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Charles Rosen

American pianist and writer on music

Charles Welles Rosen (May 5, 1927December 9, 2012) was an American pianist and writer on music.

Contents

QuotesEdit

  • The eventual survival of the tradition is ultimately not at stake.
    • "The Future of Music", The New York Review of Books (December 20, 2001)
  • Our freedom is hemmed in on every side. We must be grateful for what remains.
    • "Freedom and Art", The New York Review of Books (May 10, 2012)

The Frontiers of Meaning: Three Informal Lectures on Music (1994)Edit

  • Understanding music simply means not being irritated or puzzled by it.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • More positively, taking pleasure in music is the most obvious sign of comprehension, the proof that we understand it, and we may extend that to sympathy with other listeners' enjoyment ...
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • It is not, however, the unfamiliarity or strangeness of a work or of a composer's manner that is a bar to understanding, but rather the disappearance of the familiar, the ongoing disappointment of the expectations and hopes fostered by the musical tradition in which we have grown up.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • We can, in fact, relive the history of taste in our own lives, the way embryos are supposed to go through the history of the evolution of a species.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • If getting used to music is the essential condition for understanding, it is hard to see just what purpose is served by writing about it. A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art itself teaches us how to understand it, and makes the critic not merely parasitical but strictly superfluous.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • Critical evaluation was transformed into understanding, and criticism became not an act of judgment but of comprehension.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • Our sensuous appreciation of the world and of the works created by man has, no doubt, a biological foundation, one shared by all human beings, but that is no use to us when we try to evaluate a Bach fugue or a Dostoevsky novel-or even the simple experience of a landscape, as our delight in the view of a mountain or a waterfall is also determined by the traditions of our culture. The coexistence of different criteria of judgment is, in any case, by now a fact of life. Beethoven cannot be judged or even understood by the standards of Mozart, however much he may have continued them, nor Berg by the standards of Wagner or Richard Strauss, nor Elliott Carter by the values of Ives and Stravinsky.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • Normally, misprints are either easily corrected or else so trivial that it makes no difference whether we play the correct or the faulty version. ... Nevertheless, on rare occasions, a misprint or slip of the pen may challenge our view of the musical language. These extreme cases may help us understand a little more about the way music acquires meaning, or what it means to say that the music makes sense.
    • Ch. 1 : The Frontiers of Nonsense
  • By this time Mozart had been dead for almost fourteen years and Haydn was too weak to compose. Beethoven was unchallenged throughout Europe as the greatest living composer of instrumental music. Even more, he was generally recognized as having surpassed his famous predecessors. This, of course, did not prevent critics from greeting each new work as a disappointment after his by then acceptable achievements of the previous years.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • When I was a small child, The New York Times received every new creation of Igor Stravinsky with hostility, but even then I knew, like everybody else, that he was the greatest living composer-and I knew it even without having heard much Stravinsky or even any of the more recent works at all. It is a mistake of music historians to rely too much on journalists and music critics to assess a composer's reputation, as we generally find a certain delay in their transmission of the more influential professional judgments.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • There is a revealing sardonic comment by Leopold Godowsky on a well-known statement of Paderewski, who once boasted, "When I don't practice for one day, my fingers know it; for two days, and my friends know it; for three days and the whole world knows it." Godowsky added: "On the fourth day, the critics hear about it." In any case, poets and novelists are generally better reporters of the general state of musical opinion than music journalists, who most often have an ax to grind, or, quite reasonably and justifiably, a more limited set of prejudices to broadcast.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • We can see that canonic status is accorded to the works of a composer not by posterity, or at least not by a posterity as distant in time as is sometimes thought; nor does it depend very much on whether the works are frequently performed for the public in every important musical center. To a certain extent, canonic status is actually built into some new works, partly by the way they impose themselves on an already substantial musical tradition. This may explain why it is so difficult to alter a firmly installed canon in any radical way, or to dislodge works that have been an integral part of it for some time.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • I do not mean that it is not worthwhile to attempt a revision of the canon or that no success is possible. A few valuable minor changes have been made to our sense of the basic material of the history of music, and other alterations are still waiting to take hold. Gesualdo has not displaced Monteverdi or Palestrina but has won a permanent place; on the other hand, the attempt to convince us that Telemann is a major composer appears to have been abandoned. Alkan has not had the breakthrough his admirers had hoped for. Attacks on Tchaikovsky have not had much success in removing his music from the repertory; his credit with performers has not changed a bit.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • I have never believed that the historian should seek to perpetuate the misapprehensions of the past, and it is true that we understand Beethoven today better than his contemporaries did, better, above all, than the generation that immediately followed him, including his own most important pupil, Karl Czerny.
    • Ch. 2 : How to Become Immortal
  • Mathematicians tells us that it is easy to invent mathematical theorems which are true, but that it is hard to find interesting ones. In analyzing music or writing its history, we meet the same difficulty, and it is compounded by another. For whom is it interesting? To paraphrase a famous remark of Barnett Newman, musicology is for musicians what ornithology is for the birds.
    • Ch. 3 : Explaining the Obvious
  • Music has its existence on the borderline between meaning and nonsense. That is why most attempts to attribute a specific meaning to a piece of music seem to be beside the point—even when the attribution is authoritative, even when it is made by the composer himself.
    • Ch. 3 : Explaining the Obvious
  • Nevertheless, music will not acknowledge a context greater than itself—social, cultural, or biographical—to which it is conveniently subservient. To paraphrase Goethe's grandiose warning to the scientist: do not look behind the notes, they themselves are the doctrine.
    • Ch. 3 : Explaining the Obvious

The Romantic Generation (1995)Edit

  • Inaudible music may seem an odd notion, even a foolishly Romantic one—although it is partly the Romantic prejudice in favor of sensuous experience that makes it seem odd. Still, there are details of music which cannot be heard but only imagined, and even certain aspects of musical form which cannot be realized in sound even by the imagination.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • It is fitting that a discourse on Romantic music should commence with a meditation on the art of Bach. The Bach revival is still sometimes considered an early nineteenth-century phenomenon, although this is hardly tenable: in the 1780s Mozart was deeply affected by Bach, and at the same time Beethoven was being brought up on the Well-Tempered Keyboard. Bach was well known to European musicians as a composer of keyboard music through manuscript copies of this work long before systematic publication began in 1800. The "revival" of Bach in the Romantic period was basically a rediscovery of his choral works and a new evaluation of his technique: his art was no longer simply a model for the fugue, as it had been in the eyes of Mozart, but for the art of music as a whole. The new approach to Bach and to Baroque music in general, however, did not extend to the sound of that music on the original instruments. Few musicians in the 1820s and '30s 'had the slightest interest in the sonority of old harpsichords or Baroque organs (Ignaz Moscheles was an engaging exception). What they saw, and needed to see, in Bach was the achievement of an ideal.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • The absolutely inaudible is rejected from music during the period of Viennese Classicism in which every musical line is potentially or imaginatively audible, but it makes a dramatic reappearance in the music of Schumann. The most striking of many examples is one of the episodes in the Humoresk, the last of the great piano works of Schumann's early years. ... There are three staves: the uppermost for the right hand; the lowest for the left; the middle, which contains the melody, is not to be played. Note that the melody is no more to be imagined as a specific sound than it is to be played: nothing tells us that the melody is to be heard as vocal or instrumental. This melody, however, is embodied in the upper and lower parts as a kind of after-resonance-out of phase, delicate, and shadowy.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • Here, in the last pages of the "Abegg" Variations, Schumann plays the motto theme A-B-E-G-G (B in German notation is the English Bb) not by sounding the last four notes but by taking them away, one by one, from, the chord of Bb-E-G. This is the first time in history that a melody is signified not by the attack but by the release of a series of notes. The motto, however, ends with a repeated final G. If the motto is played by releasing each successive note, we are faced with a paradox: when the G is released once on the piano, it is no longer there to be released again-the motto is not only unplayable as conceived but unimaginable. Schumann signifies as much by another paradox: he adds accents to the sustained notes.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • Schumann's humor is rarely either witty or light: the unrealizable musical structure, the musical motto hidden and partly inaudible, must have stirred his musical fantasy.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • In the piano writing of the Romantic generation of the 1830s, in fact, a fully pedalled sonority becomes the norm: the piano is expected to vibrate fairly constantly, and an unpedalled sonority is an exception, almost a special effect. Furthermore, the phrase is now shaped at least partially by changes in this full vibration. The change of pedal is crucial to the conception of rhythmic movement and to the sustaining of the melodic line over the bass.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • For Beethoven, music was still shape, realized and inflected by instrumental sonority: other realizations may be as absurd as arrangements of the Hammerklavier, for example, always are, but the musical conception takes precedence over its realization in sound. The sonority serves the music. For Schumann, however, as for Chopin and Liszt, the conception was worked out directly within the sonority as a sculptor works directly in clay or marble. The instrumental sound is shaped into music.
    • Ch. 1 : Music and Sound
  • The extraordinary stylistic changes of late eighteenth-century music may have provided much of the inspiration for the literature of the turn of the century, but the literary forms that resulted were deeply eccentric. It was these works—paradoxical, anticlassical, often with startlingly unbalanced proportions—which in turn influenced the music of the generation of composers that followed. The most clearly affected by literature and art were Schumann, Berlioz, and Liszt, but neither Mendelssohn nor Chopin remained untouched by literary developments, like the revival of Celtic and medieval poetry, as the overtures of Mendelssohn and the Ballades of Chopin explicitly demonstrate.
    • Ch. 2 : Fragments
  • It is typical of Schumann's musical thinking to construct this complex network of references outside his music-to quote Beethoven, and then to have Beethoven's distant beloved refer to Clara. But this should give a clue to the nature of Schumann's achievement. It is not Schumann's music that, refers to Clara but Beethoven's melody, the "secret tone."
    • Ch. 2 : Fragments
  • It is above all through landscape that music joins Romantic art and literature.
    • Ch. 3 : Mountains and Song Cycles
  • Visual delight, sentiment, and exploration become one in the new appreciation of landscape and Nature.
    • Ch. 3 : Mountains and Song Cycles
  • Beethoven is the first composer to represent the complex process of memory-not merely the sense of loss and regret that accompanies visions of the past, but the physical experience of calling up the past within the present.
    • Ch. 3 : Mountains and Song Cycles
  • The most signal triumphs of the Romantic portrayal of memory are not those which recall past happiness, but remembrances of those moments when future happiness still seemed possible, when hopes were not yet frustrated.
    • Ch. 3 : Mountains and Song Cycles
  • The song cycle is the most original musical form created in the first half of the nineteenth century. It most clearly embodies the Romantic conception of experience as a gradual unfolding and illumination of reality in place of the Classical insistence on an initial clarity. The form of Schubert's song cycle is not less precise than that of a Classical sonata, but its precision is only gradually comprehended as it unfolds.
    • Ch. 3 : Mountains and Song Cycles
  • The relation of tonic to dominant is the foundation of Western triadic tonality. The attempt of the early nineteenth century to substitute third or mediant relationships for the classical dominant amounted to a frontal attack on the principles of tonality, and it eventually contributed to the ruin of triadic tonality. This ruin was accomplished from within the system, however, as mediant relationships were essential to tonality as conceived in the eighteenth century.
    • Ch. 4 : Formal Interlude
  • The secret of avoiding monotony with the four-bar module was to vary the accent and the weight of the bars to avoid giving a similar emphatic accent on the first bar of every group, as if one were accenting a downbeat. After Beethoven and before Brahms, perhaps the greatest master of the technique was Chopin, as one can see from the opening of the Nocturne in D flat Major, Op. 27, no. 2, of 1836 ...
    • Ch. 4 : Formal Interlude
  • In almost every edition (and consequently most performances) of Chopin's Sonata in B flat Minor, Op. 35, there is a serious error that makes awkward nonsense of an important moment in the first movement. The repeat of the exposition begins in the wrong place.
    • Ch. 5 : Chopin: Counterpoint and the Narrative Forms
  • Above all, Chopin was the greatest master of counterpoint since Mozart. This will appear paradoxical only if we equate counterpoint with strict fugue, and Chopin wrote no formal fugues except as an academic exercise. His chief training, in both composition and keyboard playing, however, came from a study of Bach, and it was a study that engaged him all his life and which he always recommended to his pupils.
    • Ch. 5 : Chopin: Counterpoint and the Narrative Forms
  • There is a paradox at the heart of Chopin's style, in its unlikely combination of a rich chromatic web of polyphony, based on a profound experience of J. S. Bach, with a sense of melody and a way of sustaining the melodic line derived directly from Italian opera. The paradox is only apparent, and it is never felt as such when one hears the music. The two influences are perfectly synthesized, and they give each other a new kind of power.
    • Ch. 5 : Chopin: Counterpoint and the Narrative Forms
  • Only once in Chopin's music is there a direct reference to Bach, and that is, appropriately, at the beginning of his only educational work, the two sets of Etudes, Op. 10 and 25, and the three Nouvelles Etudes for Moscheles. In the first Etude, Op. 10, in C major, we find a modernized version of the Prelude no. 1 of the Well-Tempered Keyboard...
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • By the late eighteenth century, there is a sad and permanent decline in the quality of music written for young performers or beginners: one has only to compare Bach's Album for Anna Magdalena Bach and the Two-Part Inventions with anything that came later. No composer of importance between Bach and Schumann turned his hand to writing for children, and Schumann's essays came after his years of greatest inspiration for piano writing had gone. (Mozart is the odd exception, but then he was, in fact, almost incapable of writing really easy pieces: he no doubt believed that his Sonata in D Major, K.576, was easy, perhaps because all the hard passages in the first movement were in simple two-part counterpoint, one voice in each hand, but he was wrong.)
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • Chopin is the true inventor of the concert etude, at least in the sense of being the first to give it complete artistic form—a form in which musical substance and technical difficulty coincide.
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • The etude is a Romantic idea. It appeared in the early nineteenth century as a new genre: a short piece in which the musical interest is derived almost entirely from a single technical problem. A mechanical difficulty directly produces the music, its charm, and its pathos. Beauty and technique are united, but the creative stimulus is the hand, with its arrangement of muscles and tendons, its idiosyncratic shape.
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • Some of the Etudes in the first set, opus 10, were written by the time Chopin was twenty. It is with these pieces that Chopin's style was fully revealed in all its power and subtlety. Later works are sometimes more ambitious and, in a few cases, more audacious, but there were no radical changes of style, nothing to compare to the later revolutions we find in the careers of Haydn and Beethoven, or even in the shorter lives of Mozart and Schubert. Chopin's mastery was proven with the twelve Etudes of opus 10.
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • Chopin's exquisite ear saved him from the ugly repetition of thick chords in the bass that frequently disfigure the work of Mendelssohn, Weber, and Hummel—and even of Field.
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • Technical display in Chopin, after the early works, is transmuted into tone color or dramatic gesture-we may say, to accept the prejudices of Chopin's own generation, that it has been ennobled. This is the source of much of the poetry in Chopin's music: it comes from the transformation of the vulgar into something aristocratic.
    • Ch. 6 : Chopin: Virtuosity Transformed
  • Folk music is always considered a good thing. There is a catch, however: it has to be "real" folk music, anonymous, evoking not an individual but a communal personality, expressive of the soil.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • Chopin's mazurkas stand apart from the rest of the considerable production inspired by folk music which reaches into all forms of Romantic music; they cannot conveniently be classified with any of the other manifestations. They are not arrangements of popular folk tunes, ... He uses only fragments of melody, Polish formulas, typical national rhythms, and he combines them in his own way with great originality. From early on, Chopin's mazurkas are much more elaborate than the few modest pieces employing mazurka rhythms by Chopin's Polish predecessors, and they soon became the occasion for some of the most complex and pretentious of Chopin's forms.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • The mazurka provided him with a repertoire of motifs, rhythms, and sonorities outside the main Italian, French, and German traditions of European music: he used it to create a series of works within this tradition which are absolutely personal—marginal works which challenge the center.
    They are the most eccentric and original of Chopin's works. We shall never know exactly what and how much Chopin took directly from the popular folk tradition and how much he invented, but it does not matter: his originality is revealed as much in what he selected as in what he imagined. The folk dances gave him the possibility of exploring new harmonies, of exploiting the emotional effect of obsessive repetition, and of developing a new form of rubato.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • None of Chopin's contemporaries could rival him for the variety and effectiveness of his treatment of the return.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • The opposition between structure and sonority in music is almost as misleading as that between line and color in the visual arts. Baudelaire insisted, correctly, that Delacroix was one of the three greatest draftsmen of the century, and emphasized his mastery of line. In the same way, a study of Chopin demonstrates the intimate relation between line and color in music.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • This is the true paradox of Chopin: he is most original in his use of the most fundamental and traditional technique. That is what made him at the same time the most conservative and the most radical composer of his generation.
    • Ch. 7 : Chopin: From the Miniature Genre to the Sublime Style
  • Liszt has never needed revival; his music has always been an important part of the concert repertoire. Nevertheless, he has appeared to need rehabilitation.
    • Ch. 8 : Liszt: On Creation as Performance
  • It was this indifference to the quality of his material that earned Liszt the contempt of his most distinguished contemporaries and of many of the most respectable critics and historians of posterity. It was, nevertheless, his greatest strength. It made it possible for him to manipulate the material ruthlessly, to concentrate on effects of realization with unprecedented intensity, and to integrate styles and techniques of performance into composition in a new way. His invention of novel keyboard effects and his mastery of musical gesture have always been undervalued, especially by pianists of the German school who prefer the kind of music that can be executed while soulfully regarding the ceiling. On the whole, the most genuine understanding of his music has been displayed by musicians of eastern Europe, and he may almost be considered as the founder of Russian pianism.
    • Ch. 8 : Liszt: On Creation as Performance
  • Mendelssohn was the greatest child prodigy the history of Western music has ever known. Not even Mozart or Chopin before the age of nineteen could equal the mastery that Mendelssohn already possessed when he was only sixteen. Most astonishing is the nature of Mendelssohn's precocious talent: not only a gift for lyrical melodic lines and delicate, transparent textures, but, above all, a control of large-scale structure unsurpassed by any composer of his generation.
    • Ch. 10 : Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch
  • For Mendelssohn, Beethoven was the new point of departure, and a German composer could not afford to ignore him, as Chopin and Verdi were able to do.
    • Ch. 10 : Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch
  • Mendelssohn is the inventor of religious kitsch in music. His first essay in this genre is a masterpiece, the Fugue in E Minor, published in 1837 but written ten years earlier, when the composer was eighteen ...
    • Ch. 10 : Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch
  • Meyerbeer's approach to opera may seem cynical. His music is not, like Donizetti's, an immediate expression of the sentiments of his characters but a calculated manipulation of the audience.
    • Ch. 11 : Romantic Opera: Politics, Trash, and High Art
  • Schumann is the most representative musical figure of central European Romanticism as much because of his limitations as because of his genius: in his finest works, indeed, he exploited these limitations in such a way that they gave a force to his genius that no other contemporary could attain.
    • Ch. 12 : Schumann: Triumph and Failure of the Romantic Ideal

Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (Expanded edition, 1997)Edit

Original Edition published in 1971, Expanded Edition published in 1997
  • The musical language which made the classical style possible is that of tonality, which was not a massive, immobile system but a living, gradually changing language from its beginning. It had reached a new and important turning point just before the style of Haydn and Mozart took shape.
    • Part I. Introduction. 1. The Musical Language of the Late Eighteenth Century
  • Sonata form could not be defined until it was dead. Czerny claimed with pride around 1840 that he was the first to describe it, but then it was already part of history.
    • Part I. Introduction. 2. Theories of Form
  • The creation of a classical style was not so much the achievement of an ideal as the reconciliation of conflicting ideals-the striking of an optimum balance between them.
    • Part I. Introduction. 3. The Origins of the Style
  • The buffoonery of Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart is only an exaggeration of an essential quality of the classical style. This style was, in its origins, basically a comic one.
    • Part II. The Classical Style. 1. The Coherence of the Musical Language

Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist (2002)Edit

  • Everything depends, of course, on the shape of the hand, and it must be stressed that there is no type of hand which is more suited to the piano than another. One of the greatest pianists that I ever heard—certainly the most remarkable in his control of the widest possible range and variety of tone color—was Josef Hoffman, who had a hand so small that he could reach no more than an octave; Steinway built him a special piano in which the ivories were slightly narrower so that he could reach a ninth. His friend Sergei Rachmaninov had a very large hand, as did Rudolf Serkin, and Sviatoslav Richter could not only reach a twelfth but could play the last chord of the Schumann Toccata without arpeggiation—an effect which would certainly have astonished the composer. My teacher, Moriz Rosenthal, famous for his technique, had a small hand with stubby fingers; Vladimir Horowitz's fingers were exceptionally long, while Robert Casadesus had fingers so thick that he had trouble fitting them in between the black keys. There is no such thing as an ideal pianist's hand.
    • Ch. 1 Body and Mind
  • The relation of the performance of music to sound is complex and ambiguous: this is what makes possible Mark Twain's joke that Wagner is better than he sounds.
    • Ch. 1 Body and Mind
  • The piano is the only keyboard instrument in which one can grandly vary the effects of the harmonics or overtones of a chord at will by balancing the sonority in different ways.
    • Ch. 1 Body and Mind
  • One of the pupils of Artur Schnabel told me that he never heard his teacher practice a difficult passage slowly, but he was struck by the way Schnabel would play one chord of a slow movement over and over, measuring and remeasuring the different components of the harmony.
    • Ch. 2 Listening to the Sound of the Piano
  • The world of Debussy is a seductive oasis, and it is hard to leave it after spending many days immersed in its atmosphere. Playing Debussy-or any other composer with a strong and idiosyncratic personality-affects not only one's cast of mind but the physical disposition as well, the way the muscles work and the fingers come into contact with the ivories.
    • Ch. 2 Listening to the Sound of the Piano
  • I do not think that any composer has ever asked for octave glissandi on the black keys, but there is a recording by Moriz Rosenthal of Chopin's Black-Key Etude in which he plays the short octave passage in both hands glissando: it hurts my hands just to think about it.
    • Ch. 3 The Instrument and Its Discontents

Music and Sentiment (2010)Edit

  • In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, act V, scene 1, we find this exchange between the two young lovers:

    JESSICA: I am never merry when I hear sweet music
    LORENZO: The reason is, your spirits are attentive

    The opening of the finale of Beethoven' s 'Emperor' Concerto provides a splendid example of the kind of theme that is the inspiration for this book. A completely unified theme that hangs together beautifully, it nevertheless portrays vividly a series of contrasting sentiments in a succession that amounts to a small narrative ...

    • Prologue

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