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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.1 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.2

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 by Chopin.) Rosen is possessed of a formidable fund of general knowledge—he has written about art and literature, as well as music—and he draws upon this to great effect as he weaves his rhetorical fabric.

But for all the bravura, I think the real power of his criticism rests on his immediate musical insight. He has a fantastic ear for musical detail, and also for what I would call the details of musical form—for those elements in a long string of events that make the whole, as he might say, radiant. His analytical genius extends to both music and language, so that again and again he finds just the right words to describe a musical effect simply, clearly, and to perfection.

Granted, the line is not always easy to draw between the beautifully clear, the aphoristic, and the cathedral. Those who have followed Rosen’s work from the 1970s (and even earlier) will feel that it has mellowed; the tone seems less imperious than before, and less disputatious. More impressive than this, it has broadened out significantly from its earlier classicistic, formalistic core. In The Romantic Generation, as we shall see, Liszt-Rosen is sometimes to be found staring at a gargoyle that has taken up a position next to the bust of Beethoven. Or he eyes a distant ruin in the landscape beyond.


The first thing a reader probably wants to know is what a book called The Romantic Generation is actually about. It consists, in fact, of three two-hundred-page books in one. The first is a study of song cycles by Schubert and Schumann and of Schumann’s cycles of piano pieces, such as Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze, in the light of certain Romantic themes. The second book is devoted to Chopin. The third deals with other early Romantic music: Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and opera; and a final chapter returns with a quiet sense of purpose to Schumann.

A compact disc comes with the book, containing piano music played by the author to illustrate the discussion. University presses are not known for bargains, but this is an unusual buy from Harvard at $39.95. One can (and should) also purchase another CD issued independently, with more recorded illustrations.3

The organization and style of the three books are quite different, so that the whole has the slight feel of one of those open-form novels by Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann that Schumann so much admired. The first book is the most original and imaginative. It explores three routes to Romantic music, one of them internal to music, the other two external: sonority, the Romantic fragment, and landscape and memory.

A beautiful opening chapter, “Music and Sound,” makes the most important technical point that has to be made about Romantic music:

[Before the Romantic generation,] tone color was applied like a veneer to form, but did not create or shape it…. The Romantics cannot be said to have enlarged musical experience except insofar as all original composers have done so, but they altered the relationship between the delight in sound and the delight in structure.

We notice that nothing is said about the orchestra; sound here is piano sound, and among the topics treated are pedaling, piano transcription as developed by Liszt, and the nature of keyboard polyphony, starting with Bach (a major presence from first to last). We are never allowed to forget that this is a pianist’s book, almost all about music for or with piano, music comprehended through the fingers as well as through the ear and in the mind. There will be many fascinating asides about piano performance—about fingering, rubato, and so on—and even one heartfelt page on the physical pain of piano virtuosity.

Everybody who writes about nineteenth-century music takes account of the Bach revival at the time, but nobody makes as much of it as Rosen does. Schumann and Chopin were both devoted to The Well-Tempered Clavier; the characteristic homogeneous texture of Bach’s preludes, so different from any classical texture, provided a model for the texture of the small Romantic piano piece. Chopin saluted Bach’s most famous prelude (the C major) in his first etude and his first prelude. The influence of the Well-Tempered fugues was just as important. Bach’s polyphony—Rosen has made this point before—was never intended to make you hear all the voices of a fugue at once. Its purpose was to create a sonorous unity out of those voices which become “intermittently audible,” sometimes when the composer makes them stand out and sometimes when the player does—or when the player simply considers or feels them. Bach’s “private art” mediates between the audible and the inaudible. Rosen is at his most dazzling when he shows how it was the inaudible in Bach that fascinated Schumann.

Chopin, on the other hand, was interested only in the audible. (Schumann was a failed pianist, of course, Chopin a very successful one.) Chopin’s counterpoint is eminently public:

The voices reach full independence only when the listener need be aware of them: elsewhere they remain buried in an apparently homophonic texture. When only latent, they may be hidden but they can always be uncovered—which has given so many pianists the delicious possibility to bring out apparently irrelevant and insignificant inner voices…

A powerful disquisition on Liszt’s invention of a new piano sound comes in due course; Chopin’s exquisite sonorities are predicated on the classic art of counterpoint.

Schumann was the outstanding man of letters in a Romantic generation of composers that was exceptionally rich in literary talent. Among other things, he published aphorisms in belated tribute to the famous Athenaeum fragments of Friedrich Schlegel, and the impact of the idea of the Romantic fragment on music has been the subject of some attention recently.4 For Rosen the fragment becomes a highly suggestive critical tool of notable breadth and richness. A song like Schumann’s “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” exhibits multiple tensions of fragmentariness, of which its lack of a conclusive final cadence is only the simplest. (How many Romantic pieces end, and how differently, up in the air!) In addition, the voice part and the piano part are each incomplete, making sense only as fused together by Schumann, as also happens in many less familiar songs (and in the familiar slow movement of the Piano Concerto). In addition, of course, the song appears at the beginning and forms a fragment of a complex totality, the song cycle Dichterliebe.

Rosen is endlessly subtle and responsive in teasing sense or, rather, sentiment out of these cycles of fragments. It must be done gently. There is no rote Faden such as Goethe detected in classical works of art; Romantic fragments adhere through multiple elastic threads of shifting hues. The last song of Dichterliebe shares the same key as the first song, but that key was ambiguous in the first place. Its poem issues a long string of hyperbole about a huge coffin: Why so big?—the last couplet explains why, but the music qualifies the explanation. The piano postlude quotes a melody from an earlier song, so the earlier words return inaudibly, clarifying nothing, suggesting much. Schumann cut four songs out of Dichterliebe, Romantic remnants (they receive handsome eulogies here) from a multifragmented whole.

Quotations are fragments, obviously, and Schumann was addicted to them. He quoted himself, his fiancée, Beethoven, the Marseillaise, “Caro mio ben” (a sentimental wedding song), and more. In a critical tour de force, Rosen uses “Florestan,” one of Schumann’s pair of self-portraits in Carnaval, which quotes from his own Papillons, Op. 2, to read the great Phantasie, Op. 17, which quotes from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. His emphasis with both works—one tiny, the other very substantial—is on the art by which the quotation is made to suffuse the larger entity. The whole first movement of the Phantasie seems retrospectively to emerge out of the Beethoven quotation at the end. The quotation is both absorbed by its host and maintains its integrity at the same time.

  1. 1

    There is an extended and amusing analysis of this painting, Josef Danhauser’s “Liszt at the Piano,” by Alessandra Comini in The Changing Image of Beethoven (Rizzoli, 1987), pp. 207-215.

  2. 2

    Rosen is not, obviously, a critic for the postmodern age—as he knows, having himself chronicled recent trends in music criticism perceptively, and not without sympathy. See “Music à la Mode,” The New York Review, June 23, 1994, pp. 55-62, and Rosen’s reply to subsequent letters, September 22, 1994, pp. 74-76.

  3. 3

    Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (MusicMaster Classics 01612-67154-2); this disc includes some tracks from the book’s CD and some new ones: Chopin’s Nocturne in B, Op. 62 no. 1, Liszt’s transcription of “Die Lorelei,” and the entire Schumann Davidsbündlertänze.

  4. 4

    See John Daverio, Nineteenth-Century Music and the German Romantic Ideology (Schirmer Books, 1993), for acute analysis of Schlegel’s criticism as it impinged on Schumann, and Richard Kramer, Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song (University of Chicago Press, 1994), for song fragments by Schubert actually set to Schlegel’s poetry. Utterly casual, in his imperious way, about citations, Rosen does not mention these books; he doesn’t even mention his own Romanticism and Realism, co-authored with Henri Zerner (Viking, 1984), with its highly pertinent chapter on the Romantic vignette. Other pertinent publications by Rosen are the last chapter of Sonata Forms, revised edition (Norton, 1988) and “Romantic Originals,” The New York Review, December 17, 1987, pp. 22-31.

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