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The Pleasures of Charles Rosen

Alison Beth Waldman/SparkAction.org
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 seemed to hold within its bosom the passions of one past and two future revolutions.” All such corrections, however, feel pedantic. No mistake in Freedom and the Arts niggles me as much as one in his 1998 essay “The Irrelevance of Serious Music” (collected in Critical Entertainments); there he wrote that at the “disastrous first performance of Le Sacre du printemps…members of the fashionable Jockey Club organized a riot of booing and hissing.” Actually it was another Parisian premiere that the Jockey Club disrupted: that of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1860. But such slips are easy; and such essays are rare.

“The Irrelevance of Serious Music” remains among Rosen’s most instructive, heartfelt, and memorable think-pieces, principally in its argument that difficulty has been an essential and valuable component of new art for centuries. Freedom and the Arts has more flaws than any of Rosen’s earlier books—details to correct, lines of argument that should have been better made—but they don’t undermine the collection’s invigorating central ideas or diminish its thrilling scope. And this is also his most personal book: the one in which he reveals most of himself.

Rosen arranges the twenty-eight essays in six parts. Two, “The Weight of Society” and “Long Perspectives,” are exceptional in the range of thought and information their ten essays cover: freedom of meaning in art, culture and the market, the artistic canon and its changes, the history and analysis of music (from several approaches), pianism, criticism, opera. The final section is a single essay, the most wide-ranging of all, to which I will return. The pieces on Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Elliott Carter, written to mark anniversaries of those composers’ birthdates, come together here as “Centenaries.” Rosen, who wrote on three of those in The Romantic Generation and has written another book on Carter, here develops his thoughts on each. Under the title “Classical Modernism: Past and Present,” the essays on Montaigne, La Fontaine, Burton, Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, and Auden are all so substantial that you long for the books that Rosen might build on their foundations.

Each of the seven essays gathered together as “Mostly Mozart,” often picking up where The Classical Style left off, points in a different direction, making us more aware than ever of the vastness of Mozart’s achievement. When, in “Mozart and Posterity,” Rosen says, “Mozart was perhaps the most ambitious composer in the history of music,” and then argues the case, it turns on its head the Amadeus view of Mozart as a helplessly fertile prodigy of nature, while marvelously complicating the extremely multifaceted view of Mozart that Rosen has already constructed.

He has written before of the extraordinary “moment of lyric peace” that Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte make out of the scene when Figaro, alone in the central point of the act 4 finale, believes Susanna is betraying him with the count (“Cuckoldry was never before or again set with such melancholy intensity, as by Mozart’s rich, slow horn calls”). Now he returns to this soliloquy, while analyzing the structure of Mozart’s tonality in this opera, connecting it to other uses of E-flat major, with these words:

Psychologically, this may reasonably be considered the most extraordinary effect in all of Mozart’s dramatic work…. The tempo slows immediately from the direction Con un poco più di moto to larghetto; the shift from G major to E-flat major takes less than a second, and horns and clarinets softly sustain an expressive motif. Mozart is inspired as much by Da Ponte’s genius here as by his own instinct. “Everything is tranquil and placid [Tutto è tranquillo e placido],” Figaro sings, comparing himself to Vulcan as his wife, Venus, couples with Mars, and the atmosphere is classical pastoral.

I have known that passage of The Marriage of Figaro since I was a boy and have it in my head as I write; but Rosen’s account renders it all the more serenely wrenching. “And the atmosphere is classical pastoral” has the same quality of ruminative ruefulness as “Tutto è tranquillo e placido.” Figaro and Rosen here both enter zones far deeper than sarcasm.


Rosen’s voice keeps changing subtly, fluently. He often wears his authority with a light touch of mischief, not least in two essays where he returns to the terrain of the New Grove dictionaries—that of Opera (1993) and the revised and expanded (twenty-nine volume) edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001):

The gaping void at the heart of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera is the absence of an article on Singing. The editor-in-chief, Stanley Sadie, puts a brave face on this, remarking in the preface that the twenty-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music had no article on “Music.” I am told that committing the first crime makes the next ones easier.

Noting that political correctness has influenced the Music and Musicians article “Exoticism,” he writes:

I learned from it that Benjamin Britten used gamelan style to “signal homosexual desire.” Did he do so successfully, I wonder—that is, do members of the audience feel or recognize stirrings of homosexual desire when they hear the gamelan style in Britten?

Rosen, an admirer of William Empson, is a master of showing ambiguity in art—even, at times, ambiguity about art. Some of his most finely balanced writing is on opera, because he retains a healthy sense of that genre’s absurdity as well as its potential. “Operatic Paradoxes: The Ridiculous and the Sublime” (1993) emerges here as one of his most breathtaking achievements: he yokes an expert musicological review of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera to the large issues (sociological, sexual, psychological, aesthetic) prompted by Wayne Koestenbaum’s discussion in The Queen’s Throat of the homosexual cult of opera and, especially, the diva. While Rosen neither praises Koestenbaum’s book as highly as he does The New Grove Dictionary nor finds such fault in it, it prompts him to take flight in one of the most dazzlingly many-faceted passages he has ever written:

In most cultures, the erotic has always been a source of shame, the body a source of disgust—perhaps most of all for the homosexual who has had to outface shame and disgust so often and from so many. Through his worship of the diva, the homosexual discovered what seems to be a way of sexually rejoining the heterosexual community—in its way, as much a fiction or an illusion as the gay community. It is the erotic power of music, which achieves its most obvious effects in opera, that presents the listeners with both a momentary release from anxiety and a transient sense of ecstasy.
Of all the arts, music works most directly on the nerves, seemingly unfiltered through a system of meaning. In the opera, music does not come to us through the words: the words arrive through the music and sometimes give it greater force: in most operas, the force of love. Provided that the staging does not distract or force itself too insistently upon our unwilling consciousness, the music benefits from the bright contrast with the dumpy, sweaty bodies that are producing it—it is like sex without shame or physical awkwardness or postcoital sadness, not as good as the real thing, of course, but still a great consolation.
This is the side of opera from which The New Grove Dictionary of Opera modestly averts its eyes. There is no article on Eroticism and Opera. Why not? There is one on Milwaukee. That is why the entry on Tristan und Isolde, except for the banal observation that the love duet ends with coitus interruptus, does not face the sexual implications of the score, or the way it is almost always Isolde who is on top, so to speak—playing the man’s role, when she stands with the sword raised over Tristan’s wounded body as her narrative recalls in the first act, or seizes the only too obvious symbol of the torch in the second act to brandish it and bring on the catastrophe. It is also why there is no article on Kierkegaard, who wrote more explicitly than anyone before him on the erotic nature of music, and who understood the character of Mozart’s art better than most of the critics who came after. The basis of opera speciously appears to be an opposition between the ideal purity of the music and the gritty reality needed to produce it, the silly costumes, the ridiculous plots, the embarrassing decor: but the music hides within itself a reality fully as abrasive, equally physical.
Mozartium, Salzburg/Alinari/Art Resource
‘Mozart at the Piano’; painting by Joseph Lange, 1789.

As we grow older, we repeat ourselves more. One Mozart story about the quartet in Idomeneo comes around two times in this book, another story about it three. The phrase “of course” occurs in two consecutive paragraphs, the word “great” twice in one sentence, and such expressions of intellectual exasperation as “foolish,” “nonsense,” and “stupid” recur, sometimes attached to the same figures. The pianist Walter Gieseking is called stupid in two essays, great in one; we are told where the greatness lay, but not the stupidity. Such habits can irritate more than concrete errors. No essay here, however, is remotely disfigured by them. There are, by contrast, many more passages that deserve to be quoted out of context than is possible. Even one of Rosen’s most musically specialist essays, “Tradition without Convention,” recommends itself to the general reader in such passages as this:

The identification of the commonplace with the arbitrary is profound, but it obscures the dynamic process of stylistic development: a convention only becomes commonplace when it loses its logical reason for existing—when, in short, it becomes arbitrary, when its justification becomes dubious. A convention remains alive when it seems inevitable; but when we become aware that we can do without it, it begins to be tiresome, and even to seem vulgar. It is not frequency that makes repetition appear commonplace, but the lack of evident necessity. A slice of bread will not seem tiresome to those who find it unthinkable to go without it. When the classical conventions were still vigorous, they were felt to be as indispensable as bread or potatoes.

This gives us Rosen’s eloquent authority with all its good sense and grasp of history. Closer yet to his heart are the many passages that attend to the pleasure of absorbing oneself in a work of art. Let the following example stand for many:

Some wit once said that Mallarmé was a poet so difficult that only foreigners could understand him. There is this much truth in this: foreigners do not read paragraphs or even whole sentences; they read word by word. That is how these poems are to be read, not only to be understood, but even to be appreciated. And they cannot be understood without being appreciated…. The art of reading Mallarmé requires us to realize that the enigmatic surface of his poetry does not cover or hide a secret; and we cannot discard the surface once the treasure has been unearthed. The solution to the enigma is on the surface, which itself becomes the treasure as our experience of it grows.
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