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The Pleasures of Charles Rosen


While praising the anecdotes in James H. Johnson’s book Listening in Paris: A Cultural History, Rosen adds this aside: “(Never underestimate the power of anecdotes: they can be more profound, more creative, than generalizations.)” Much of the anecdotal testimony he himself provides is marvelous. Nothing in his previous writing has prepared us for the flood of artistic reminiscence that illumines his final essay here, written particularly for this volume. It emerges that, in the late 1930s, when he was ten, he saw the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo perform the 1911 Fokine-Stravinsky ballet Petrouchka, with Massine, Danilova, and Franklin as the soloists (“I thought it was one of the grandest things I had ever seen”) and with Fokine coming out at the end to take a bow.

From theatergoing in the 1940s and 1950s, he recalls Fernand Ledoux’s performance as Moliere’s Tartuffe at the Comédie-Française. In the scene where Tartuffe tries to seduce Elvire, placing a hand on her thigh, Ledoux gave “the impression that his hand was completely independent of his volition, as if it were a separate little animal. When asked what his hand was doing there, he glanced at it with great surprise. The effect brought down the house.”

Rosen was “carried along” by John Gielgud’s performance as Leontes in Peter Brook’s production of The Winter’s Tale (Gielgud “played the scene of insane jealousy as if on the verge of an epileptic fit” despite the immensely complex nature of its language, “difficult to comprehend even when read slowly from a book”). At a production of Racine’s Bérénice directed by the young Roger Planchon, “I could hardly see some of the final act for tears.” His very different recollections of the playing of Glenn Gould, Alfred Brendel, and Sviatoslav Richter are terrific.

What thread ties all these memories together? Rosen calls this closing essay “Old Wisdom and Newfangled Theory: Two One-Way Streets to Disaster.” He takes up a theme of urgent importance to him: that you can kill a tradition one way by an unbending adherence to bygone practices (“this approach rests on a belief that works of art or of general culture are fixed objects, forever unalterable, and incapable of development in time”) and another way by modernization without reference to history or to the ideals that brought a work of art into being (“an insistence that we must reshape the past into an image of the modern world, rejecting or discounting whatever we find unsympathetic or alien and difficult to accept”).

At the end of the essay, nonetheless, he yokes the two methods together: “The most satisfactory and enjoyable approach will always be a juggling act that keeps the nostalgia of the past and the exigencies of the present in balance.” In between come Rosen’s memories and a fluent stream of astonishingly catholic references. He discusses how recent editions of Dickens have indicated the original serial structure of his novels and the way American television sitcoms both gain and lose when played without advertisements on European public channels; he contrasts the hanging of paintings by Mark Rothko in a room to themselves at Washington’s Phillips Collection with their sharing a larger room with others at New York’s reopened Museum of Modern Art; and he compares the 1995 Ian McKellen film of Richard III to the Orson Welles staging of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre.

Yet the dominant mood here is one of alarm calls. Dozens of details, culled from seventy or more years’ experience, are luminous, but they are hemmed in by exhortations on one side (“We need to cultivate…We must remember…We must become…We must abandon”) and by pessimism on the other (on opera: “Uncertain of, and even frightened by, the customs of the past, we are no longer sure that divas or star conductors or even scenic effects will attract a public unless we can spruce the superannuated classics up to date”).

It should be exciting that Rosen ends his book with tones of urgency. His larger argument is important; many of his alarms are justified. But this finale is mixed with too much sourness and scorn for comfort—and with overstatement. “It has now become obligatory to dress the Norse gods and primitive Germans of The Ring of the Nibelungs in modern business suits.” Obligatory? Such productions have indeed proliferated. But many New Yorkers will know that it applies to neither of the two last Rings seen at the Metropolitan Opera. (Neither the Kirov in 2007 nor the current Robert LePage was much good, but they didn’t turn Valhalla into Wall Street.)

Rosen says of contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s plays, “Every speech is now chopped into separate clauses with emphatic breaks while the actors pause for reflections.” This is true far more often than I would like; but there are also Shakespeare productions today (by such directors as Peter Hall, John Barton, Trevor Nunn, Adrian Noble, Gregory Doran) that are concerned with stylish verse-speaking, a few of them to the point of irksome mannerism. Rosen’s claim that “performances of Shakespeare have been getting considerably slower since 1950” is not supported by the two-CD Shakespeare Live box sets, issued in 2005 and 2009 by the British Library, of the Royal Shakespeare Company over fifty years. And you have only to go to YouTube to check that, when it comes to “Now is the winter of our discontent,” no modern Richard III is as slow as Henry Irving.


Freedom and the Arts celebrates and illustrates the cultural pluralism of the West—even when celebration tips over, in that closing essay, into lamentation. How do art and freedom intersect? These essays provide many answers. In a superb essay on La Fontaine, reviewing Marc Fumaroli’s account of the poet and Louis XIV, Rosen addresses the paradox that the greatest works of literature created in that monarch’s reign were not written in the years 1652–1661, when Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendant of the finances who “stood clearly for a liberalism that Louis wished to destroy,” maintained a patronage of the arts “on a scale that had perhaps not been seen since the death of Francis I.”

The finest works came later: the tragedies of Racine, the satires of Boileau, the fables of La Fontaine. For all French schoolchildren, these works are still the basis of French classicism. In recognizing this, Fumaroli is forced to claim that the principal achievements of the time, even the tragedies of Racine, were created against the ideals of the King’s cultural policy, although this opposition is hidden under the surface of the works. This is close to a statement, curious in a writer as conservative as Fumaroli, that great art is subversive of official values, a cliché dear to left-wing critics, although no less true for being a cliché.

The first chapter is “Freedom and Art,” recently printed in these pages.* It’s a pleasure to see Rosen returning to the moment in Mozart’s Don Giovanni when the title character proposes the toast “Viva la libertà!” The toast is taken up by his servant Leporello and his three masked guests Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio; Mozart adds kettle-drums and trumpets for the first time since the overture, and the words are repeated with extraordinary emphasis. Rosen has always been (see The Classical Style and Critical Entertainments) among those who insist that “Viva la libertà!” has political dimensions. Now he comes at it from another angle, to illustrate his point that aesthetic expression is separable from a work of art’s demonstrable subject matter.

He’s wrong, surely, to call this a “depiction” of freedom; it’s a declaration. My only large wish, however, is that Rosen would expand his point about looseness of meaning in this toast. Yes, the music suggests political liberty, and yet does any of these five characters really want that? As they keep toasting “la libertà” expansively, one meaning becomes “Liberty on his/their lips? What hypocrisy!”; another is “Come the revolution, you and your type will be gone”; and a third is “You drink to libertinage, but we drink to freedom—freedom from you.” And the whole episode is complicated by how Leporello, Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio, while they now think they want to be free of Giovanni, seem diminished when they get their wish at the end of the opera. It was from him, to whom they are variously in thrall, that they took their vitality. The wish for liberty gives them dimension; its achievement does not.

Rosen makes a fine point that the portrayal of freedom in Verdi’s Aida

is best represented by Aida’s nostalgia for her native land, reminiscent of Azucena’s longing for her native mouintains in Il Trovatore (“Ai nostri monti”), taken up later by Bizet’s Carmen (“Là bas, là bas dans la montagne”). Nostalgia and freedom are often linked concepts. The idea of freedom is usually a vision of a paradise lost.

Aida, however, has three other strong considerations of different aspects of freedom. The heroine’s father Amonasro makes the first, in public, a plea to the king of Egypt to free the Ethiopian prisoners: “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” (“But you, King, powerful lord”). The public spectacle of prisoners caught between death and liberty (the burghers of Calais, for example) was a favorite of nineteenth-century Romanticism. In the next scene, Amonasro, in private with his daughter, invokes freedom again: “Pensa che un popolo, vinto, straziato, per te soltanto risorger può” (“Bear in mind that a defeated and tormented populace can rise again through you alone”). Though Amonasro has been a ruthless bully to his daughter, Verdi gives this sentence a heroically arching vocal line (the last musical expression of the Risorgimento spirit of his long career); and it proves the final defeat to Aida’s resistance. And in the opera’s conclusion Verdi gives its most transcendentally affecting melody to the duet, O terra, addio (“O earth, farewell”), in which Aida and Radamès, defeated in life, welcome the freedom of death.

“Give me liberty or give me death”—the words often attributed to Patrick Henry, and really a revival of the heroic expression of Greek liberty—hang over the dramas of Schiller and several of the political operas of the nineteenth century. The climax of Carmen’s “Là bas, là bas dans la montagne” comes when she cries, none too nostalgically, “et surtout, la chose enivrante: la liberté!” (“and above all, that intoxicating thing: liberty!”) In the opera’s final two acts, when the anarchic Carmen can’t get liberty, she—much like that other fearless operatic sex symbol Don Giovanni—chooses the opposite pole: “la mort.” She connects the two just before José kills her: “Jamais Carmen ne cédera! Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!” (“Never will Carmen give way! Free she was born and free she will die!”) But whereas death for Giovanni brings a vision of eternity (hellfire and devils), death for Carmen is just the final ending. In the Liebestod of Aida, however, death becomes liberty.

These points could not be made without the prompting of Rosen’s book: the “multiple possibilities of significance” is the central theme of his introduction. We return to Rosen not to remind ourselves of his greatness but to come to a better understanding of Mozart’s and Mallarmé’s, to enrich our appetites for classicism, Romanticism, and modernism, and to deepen our love of music, literature, and civilization. Despite the casual disdain he often expresses for fools, his primary task is always to write about the art in which he takes pleasure. “Without pleasure, there is no understanding…. You cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn.”


Boccanegra’s Risorgimento July 12, 2012

  1. *

    The New York Review, May 10, 2012

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