The Big Sound

The Romantic Generation

by Charles Rosen
Harvard University Press, 723, plus a 74-minute CD pp., $39.95

Charles Rosen is admired both as a concert pianist and as the author of The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, of 1971, and other writings. His new book, long awaited, is The Romantic Generation. Its dust cover reproduces a familiar Romantic painting, which has in fact become a staple of music-book illustration. It shows a pianist (he is Liszt) playing for a group of rapt listeners, while he himself gazes upon an outsized classical portrait bust of Beethoven that seems to levitate outside his window, in an otherwise Romantic landscape. The listeners are leading intellectuals and musicians of the time; Rossini, Paganini, Hugo, Dumas père, and George Sand have all fallen under the pianist’s spell.

It is not hard to decode this image, especially if you know that the young Rosen was a student of a student of Liszt. The most obvious message is that The Romantic Generation will not lack for self-confidence. Rosen’s criticism never has. Assured, dogmatic, Tory, sometimes even imperious, he is the sort of critic who knows what the canon is and wherein lies its greatness. It is right there, in the notes, which sing past centuries of footlights for an endlessly applauding ideal audience. Outside of the notes, political and ideological considerations, composer biography, and the programs of program music do not carry much weight with this essentially formalist criticism. Rosen delights in connoisseurship—he will leaf through two dozen Chopin mazurkas to show you the bits he likes best—and he writes as though he were playing opera fantasies by Liszt. The style is high, the manner ex cathedra.

One can’t play Liszt, of course, without plenty of self-confidence.

When Rosen’s criticism first burst onto the scene, in 1971, its effect was dazzling. It still is. I am not speaking only of the music scene; the National Book Award jury of 1972 was sufficiently dazzled to give The Classical Style a prize, even though one of its members complained publicly that the book was so technical he could not read it. Still, it has sold many, many more copies than any other trade book directed solely or primarily to music professionals; and it is still in print. One must gather that many non-professional readers have been able to negotiate these technicalities, or at least negotiate around them.

They have been able to do so, I think, because although Rosen’s criticism is rooted in musical detail, in his technical commentary on literally hundreds of moments and passages of music and of many complete compositions, this Ursatz (as music analysts would say) generates a foreground that is consistently brilliant—a brilliant compound of interpretation, opinion, enthusiasm, potted musicology, homily and polemic, wit, wisdom, and learning. It sometimes seems that each musical analysis, however brief, and some are not brief at all, leads to a confident interpretative aphorism confirming the mastery of one master-composer or another. (I am exaggerating a little, and of course there are some counterexamples—even one …

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