The Big Three

The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

by Charles Rosen
Viking, 467 pp., $12.50

Franz Josef Haydn
Franz Josef Haydn; drawing by David Levine

Charles Rosen is a brave man. In this long, exuberant, and well-illustrated book he has undertaken a formidable task: first to describe and then to explain and trace the development and maturation of what has so far proved the richest stylistic achievement in Western music. He has done it in such a way and on such a scale as to make it hard for anyone who cares about the music characterized here to remain without illumination. At times, indeed, his effect on readers is likely to be positively penitential, as they discover to their shame how inattentively they have been listening to the works they thought they knew best.

There are at least two reasons for the accessibility of Rosen’s message. The first is obvious: his book is written with great clarity, sharpness, and wit. A judicious balance is maintained between detailed illustration and generalized comment, and though the technical language of music is used freely (how could it be avoided in a discussion of style?), there is nothing in these pages to dismay readers who can find their way through Einstein’s Mozart or Tovey’s Beethoven.

But the second reason is linked to matters that are more controversial. Rosen, as his title indicates, has chosen to describe and exemplify the development of the classical style almost wholly by discussing its three most familiar—and of course far and away greatest—figures. Since we are dealing for most of the time with well-known works, this is easy and attractive. We are not obliged to struggle with dim dynasties of “interesting” historical figures, but are instead conducted through the exhilarating world of Figaro, the Op. 33 quartets of Haydn, and the Hammerklavier Sonata. Nevertheless there are some dangers in exploring a stylistic galaxy by focusing only on its brightest stars.

These dangers, it is fair to say, are anticipated by Rosen; and he shrugs them off in a characteristically robust Preface:

I have not attempted a survey of the music of the classical period, but a description of its language. In music, as in painting and architecture, the principles of “classical” art were codified (or, if you like, classicized) when the impulse which created it was already dead: I have tried to restore a sense of the freedom and the vitality of the style. I have restricted myself to the three major figures of the time as I hold to the old-fashioned position that it is in terms of their achievements that the musical vernacular can best be defined.

Even with this restriction there is a vast amount of music that falls into his net. The main part of the book, in fact, consists of detailed discussions of the contributions that the three composers have made within the major genres in which the classical style was worked out. Haydn is first investigated in relation to his exploration of the string quartet…

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