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Piano Man

I first heard Charles Rosen performing around 1970 at Symphony Hall in Chicago. If my memory is correct, he substituted at the last minute for a more widely known pianist. What good fortune for the nearly packed house. For me it was my first exposure to the intoxicating world of Liszt’s transcriptions and paraphrases (free arrangements rather than literal renditions) of other composers. His playing was singular—muscular yet poetic, hedonistic yet deeply spiritual, spontaneous yet meticulously thought out. Only a few years later, I found in a bookstore his equally virtuosic exploration, The Classical Style.

If Rosen harbors even a slight regret about his remarkable career, it might be that in many quarters he is better known as the author of Schoenberg, Sonata Forms, and The Romantic Generation, in addition to The Classical Style, and as the main musical voice of The New York Review, than as one of the major pianists of his time. He would probably be better known as a pianist if he had not published a single word about music. That he has not belonged to the most visible group of concert pianists that includes Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, and Richard Goode is a circumstance with multiple causes (including his decision to play Boulez rather than Brahms, Schoenberg and Carter rather than Schubert and Copland).

Piano Notes, then, is more than just another musical study; it is the author’s attempt to make sense of and reconcile the twin facets of a career that many have viewed as separate. Rosen announces at the beginning that his short book is

about the experience of playing the piano…. What has interested me most of all is the relation of the physical act of playing to those aspects of music generally considered more intellectual, spiritual, and emotional….

Along the way he exhibits the gift abundantly present in his writings over the last three decades: the apt choice of a musical example to illustrate a point we have probably not even considered. Hence we have the “arpeggiated tenth” in Brahms’s Op. 118/2 which imitates “a singer trying to reach a high note”; the right-hand canon in Chopin’s last mazurka, “as if the sense that a single melody was producing two voices could be magnified when it was achieved by a single hand”; or the piling up of resonant third intervals in Brahms’s Op. 119/1, where “the chord vibrates more and more as the arpeggiation proceeds.”

Indeed, no one, to my knowledge, is more qualified than Rosen to present the “experience” of playing the piano. His generation (and no other member of it combines the talent of pianist and critic1 ) represents the last living link with the golden age of pianism. When the seventy-six-year-old former pupil of Liszt (and of Chopin’s assistant, Karol Mikuli), Moriz Rosenthal, settled in New York in 1938, he took on the eleven-year-old Charles Rosen as a student. Their close relationship lasted until Rosenthal’s death in 1945. As a child, Liszt had studied with Carl Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven—hence the young Rosen found himself only four degrees of separation from the most admired composer of all. Of course, Rosen is quick to dismiss this kind of lineage (“There is certainly no reason to think that the pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Beethoven reproduces anything like the way Beethoven played”). Nonetheless, Moriz Rosenthal—himself a man of formidable intellect—belonged to the last generation of pianists that still made their own transcriptions of classical music, in Rosenthal’s case works of Johann Strauss. Very few pianists would be capable of that today.

Books about playing the piano are as old as playing the piano itself. C.P.E. Bach’s Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen (1753), though written before the advent of the modern piano, set the tone for such books of practical instruction in an age when teachers were often unavailable. Would-be performers could learn about such matters as notation, posture, and fingering. The books usually concluded with a short section devoted to interpretation. Only fifty years later Louis Adam would create his overtly pedagogical Méthode de piano for the Paris Conservatory. By the middle of the nineteenth century, composer/performers such as Chopin and Liszt were publishing concert études that were played by generations of virtuosi.

Largely as a result of the new emphasis on virtuosity (itself a byproduct of the modernist fascination with machines and their superhuman performance), books about piano playing, such as those by Tobias Matthay (The Act of Touch, 1903), Josef Hofmann (Piano Playing, 1908), Alfred Cortot (Principes rationnels de la technique pianistique, 1928), and Otto Ortmann (The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique, 1929), concentrated almost exclusively on technique. Each advocated an approach that claimed to be the exclusive path to success. In these tracts, questions of expression and interpretation are cheerfully sacrificed to the most extravagant minutiae of mechanical execution.

Against the backdrop of obsession with technique, Rosen’s approach seems outright subversive. In a discussion of sound, for example, he writes that “the exertion needed to produce the greatest fortissimo makes the pianist feel as if merged with the instrument, participating directly in the creation of the volume of sound like a string or wind player.” In speaking of the widely varying physical proportions of pianists from Hofmann to Rudolf Serkin, Rosen asserts with self-evident pleasure that “this variety is the reason that almost all books on how to play the piano are absurd, and that any dogmatic system of teaching technique is pernicious.” This may seem common-sensical until one realizes that closed systems for acquiring the perfect technique are still being promoted in music schools throughout the world.

Indeed, Piano Notes, a work of studied informality, is in many respects so novel that it is easier to define what it is not than what it is. It is not an exhaustive compendium on playing the piano—though it includes a great many observations and practical tips that will be of use to pianists of all sorts. It is not a history of piano playing—though it is replete with references to performers from Mozart to Michelangeli. It is not a history of the piano’s structural evolution as a physical instrument—though Rosen speaks about certain aspects of its construction in detail. It is not a history of musical styles or of piano music in particular—though Rosen invokes examples freely to support his arguments. It is not a social history of piano concerts and competitions, though Rosen has plenty to say on both subjects.

Piano Notes is best understood as a judicious (and sometimes poignant) mix of polemic, anecdote, and homage. The polemic—as frequently humorous as illuminating—sets the tone. For example, Rosen begins his discussion of the piano’s sound with a confession: “Pianists…are perhaps the only musicians who do not have to listen to what they are doing.” In another improbable insight drawn from experience he adds:

They often know…that a note will be wrong a split second before striking it, too late to change the movement of the hand or arm. String, wind, and brass players have to hear what they are doing in order to know if they are really in tune, but the pitch of the notes is supplied in advance for pianists by the piano tuner.

And further: “This might seem to be an advantage: it is actually a handicap. Perhaps no musicians—except conductors—are so little aware as pianists of what their performances actually sound like.”

Instead of conventional comment on the “singing tone” of the piano, Rosen cheerfully acknowledges its three major liabilities—the uniform tone color, the difficulty of controlling a sound once it has been struck, and the impossibility of changing a pitch during performance. But he then argues no less convincingly that “almost anything can be played on the piano, from troubador songs to the orchestral works of Debussy….” Hence most composers since Mozart (Wagner and Berlioz being two momentous exceptions) have composed with at least the image of their fingers on a piano keyboard, with the obvious impact on music of every genre.

In the chapter “The Instrument and Its Discontents” Rosen implicitly defines the “instrument” as a modern Steinway D (the nine-foot concert model, costing six figures when new—and sometimes when used).2 For his generation this has been, for all practical purposes, the only piano to use. What he does not say is that the predominance of Steinway in the twentieth century is as much a product of brilliant marketing as engineering innovation. Nonetheless, Rosen is not altogether blind to the limitations of the modern instrument. He devotes four pages to discussing the evolution of the una corda (“one string”) pedal, which on earlier instruments allowed the hammer to strike only a single string rather than three strings. Rosen cites larger hammers as the reason why on modern instruments the activation of this left-hand pedal causes the hammers to strike at least two strings (and often three, but in a different location).

This explanation, however, begs the fact that Steinway believed a “soft pedal” (as it is generally called today) to be of diminishing importance in larger and larger concert halls. Had the preservation of this capacity been deemed essential, an engineering solution could have been found. In an era when the sine qua non of a piano was the size and resonance of its sound, a distant softness of sound proved to be a dispensable commodity. Nonetheless, Rosen surpasses most modern pianists in candor when he says, “I think it is a mistake to minimize the action of what is left of the soft pedal and take away still more of the variety of tone quality available to pianists of Beethoven’s time.”

The discussion entitled “Conservatories and Contests” opens with another bold statement: “It is much harder to forget music than to remember it.” By this Rosen means, “I can quickly recall almost every work that I learned before I was twenty, and I believe many other pianists have also found this to be true.” Of course, this is the reason why foreign languages are most easily acquired in our youth, or why almost any mental or physical activity becomes most deeply integrated into our character when begun at an early age. But the notion that the pianist must start early, memorialized in Nadia Boulanger’s purported remark that age seven was “too late” to find a teacher, rings increasingly hollow. Richter did not master the canonic piano repertoire until he was in his forties. Michelangeli did not receive formal instruction until he was ten and dropped piano for a while during his teens. Although the celebration of the Wunderkind still persists in some circles, there are plenty of successful pianists today who have come to the instrument gradually.

Rosen argues persuasively that even the best schools of music are constricted by the system according to which students must give recitals evaluated by juries. This all but ensures that graduates will receive their diplomas with only a narrow range of exposure to the vast piano repertoire. It is not unusual for students in a three-year doctoral program to leave after giving three highly polished recitals and little else. This can be as true at Juilliard or Curtis (conservatories noted for their emphasis on performance) as at Michigan or Indiana (where a school of music housed within a research university requires at least a nominal number of courses in addition to music).

  1. 1

    Rosen’s only competition would be Alfred Brendel (four years his junior), whose two books (Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out) and occasional contributions to publications such as this one are genial, informed, and engaging but lack Rosen’s intellectual range and uncanny ability to synthesize.

  2. 2

    Along the way a few factual infelicities creep in. The Steinway B is 6‘10” long, not 6’ (page 71). And the total tension on a Steinway concert grand tuned to A = 440 is not “ten tons” (page 78) but almost twenty-three tons (the equivalent of thirteen medium-size cars dangled end to end).

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