The Pleasures of Charles Rosen

Alison Beth Waldman/
Charles Rosen receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House, February 2012


Even those of us who admire Charles Rosen as the most remarkable critic writing today must be startled by the polymathy in his new collection, Freedom and the Arts. Most of the twenty-eight essays gathered here were published in these pages, but just to see the spectrum provided by their titles is to marvel: “Structural Dissonance and the Classical Sonata,” “Theodore Adorno: Criticism as Cultural Nostalgia,” “Lost Chords and the Golden Age of Pianism,” “La Fontaine: The Ethical Power of Style,” “Hofmannsthal and Radical Modernism.” To read them is to marvel further: Rosen’s communicative power is as prodigious as his versatility. Each essay includes so much more than its specific topic. Large-mindedness matters more here than scholarship; cleverness is simply incidental.

In his 2003 essay “Culture on the Market,” included here, he remarks, “A classic may almost be defined as a book to which you wish to return from time to time even if only for a few minutes.” Well, many of us certainly find ourselves returning, often for more than a few minutes at a time, to The Classical Style (1970) and The Romantic Generation (1995), to his previous essay collections Romantic Poets, Critics and Other Madmen (1998) and Critical Entertainments (2000), and to his two contrasting books of general musical investigation Piano Notes (2002) and Music and Sentiment (2010). These are all inspiring, complex, richly fertile works. No other living critic has produced a corpus that so fully exemplifies the virtues and achievements of civilization.

It’s easy to believe that we will need to keep revisiting Freedom and the Arts. As I turn in these pages from bygone traditions of dislocation (also known as asynchronization or limping) in piano playing to the connections between cruelty and eroticism in the Marquis de Sade, and from the sound patterns in La Fontaine’s poetry to the skill of Niccolò Jommelli’s setting of recitative secco in his opera Olimpiade, I can’t help laughing in amazement. Who else in the world could make all these things lucid, sensuous, and important?

There are typographical, factual, and terminological errors; questionable assertions, too. Of Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici, the opera that actually started a political revolution, Rosen writes, “If anything in it inspired political action, it must certainly have been the overture, which has a principal theme with a strong jingoistic swing to it….” But we know that the most inflammatory item, both at La Muette’s 1828 Paris premiere and at its rebellion-triggering 1830 Brussels performance, was not the overture but the Act I duet “Amour sacré de la patrie.” The ballet master August Bournonville, who was present at the 1828 premiere, called this duet “that echo of the forbidden ‘Marseillaise’” and wrote that “the electrified audience uttered a cry of jubilation so wild and thunderous that it…

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