The Gate Is Open (on Charles Rosen, with Matthew Guerrieri)

NY Times obit by Margalit Fox.

2011 Guardian profile by Nicholas Wroe.

Articles at The New York Review of Books.

A big influence on my music writing is Charles Rosen. He’s bowled me over ever since I first read The Classical Style. Any time I’ve gotten really serious on DTM, the little voice in my head has said, “Is this as good as Rosen?”

From The Classical Style:

It is, in fact, with this fundamental triad that Beethoven attains his most remarkable and characteristic effects. At one point in the G Major Piano Concerto, he achieves the seemingly impossible with it and turns this most consanant of chords (into which all dissonance must be, be definition, resolved by the end of the piece) itself into a dissonance. In the following measures, almost by rhythmic means alone and without modulating from G major, the tonic chord of G major in root position clearly requires a resolution into the dominant.


The majesty and the excitement combined in bar 27 [The penultimate bar of fortissimo whole note in the above example] come from the fact that it is he fundemental chord of the piece that is being held for a full measure after being rendered unstable by the steadily repeated (and increasingly animated) movement into a D major chord.

Withholding the D major chord in measure 27, however, is the source of its power: Not only does the G major tonic chord sound unresolved, but reining in its resolution for so long even forces the beautiful resolution in the next measure beyond the D major chord to an A minor triad. The grandeur of the sonority comes from the use of only root positions for all the chords in measures 26 to 28 and the consequent purity and stability of sound in a phrase of extreme instability.

From The Romantic Generation, about “Ein Jüngling Liebt ein Mädchen” in Schumann’s Dichterliebe:

Taken by itself, this opens with a jolly swing to it, but only the first two bars have the character of a folk song, while the rest has a coarse air which is, like the poem, at once infectious and repellent. The tune is not only undistinguished, it is ostentatiously commonplace, with several deliberately awkward moments, like the end of the first stanza (bars 11 and 12); in the last stanza the repeated notes of the final bars of the vocal part (bars 29-31) are, moreover, positively ugly. Even if one puts a higher value on this song than I think is justified, it is clear that for Schumann it could not exist outside the cycle. It is, in its angular and banal insistence, a deliberately bad song, but magnificent in its place. Its coarseness makes Heine’s facetiousness more profound as well as more dramatic. Taken by itself it might be a comic parody: in the cycle, its comedy is not humorous but deeply moving, above all because it makes no concessions to grace or charm.

Madchen 1

Madchen 2

While posterity may end up deciding that Rosen was more valuable as a writer than as a pianist, the best of his records have an austure beauty. In many cases they were historically important: he gave recorded premieres of Stravinsky, Carter, Boulez, and even Debussy (the Etudes). The 1964 Liszt/Bartók recital is a sensational and impeccably programmed virtuoso turn (he must have been almost the first with the Bartók Etudes as well) and the 1967 Bach box included what I believe was the first really convincing recording of Art of the Fugue on piano.

The wildly talented Matthew Guerrieri also owes a debt to Charles Rosen. I asked him about Rosen in an email interview:

Ethan Iverson: You once told me in conversation that Charles Rosen was “the best.”

Matthew Guerrieri: I remember when I first read The Romantic Generation, I realized that, in a lot of ways, Charles Rosen was who I wanted to be when I grew up. (Never mind that I was well into my 20s at the time, and never mind that I never really grew up anyway.) It was one of those books that didn’t really change my mind about a lot of things, but instead crystallized an attitude toward music that I had been sort of trying to sort out for years: the idea that, not only is music inherently bound up in both its original context—the society and politics and thought of the time and place in which it first was created—and the context of its performance, but, in fact, that’s the best thing about music. It’s constantly a dance between the present and the past, and you can’t have one without the other. Music is like a historical seismograph, and if you know enough of the context, you can read it like a book—but, at the same time, you’re bringing it into the present, which has its own context, and creates its own layer.

There was also Rosen’s constant attention to the physical nature of music-making, the fact that it’s an athletic act in real time: that became a big part of my thinking about music, especially the more I thought about the relationship between modernism and new music and the overwhelming shift in music from live performance to recording. What you gain, what you lose, how that affects reception of musical styles, how it affects evolution of musical styles—this is all stuff I think about and write about all the time. A lot of the framework for it grew out of thinking about The Romantic Generation, especially the analyses of Chopin and Schumann.

EI: When was your first exposure to Rosen? What were some formative experiences with his canon?

MG: I read The Classical Style pretty early on, and, oddly, it didn’t make much of an impression on me at first. At the same time, though, my Carterphilia was metastasizing into the full-blown fandom it is now, so I wore out the library’s copy of the Double Concerto, and then moved on to that 1980s recording of Night Fantasies and the Piano Sonata. Then I got the Boulez complete Webern box, and that became an obsession of its own. I tend to jump around the canon in that sort of full-immersion way, and it was interesting how many jumps I would make only to find Rosen already there, as it were. Once The Romantic Generation entered my pantheon of obsessions, though, it never left. So I gradually got to know most everything else the man did.

EI: Have you read him all systematically or has it been a bit more casual?

MG: It’s been casual, although I think I’ve managed to read almost everything he wrote. (I still haven’t caught up with Music and Sentiment, I never got around to Romanticism and Realism, and I really need to re-read Sonata Forms, since I don’t remember a lot of it, though I’m sure I’ve been recapitulating its framework again and again. A re-read of his book on the Beethoven sonatas is currently at the top of the list.)

EI: I really admire his early records. Have you followed his playing as well?

MG: Yeah, although most of it I came to backwards, after the books. I like that he’s a very physical player—not in the sense that he’s aggressive, or that he’s particularly physically animated, but in the sense that, as a listener, you’re always aware of the physical nature of piano playing: every note is a physical movement, is a physical connection from string to hammer to key to finger to arm to shoulder. There are schools of piano playing that try and hide that aspect, but I always liked that Rosen wasn’t shy about it, that he often put it front-and-center, ennobling the effort, in a way. His Chopin playing is especially revealing in this regard: you can hear how much the expressivity of Chopin is bound up in that tactile connection with this grand machine.

As I think about it, that’s an aspect that I think is generational to Rosen, and one that might start to fade. In the past few weeks, we’ve lost Carter and Rosen and Brubeck, and I think the crucial connecting thread between them was that they all had a real post-WWII technical sensibility—the expressiveness of their music is not only not separate from its technical aspects, but is actually enhanced by it. There’s a joy and an exhilaration that comes out of the technical challenge; the working-out of a technical problem can be as dramatically satisfying as the working-out of an emotional problem. That’s a sensibility that I share, but it’s also one that I’ve always thought of as quintessentially postwar, from that period when some of the greatest hopes and the greatest fears were from technological innovations.

Which, again, gets back to that past-and-present idea. Both in playing and writing, Rosen made a compelling case for Chopin as a profoundly technical composer, one who unlocked the expressive potential in the increasing technical challenges of 19th-century piano writing, one whose mastery of counterpoint was complete and ingrained. Rosen’s Chopin isn’t this dreamy clouds-of-perfume Romantic, he’s a brilliantly conscientious technician; in a way, it’s reinventing Chopin as an exemplar of a modern, technological form of genius. But, then again, Chopin is still a pianistic touchstone, whereas similar composers of his era—Field, say, or Hiller, or Alkan—remain cult figures. Whether Chopin’s technical mastery is an objective, universal quality or something that simply kept him better suited to audiences in subsequent and increasingly technologically-saturated eras, it’s hard to say. But Rosen pinpointed something about the music that sets it apart.

EI: What practicing virtuosos have become critics?

MG: Not many! I can only imagine how tough it would be to turn around and write after spending four, five, six hours a day keeping up the fingers. Rosen always said that writing books was his hobby, and I believe it—you’d have to get enormous pleasure out of it to be able to devote that kind of energy on, basically, a moonlighting basis. (He also, it is worth remembering, had a doctorate in French literature, and taught it for a time at MIT. I think he was happy to turn to piano-playing full-time, but obviously some of that academic discipline remained.)

It’s too bad, though, because I think that practicing virtuosos have a relationship to music that’s unique. It’s probably not coincidental that another book that had a big influence on me was Joseph Horowitz’s Conversations with Arrau, which is sort of the Charles-Rosen-ish book Arrau would have written on his own if he had the time. Glenn Gould’s writings are wonderful, but far less concerned with getting-your-hands-dirty musical matters—they’re almost left-field experiments in sociology and critical theory. There are some great books on piano technique out there—the Abby Whiteside books spring to mind—but they tend to be pretty inside-baseball. Rosen’s books do require that you be able to read music, but beyond that, he’s writing for a non-specialist audience. He’s letting you in to eavesdrop on the guild.

EI: I also adore Conversations With Arrau, and I study with Whiteside’s pupil Sophia Rosoff.

MG: Those Whiteside essays are great! But, even in my fairly mediocre pianistic state, I have a hard time imagining how they would read to a non-pianist. I’m not sure how profound their directness is would register unless to a reader that hasn’t already spent time wandering in the wilderness.

EI: Rosen had an interesting relationship to the romantic tradition of piano playing: he studied with Rosenthal and had a boyhood crush on Hofmann. Yet his own playing exemplified the modern “composer-first” approach to music making. This must be partly why he had such fruitful relationships with Boulez and Carter.

MG: Partially, probably—and probably also it was a matter of temperament. (Rosen and Carter must have been the two most well-read Francophiles in New York.) But I actually think it’s more than that. Rosen’s studying with Rosenthal (and Rosenthal’s wife, Hedwig Kanner, who, Rosen wrote, was actually the far more technical teacher) was more than just a connect-the-generations curiosity of history. Rosen really knew that style and that repertoire. In the 60s, he recorded an entire album of virtuoso transcriptions, the showpieces that were coin of the realm for late-Romantic virtuosi: the Chopin-Rosenthal “Minute Waltz” in thirds, the Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff “Scherzo” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that sort of thing. He plays the hell out of them.

But, again, he doesn’t cultivate the illusion of sparkling effortlessness that a lot of pianists have done with that repertoire: it’s still that physical, athletic playing, the expressiveness of technical challenge. Which is why, when you then turn to his modernist discography—going straight from Rosen’s recording of the Godowsky Symphonic Metamorphosis on Strauss’s Wine,Women and Song to his recording of Carter’s 90+, say—you can hear that it’s almost exactly the same toolbox, the same challenges. The late Romantic piano tradition was constantly pushing the limits of a) simultaneity and b) projecting contradictory contrapuntal melodies in different registers and c) the age-old problem of creating the sense of a long, sustained inner line in the face the piano’s natural decay. What better training for Carter and Boulez? Rosen’s feel for modernism was, in large part, simply his feel for the piano.

That really influenced my own immersion in musical modernism. Sure, it’s complex and thorny and spiky and all those other probably-overused adjectives, but it’s still just music, and if you perform it musically, it comes across. It’s notes on a page that you have to translate into physical activity that produces sound. The combinations of notes change, but those transfer points never do.

EI: Some of the obits describe him as sharp-tongued or waspish.

MG: I only met him once, and that only very briefly (I shook his hand, that was about it), so I couldn’t say. But it’s interesting that he defended his teacher, Moriz Rosenthal, from the same accusation. (Rosenthal really did have a wonderfully sharp tongue.) Rosen insisted that Rosenthal was actually a tremendously kind man, but had an irresistible love for good repartée. I could imagine Rosen being the same way.

EI: That sounds right. I never met him, unfortunately, but from reading him I guess you can tell the dam could be ready to burst — so much knowledge, so much considered opinion.

MG: There’s also maybe (and, again, this is total speculation) something of the lost art of disagreement there. I did get to meet Carter a couple of times, and I kind of had the sense that he was always considering whether or not you were interesting enough to argue with. He was always polite, but would start out kind of noncommittal and bland; but if he decided you were worth his time, he would actually do a little fencing. I tend to like people like that.

EI: I have always found him easy to read. Any comments on his prose style?

MG: It is remarkably clean. The one thing I always am grateful for is that he approaches criticism with such a novelistic structure: he doesn’t tell you, he shows you. If he thinks that you, the reader, need some background for the things he’s going to talk about, he isn’t afraid to take the time and give it to you in full. I think that drives the style—it’s all about choosing his examples with care, and not so much explaining them (that would be talking down to his audience) as explaining what it is about them that makes them important at this point in the story he’s telling. (Not the least of his talents is his way with an exception-proving-the-rule example.) The language is not usually that of storytelling, but the structure is. His prose isn’t flashy, but it has terrific rhythm, slowing down when it needs to, speeding up when it needs to, cadencing in ways that always feel right.

What always draws me back in is the sincerity of his fascination. The things he writes about are things he cares about, and that energy sustains a lot of his explorations. He never apologizes for digging deeper into any topic. He’s interested in it, so he assumes that you’ll be interested in it. This is something that Rosen once wrote about George Bernard Shaw, but I think it equally applies to Rosen himself:

In any case, being right does not matter very much in music criticism: almost anybody can be right. What counts is the basis for judgment. No doubt, if the ideas that go into the making of an evaluation, the point of view that illuminates it and the reasoning that justifies it are persuasive and lively, the criticism remains valid even when one rejects the final judgment.

I recommend Matthew’s book on Beethoven, The First Four Notes. His regular blog Soho the Dog has much more MG; perhaps most relevant for this discussion are the multiple posts on Carter, where Rosen makes a few appearances:

1. Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start