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).

Rosen urges students to resist homogenization:

I do not challenge the idea that there is a correct tempo for a work, at least during certain periods of history…. Nor do I challenge the belief that we can sometimes… determine what that tempo was. What I regret is the failure to realize that it is often effective and advantageous to play a work at the wrong tempo. Many great performers have given wonderful and illuminating renditions of works at tempos that they themselves could believe was the one the composer intended only by cultivating a delusion.

This is a call to arms that all pianists would do well to take to heart.

What Rosen does not address is any workable alternative to institutional training. Just as many composers are forced to consummate an awkward marriage with academia, performers often matriculate and then graduate, only to end up teaching the next generation of pianists to matriculate and then graduate. One ironic byproduct of two world wars was that they forced performers to flee and to relocate. In a pre-digital era it meant that audiences in London and America got to hear artists of different national origins and styles: Backhaus, Gieseking, and Schnabel (Germany); Michelangeli (Italy); Casadesus and Cortot (France); Bartók (Hungary); Paderewski, Rosenthal, and Rubinstein (Poland); Lipatti (Romania); and Horowitz (Russia). Only war made this possible. In the 1950s one could play a recording by almost any major pianist and know within a few bars who it was. Today you can sample a half-dozen recent recordings of Schumann’s Fantasy and not be able to distinguish a single one of its performers.

Rosen is at his best when discussing institutions in which he heartily disbelieves, and here piano competitions provide a perfect foil. The dozen pages chronicling his experience as an occasional judge should be required reading for every lover of the performing arts. Consider the following: “An artist must be judged by his greatest achievement. Lord Acton wrote that a criminal is to be judged by his greatest crime.” “A fine performance automatically engages attention and lifts the spirits, but I think that it is not often understood how difficult it is to sit through a mediocre execution without letting one’s mind go blank.” And:

In my experience the finest pianists, when they are not in their best form, do not give a mediocre or moderately good performance, but tend to produce a disaster or an outrage.

Along with such amiable polemics, one finds in Piano Notes a series of anecdotal vignettes about famous musicians, sometimes used to support a particular point, and at other times seemingly because they have proved irresistible. The world of piano playing has many apocryphal tales, some of which are even true; others recall the adage that “even if it wasn’t true, it should have been.” Some of Rosen’s accounts are firsthand, as when he recalls how, during a recording session with Gregor Piatigorsky of a work by Webern, he was forced, in editing the tape, to adjust the volume of the great cellist’s pizzicato. It was Robert Casadesus who pointed out to Rosen that a hall with resonant acoustics (such as Carnegie Hall) could tolerate long stretches with the damper pedal down far better than a dry hall. In response to Rosen’s inquiry about why Josef Hoffman played Chopin’s G Major Nocturne so fast, a friend replied: “He can’t play it any faster.” In his youth Rosen watched Rudolf Serkin throw his hands twice high in the air for dramatic effect during the daunting second-movement march of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101, producing two spectacular clams (a musician’s jargon for wrong notes).

Other incidents are one step removed, such as the story related to Rosen by his teacher Rosenthal about Ferruccio Busoni’s response to chronic requests to perform after dinner; on one such occasion he purportedly exacted his revenge by performing all five late Beethoven sonatas without a pause—roughly two and a half hours of music. Other tales (admittedly many of the best) are simply served up with their veracity left open. Did Robert Casadesus really refuse “to play the glissandi in thirds and fourths in Ravel’s Alborado del Gracioso after seeing blood on the keys after one performance”? Is it true that Wilhelm Backhaus “used to play a program all in C-sharp minor”? Did Rachmaninov really walk into a studio and start recording without warming up, thereupon playing a piece as many as sixteen times? While a dose of skepticism may be in order, Rosen’s confidential sharing of tales from the keyboard brings the amateur deep into the world of piano history and lore.

The final theme of Piano Notes is perhaps the most elusive. In all essential respects the volume is a farewell, both personal and historical. The youngest of the pianists that Rosen quotes or invokes are in their seventies, and most of them are dead. Already on page 10 Rosen describes the “combination of metal, wood, and ivory…that make up the dinosaur that the concert piano has become.” On page 75 he finds it “bizarre that an instrument that has grown to such monstrous proportions since the eighteenth century should need such delicate and fussy adjustment….” In the chapter on “Concerts” Rosen notes “the decline of concerts [by which I assume he means solo piano recitals] in small towns.” Surely he understates the case. Most pianists on the circuit today will tell you that by far the easiest engagements to obtain are to play concertos, followed distantly by chamber music, with solo recital series having been either severely cut or eliminated altogether.

In his “Postlude” Rosen acknowledges outright that

the piano, hero and villain, which helped to confirm the full hierarchical system of tonality in the late eighteenth century and was also one of the forces that conspired to destroy authentic classical tonality…may itself be becoming obsolete.

As the instrument that enjoyed the highest cultural prestige from about 1800 to the First World War, it has already become obsolete.3 Not only do “fewer people learn the instrument today” (as the dust jacket laconically states) but many fewer people go to hear recitals of piano music from Bach to Liszt (or perhaps to Bartók). In a visual age of market-driven mass culture the piano recital presenting masterpieces is an institution that is receding into obscurity.

There are additional reasons for the decline of the piano as a dominant instrument. It retains its position in jazz largely because jazz has become the new classical music (prestigious manufacturers such as Bösendorfer sponsor such artists as Oscar Peterson). But jazz is less popular today than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. As far as popular music is concerned, Rosen writes naively, “perhaps because it is too unwieldy to be easily portable, or because of the high wages demanded by stevedores [sic] today, the piano has not won an important role in rock or rap.” That would come as a surprise to everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Richard (both still going strong) to Elton John, Billy Joel (the “Piano Man”), the Allman Brothers, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, and Randy Newman (to name only a few). Rap is quite explicit in privileging rhythm over pitched instruments, so electric guitars find themselves just as much exiled as pianos.

Many pop bands have found the conventional piano too homogeneous in tone color, which explains the rise of synthesizer keyboards, beginning with the Yamaha DX-7 in 1982 and evolving into the extraordinarily versatile Korgs, Rolands, and Kurzweils of today. The imprint of the piano, nonetheless, is all over these instruments.

Rosen evidently feels threatened not only by the general decline in prestige of the piano but by the rise of period instruments—which he chooses to label with its earliest and most unfortunate incarnation: the “authenticity movement.” This encourages him to pass on stories that early recordings of the Mozart symphonies (he has to be speaking of those by the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood) required retuning by the strings “every thirty seconds or so.” Even at that time this was nonsense; period instrument violinists were already performing the fifteen-minute Bach Chaconne without any need to retune.

The historically minded authenticity movement,” writes Rosen, “…downgrades the taste of the individual performer and encourages the attempt to reconstruct the sound a composition from the past would have had during the lifetime of the composer.” This assumes that embracing the second half of this proposition requires adopting the first half, but there is little evidence that they go together. Some years ago I listened closely to a half-dozen performances of Beethoven’s early piano concertos on both modern and period pianos. What I found did not surprise me: the interpretations—both literally and in their ranges—were nearly identical and equally limited among both groups. For example, both groups played soft passages slower than loud passages. Both played rhythmically active passages faster than less active ones. Chromatic passages called for slowing. Ritards were mandatory for the close of major sections. The “modern instrument” pianists included Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, and Alfred Brendel—not one of them a mediocrity.

It is not hard to understand Rosen’s thinly veiled antipathy toward period performance, for it has forced modern pianists into the kind of double vision which requires that they look both backward and forward. Yet none of this points to the annihilation of the piano as an instrument with a future. While the piano’s prestige has declined dramatically, it shows no signs of disappearing. Large-scale works for the solo piano such as John Adams’s Phrygian Gates are impressive signs of its vitality. Adams falls into that group of “neotonalists” whom Rosen labels “a poor substitute for the subtle and powerful work of the past.” From the perspective of the Central European tradition between 1720 and 1900, perhaps. But from the perspective of Donna Summer’s “I Love to Love You,” Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the years 1976 and beyond have been big years for music.

For himself, Charles Rosen has courageously and convincingly championed the music of modernists such as Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter. The great Western classical tradition has had no more persuasive advocate in this century, and his ideas have profoundly transformed the way almost all of us think about the classical repertory. If your shelves have room for one volume about the piano from glory to decline, Piano Notes is the book of choice. Rosen’s valedictory paragraph predicts stoically that “the survival of the piano repertoire from Bach to Berio will depend essentially not on whether anyone wants to hear it, but on how many want to play it and refuse to settle for anything else.” If the meaning here is opaque, the final sentence, which asserts that “it is the physical pleasure of playing as well as hearing the piano that holds the key to the future of the music written for it,” is even more elusive. Though the story of the piano in our new century is scarcely begun, it will be much more than the “physical pleasure” Rosen invokes that will shape its future.

  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).

  3. 3

    If you read any of the voluminous reports of the industrial congresses held from the Crystal Palace in London of 1851 to the First World War, you will be surprised to discover that the concert grand piano received more coverage than any other item of manufacture, including locomotives and steam turbines. Piano makers used virtually all of the materials available at that time: soft woods such as spruce, hardwoods such as oak, fancy veneers, bone, ivory, ebony, brass fittings, a cast iron plate capable of withstanding enormous pressure, and steel strings (the Brooklyn Bridge is literally supported by piano wire).