sensitive to every detail of the music and respect the logic and sense of the dramatic action.”
Seldom does a book of essays so unashamedly champion study and scholarship as does “Freedom and the Arts.” Rosen buys expensive Oxford editions of the works of philosopher Francis Bacon; he enjoys (and sometimes critiques) the much-admired Pleiade editions of the French classics. Annotations, historical commentary and textual variants aren’t just clutter, he reminds us; they provide context: Serious editions lessen the alienness of older masterpieces, allow us to “reposition” them in their time and show us that even the greatest work “did not spring into the world a full-grown classic.”
Let me end by pointing out that Rosen practices what he preaches: When discussing pieces of music in “Freedom and the Arts,” he frequently illustrates his arguments by reproducing passages from their scores. He quotes poetry in French and German, but he does provide translations (often his own). In short, he expects his readership to be as cultivated as he is. It is a great compliment, as well as a shrewd pedagogical device. One finishes any book by Charles Rosen intellectually reenergized, eager to become a deeper reader, a more attentive museumgoer, a better listener.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.