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The Pleasures of Charles Rosen

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Alison Beth Waldman/SparkAction.org
Charles Rosen receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House, February 2012

1.

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.

2.

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.
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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.

3.

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.

4.

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.”

Letters

Boccanegra’s Risorgimento July 12, 2012

  1. *

    The New York Review, May 10, 2012

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