Charles Rosen was a pianist and music critic. In 2011 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal.

Freedom and Art

The Metropolitan Opera’s 1991 production of The Magic Flute, with sets by David Hockney
We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room.

The Super Power of Franz Liszt

Josef Danhauser: Franz Liszt at the Piano, 1840. Seated are Alexandre Dumas Sr., George Sand, and Marie d’Agoult; standing are Hector Berlioz, Nicolò Paganini, and Gioachino Rossini. On the piano is a bust of Beethoven by Anton Dietrich,and on the wall is a portrait of Byron.
The bicentenary of Franz Liszt (1811–1886) follows hard upon those of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, and he has conserved his place as one of the supreme Romantic composers. Nevertheless, his career as a composer was always cursed by the fact that he was also, it is generally agreed, the greatest pianist who ever lived. The major part of his work was for piano, much of it tailored for himself to perform, many of the pieces presenting a difficulty of execution almost never before seen. As a result, even today most performances of Liszt are generally intended not as a specifically musical experience, but chiefly to display the pianist’s technique.

Elliott Carter’s Music of Time

A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects …

Elliott Carter’s Music of Time

Elliott Carter

A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.

The Brilliant Music of Ravel

Maurice Ravel
The simple story of the history of the arts as a battle between revolutionary innovators and stodgy conservatives in positions of power (a story that always ends with the victory of the innovators, whose works are handed down to posterity and become the basis for the future) does not fit …

The Pleasures of Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud in bed after Paul Verlaine shot him in the wrist; painting by Jef Rosman, 1873
Poems Under Saturn was the first book published by the twenty-two-year-old Paul Verlaine. Illuminations was the last book written by Arthur Rimbaud, at the age of twenty or twenty-one, after which he not only gave up writing but refused a year or so later even to discuss any literary subject, …

The Revelations of Frank Kermode

‘The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero’; engraving of a scene from The Tempest by Jean Pierre Simon after a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1797
The most versatile and the most distinguished of English literary critics since William Empson, Frank Kermode, died on August 17 of last year. Coming not from the English mainland but from the Isle of Man, he always felt somewhat alien in Britain even after he held prestigious positions at the universities of London and Cambridge. He was knighted, but did not display the Sir on his books: his autobiography was entitled Not Entitled.

Music and the Cold War

Elliott Carter (right) with William Glock, who as head of music at the BBC from 1959 to 1973 was one of the most important advocates of modernist music, at the back entrance of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1985
My friends let me know that Professor Richard Taruskin has written an article entitled “Afterword: Nicht Blutbefleckt?” (Not Blood-Stained?) in The Journal of Musicology,1 partially devoted to answering my review of his Oxford History of Western Music in The New York Review.2 In this answer he declares himself …

Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!

Robert Schumann, 1850; daguerreotype by Johann Anton Völlner
Of all the composers who have made a permanent contribution to the standard concert repertoire and who have radically altered the subsequent history of classical music, Robert Schumann, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, has inspired the greatest misunderstanding. The misunderstanding began with his own conception of his genius and …

Happy Birthday, Frédéric Chopin!

Frédéric Chopin; painting by Eugène Delacroix, circa 1838
When Chopin, born two hundred years ago in 1810, died in 1849 at the age of thirty-nine, his work was firmly established as a permanent part of the central musical tradition, his influence felt throughout the musical world of the West. Critical opinion, however, even among his greatest admirers was …

Radical, Modern Hofmannsthal

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, circa 1910
From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, many young men and women would go through a spell of writing lyric poetry in late adolescence, abandoning the practice forever when they reached the age of reason around twenty-one years old. However, those who failed to persist beyond their early twenties never …

On Isaiah Berlin: Gossip

Isaiah Berlin with Sidney Morgenbesser, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, New York City, 1980s
Gossip The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS[^*]—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him …

Isaiah Berlin’s Civilized Malice

The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him unfavorably with his close contemporary, the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse. Neither were truly major historians but Berlin was not really a historian at all, in the full sense of that word, nor was he exactly a philosopher. His field, largely untrodden and little understood, was the intersection of philosophy, aesthetics and history: in this, his achievement was very great, above all in his profound elucidation of the way that ideas like freedom, enlightenment and nationalism could appear, develop and be challenged in the politics and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Lost Pleasure of Browsing

I have read that more books in the United States are now sold online than in bookstores, and have noticed—and assume a causal connection—that there are less books on the shelves of stores. Since I almost never want to buy a book until I have held it in my hands and riffled through the pages, this means that I shall be purchasing fewer books in the future. Just as well, I suppose, as there is no space on my shelves.

Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!

Elliott Carter at Carnegie Hall on his hundredth birthday, December 11, 2008; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
Turning one hundred years old on December 11, 2008, Elliott Carter must have found the experience exhilarating and rejuvenating. When I went to see him on the afternoon of his birthday, he was hard at work on a song cycle for soprano and clarinet on poems by Louis Zukofsky. He …

What Happened to Wystan Auden?

At the age of thirty-one, Wystan Hugh Auden, the major British poet between A.E. Housman and Philip Larkin (with a range of styles, techniques, forms, and themes far greater than either’s), left England to settle in New York until a year before his death. Other poets of the twentieth century …

The Genius of Montaigne

Montaigne remarked that when someone dwelt on the language, the style, of his Essays, “I would prefer that he shut up.”[^1] It was, above all, the objective content of which he was proud, more material and denser, he says, than in other writers. But, as he observes at once, his …

The Best Book on Mozart

Another book in English on Mozart might not seem to be a pressing need just now after the extravagant outpouring of the 250th anniversary of his birth last year, but we have waited a long time for this one. When, eighty-eight years ago, Hermann Abert’s W.A. Mozart appeared, it was …

Opera: Follow the Music

Divas and Scholars is somewhat more about scholars than about divas (although there is enough about divas to satisfy those whose fancy lies in that direction). It deals with Italian opera of the early nineteenth century—that is, the work of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the early operas of Verdi, but …

Mozart at 250

More than any other famous composer, Mozart arouses not just admiration but envy. Brahms once called him the greatest disaster that can happen to another composer. Debussy, in his combat against the mainstream Teutonic tradition, said that it was a pity that Mozart wasn’t French, because he would be worth …

From the Troubadours to Sinatra: Part II

By the middle of Volume 2 of his entertaining, provocative, and massive Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, plus a sixth with indices and a chronology), Professor Richard Taruskin reaches the repertory familiar to all music lovers—Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, with the Romantics from Chopin to Tchaikovsky …

From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra

A history of Western music is, more or less, a history of all the music that has a history—that is, a large body of musical works that stretch from a distant past to the present through a series of stylistic revolutions. Other civilizations, India in particular, have magnificent musical traditions, …

Playing Music: The Lost Freedom

Before 1900 in Europe and America, it was at home that music was most often experienced, by family members who played some instrument or sang, and by, willingly or unwillingly, the rest of the family and friends. (In Western society among the lower middle class and upward, most music was …

The Anatomy Lesson

Long ago when reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time, Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was a best seller. This was a curious fate for a superannuated medical treatise written in the early seventeenth century not by …