Charles Rosen
Charles Rosen; drawing by David Levine

Charles Rosen is admired both as a concert pianist and as the author of The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, of 1971, and other writings. His new book, long awaited, is The Romantic Generation. Its dust cover reproduces a familiar Romantic painting, which has in fact become a staple of music-book illustration.1 It shows a pianist (he is Liszt) playing for a group of rapt listeners, while he himself gazes upon an outsized classical portrait bust of Beethoven that seems to levitate outside his window, in an otherwise Romantic landscape. The listeners are leading intellectuals and musicians of the time; Rossini, Paganini, Hugo, Dumas père, and George Sand have all fallen under the pianist’s spell.

It is not hard to decode this image, especially if you know that the young Rosen was a student of a student of Liszt. The most obvious message is that The Romantic Generation will not lack for self-confidence. Rosen’s criticism never has. Assured, dogmatic, Tory, sometimes even imperious, he is the sort of critic who knows what the canon is and wherein lies its greatness. It is right there, in the notes, which sing past centuries of footlights for an endlessly applauding ideal audience. Outside of the notes, political and ideological considerations, composer biography, and the programs of program music do not carry much weight with this essentially formalist criticism. Rosen delights in connoisseurship—he will leaf through two dozen Chopin mazurkas to show you the bits he likes best—and he writes as though he were playing opera fantasies by Liszt. The style is high, the manner ex cathedra.2

One can’t play Liszt, of course, without plenty of self-confidence.

When Rosen’s criticism first burst onto the scene, in 1971, its effect was dazzling. It still is. I am not speaking only of the music scene; the National Book Award jury of 1972 was sufficiently dazzled to give The Classical Style a prize, even though one of its members complained publicly that the book was so technical he could not read it. Still, it has sold many, many more copies than any other trade book directed solely or primarily to music professionals; and it is still in print. One must gather that many non-professional readers have been able to negotiate these technicalities, or at least negotiate around them.

They have been able to do so, I think, because although Rosen’s criticism is rooted in musical detail, in his technical commentary on literally hundreds of moments and passages of music and of many complete compositions, this Ursatz (as music analysts would say) generates a foreground that is consistently brilliant—a brilliant compound of interpretation, opinion, enthusiasm, potted musicology, homily and polemic, wit, wisdom, and learning. It sometimes seems that each musical analysis, however brief, and some are not brief at all, leads to a confident interpretative aphorism confirming the mastery of one master-composer or another. (I am exaggerating a little, and of course there are some counterexamples—even one by Chopin.) Rosen is possessed of a formidable fund of general knowledge—he has written about art and literature, as well as music—and he draws upon this to great effect as he weaves his rhetorical fabric.

But for all the bravura, I think the real power of his criticism rests on his immediate musical insight. He has a fantastic ear for musical detail, and also for what I would call the details of musical form—for those elements in a long string of events that make the whole, as he might say, radiant. His analytical genius extends to both music and language, so that again and again he finds just the right words to describe a musical effect simply, clearly, and to perfection.

Granted, the line is not always easy to draw between the beautifully clear, the aphoristic, and the cathedral. Those who have followed Rosen’s work from the 1970s (and even earlier) will feel that it has mellowed; the tone seems less imperious than before, and less disputatious. More impressive than this, it has broadened out significantly from its earlier classicistic, formalistic core. In The Romantic Generation, as we shall see, Liszt-Rosen is sometimes to be found staring at a gargoyle that has taken up a position next to the bust of Beethoven. Or he eyes a distant ruin in the landscape beyond.


The first thing a reader probably wants to know is what a book called The Romantic Generation is actually about. It consists, in fact, of three two-hundred-page books in one. The first is a study of song cycles by Schubert and Schumann and of Schumann’s cycles of piano pieces, such as Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze, in the light of certain Romantic themes. The second book is devoted to Chopin. The third deals with other early Romantic music: Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and opera; and a final chapter returns with a quiet sense of purpose to Schumann.


A compact disc comes with the book, containing piano music played by the author to illustrate the discussion. University presses are not known for bargains, but this is an unusual buy from Harvard at $39.95. One can (and should) also purchase another CD issued independently, with more recorded illustrations.3

The organization and style of the three books are quite different, so that the whole has the slight feel of one of those open-form novels by Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann that Schumann so much admired. The first book is the most original and imaginative. It explores three routes to Romantic music, one of them internal to music, the other two external: sonority, the Romantic fragment, and landscape and memory.

A beautiful opening chapter, “Music and Sound,” makes the most important technical point that has to be made about Romantic music:

[Before the Romantic generation,] tone color was applied like a veneer to form, but did not create or shape it…. The Romantics cannot be said to have enlarged musical experience except insofar as all original composers have done so, but they altered the relationship between the delight in sound and the delight in structure.

We notice that nothing is said about the orchestra; sound here is piano sound, and among the topics treated are pedaling, piano transcription as developed by Liszt, and the nature of keyboard polyphony, starting with Bach (a major presence from first to last). We are never allowed to forget that this is a pianist’s book, almost all about music for or with piano, music comprehended through the fingers as well as through the ear and in the mind. There will be many fascinating asides about piano performance—about fingering, rubato, and so on—and even one heartfelt page on the physical pain of piano virtuosity.

Everybody who writes about nineteenth-century music takes account of the Bach revival at the time, but nobody makes as much of it as Rosen does. Schumann and Chopin were both devoted to The Well-Tempered Clavier; the characteristic homogeneous texture of Bach’s preludes, so different from any classical texture, provided a model for the texture of the small Romantic piano piece. Chopin saluted Bach’s most famous prelude (the C major) in his first etude and his first prelude. The influence of the Well-Tempered fugues was just as important. Bach’s polyphony—Rosen has made this point before—was never intended to make you hear all the voices of a fugue at once. Its purpose was to create a sonorous unity out of those voices which become “intermittently audible,” sometimes when the composer makes them stand out and sometimes when the player does—or when the player simply considers or feels them. Bach’s “private art” mediates between the audible and the inaudible. Rosen is at his most dazzling when he shows how it was the inaudible in Bach that fascinated Schumann.

Chopin, on the other hand, was interested only in the audible. (Schumann was a failed pianist, of course, Chopin a very successful one.) Chopin’s counterpoint is eminently public:

The voices reach full independence only when the listener need be aware of them: elsewhere they remain buried in an apparently homophonic texture. When only latent, they may be hidden but they can always be uncovered—which has given so many pianists the delicious possibility to bring out apparently irrelevant and insignificant inner voices…

A powerful disquisition on Liszt’s invention of a new piano sound comes in due course; Chopin’s exquisite sonorities are predicated on the classic art of counterpoint.

Schumann was the outstanding man of letters in a Romantic generation of composers that was exceptionally rich in literary talent. Among other things, he published aphorisms in belated tribute to the famous Athenaeum fragments of Friedrich Schlegel, and the impact of the idea of the Romantic fragment on music has been the subject of some attention recently.4 For Rosen the fragment becomes a highly suggestive critical tool of notable breadth and richness. A song like Schumann’s “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” exhibits multiple tensions of fragmentariness, of which its lack of a conclusive final cadence is only the simplest. (How many Romantic pieces end, and how differently, up in the air!) In addition, the voice part and the piano part are each incomplete, making sense only as fused together by Schumann, as also happens in many less familiar songs (and in the familiar slow movement of the Piano Concerto). In addition, of course, the song appears at the beginning and forms a fragment of a complex totality, the song cycle Dichterliebe.

Rosen is endlessly subtle and responsive in teasing sense or, rather, sentiment out of these cycles of fragments. It must be done gently. There is no rote Faden such as Goethe detected in classical works of art; Romantic fragments adhere through multiple elastic threads of shifting hues. The last song of Dichterliebe shares the same key as the first song, but that key was ambiguous in the first place. Its poem issues a long string of hyperbole about a huge coffin: Why so big?—the last couplet explains why, but the music qualifies the explanation. The piano postlude quotes a melody from an earlier song, so the earlier words return inaudibly, clarifying nothing, suggesting much. Schumann cut four songs out of Dichterliebe, Romantic remnants (they receive handsome eulogies here) from a multifragmented whole.


Quotations are fragments, obviously, and Schumann was addicted to them. He quoted himself, his fiancée, Beethoven, the Marseillaise, “Caro mio ben” (a sentimental wedding song), and more. In a critical tour de force, Rosen uses “Florestan,” one of Schumann’s pair of self-portraits in Carnaval, which quotes from his own Papillons, Op. 2, to read the great Phantasie, Op. 17, which quotes from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. His emphasis with both works—one tiny, the other very substantial—is on the art by which the quotation is made to suffuse the larger entity. The whole first movement of the Phantasie seems retrospectively to emerge out of the Beethoven quotation at the end. The quotation is both absorbed by its host and maintains its integrity at the same time.

As contrasted to the song and piano cycles, which are congeries of fragments, the Phantasie “reveals the aesthetic of the single Fragment magnified, with a sweep and energy that occurs nowhere else.” Schumann creates what maybe counts as his most successful large form out of a fragment, a procedure so idiosyncratic, says Rosen, that it could never be repeated.5 Rosen is here expounding a Romantic aesthetic of instability, very different from the aesthetic of resolution that he has upheld as the great glory of the classical style.

The CD includes “Florestan,” “Eusebius” (Schumann’s other self-portrait), the entire first movement of the Phantasie and the original ending of the third, which the composer excised—“if an editor had made this change, we would call him a vandal”—and which waited till 1979 for rediscovery and restoration.

Landscape, like the fragment, also turns up regularly in discussions of Romanticism. Simon Schama has just published a large book on Landscape and Memory, a title that also appears as a section subtitle in The Romantic Generation. But music does not appear in Schama’s index, and I do not know of any other treatment of landscape and memory in connection with Romantic music.

For the Romantics, landscape painting and landscape poetry meant freedom from the traditional subject matter of the arts. The model for that freedom, they came to see, was music, because of the very lack of subject matter that had worked against music in the aesthetics of the Enlightenment. “Insofar as landscape painting or landscape poetry works musically, it is a representation of the power of feeling, and consequently an imitation of human nature,” wrote Schiller. Romantic travel literature—sampled here at possibly excessive length—depicts landscape suffused with multilayered memories. Music, the art of time, becomes the art of memory:

It is above all through landscape that music joins Romantic art and literature…. The creation of the song cycle is a parallel to the replacement of epic poetry by landscape poetry and the elevation of landscape painting to the commanding position previously held by historical and religious painting—more than a parallel, indeed, as these achievements supported each other, and were all part of one cohesive development.

Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, the first of the great song cycles, features both landscape, evoked in all six of the poems, and memory—on many levels. Song no. 1 is remembered (recapitulated) as no. 6; no. 2 includes simulated horn calls, the musical topos for memory, absence, and regret; and no. 5 recalls no. 1 imprecisely, as though through a mist described by Wordsworth or painted by Turner. Distance in space merges with distance in time. The composition of An die ferne Geliebte in 1816 was a half-conscious effort, we think, to purge the “Immortal Beloved” affair that had devastated Beethoven four years earlier.

Schubert’s song cycles encompass future time as well as present time and time remembered. Both Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise lead to death, which begins to be presaged halfway through each cycle: with the songs “Thränenregen” (Shower of Tears: “Wir sassen so traulich beisammen“) and “Der Lindenbaum” (The Lime Tree: “Am Brunnen, vor dem Thore“) respectively. Rosen gives each of them particularly trenchant readings.6 The former song is manifestly a fragment, since its way of acknowledging the future is by ending unresolved in the minor mode. But the latter song is a fragment, too:

Within the context of the cycle, “The Lime Tree” is the first intimation that death is a grave consolation after despair: as a separate song, it is merely sentimental and even pretty. The Schubert song cycle embodies a paradox: each song is a completely independent form, well rounded and finished, which nevertheless makes imperfect sense on its own.

Schubert’s landscape-soaked song cycles lead to Schumann’s, where the immediate experience of landscape can and often does disappear, leaving only “the complex sense of time in which past, present, and future coexist and interpenetrate each other.” It comes as no surprise when the next stage of abstraction brings us counter-chronologically back to Schumann’s “song cycles without words” of the 1830s.

With the Davidsbündlertänze, however, the leap from keys, rhythm, and form to time and memory is precarious. Too much, I think, is made to hinge on the recapitulated slow piece in B minor (no. 2: for some reason called a ländler). Some account should also be taken of memories of the “Wie aus der ferne” number (no. 17) in the final waltz—even if these two pieces are not in the same key.


The Chopin chapters of The Romantic Generation are preceded by a “Formal Interlude” addressing technical matters (tonality and phraseology)—a signal that extramusical themes like fragments and landscape will now be retired in favor of internal musical analysis. As the least literary of Romantic composers, Chopin invites this treatment, and Rosen rises to the occasion. Two principles govern the analysis, Chopin’s mastery of form and Chopin’s mastery of counterpoint.

We are on familiar formalist ground here, and the exposition is fairly straightforward, with particularly solid sections dealing with major repertories, the mazurkas—an astonishing, original, and heartwarming survey—the ballades, and the etudes. Much other music is covered en route; two nocturnes are also covered by very beautiful performances by Rosen on the accompanying CD. Schumann, reviewing Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor, threw up his hands at the finale, a masterpiece of the Romantic grotesque:

From this musical line without melody and without joy, there breathes a strange, horrible spirit which annihilates with its heavy fist anything that resists it, and we listen with fascination and without protesting until the end—but without, nevertheless, being able to praise: for this is not music.

Rosen turns this criticism on its head, with a wonderful aside:

We might add in passing that to have been told that one had exceeded the bounds of music while holding listeners fascinated to the end may not have been an unwelcome criticism to a young and ambitious composer.

Schumann acknowledges that Chopin’s forms are intuitively satisfying even when he is at his most rebarbative. The music fascinates or at least interests throughout. It never loses its sense of direction, it never bores. The forms are not classical, but Rosen, starting with that finale, demonstrates again and again how they can be construed and illuminated in classical terms. Chopin “is most original in his use of the most fundamental and traditional technique.”

The discussion is not entirely about structure; we learn, for example, that Chopin sometimes played his mazurkas with so heavy a rubato that listeners had to count them in four-four rather than three-four time. And in a section entitled “Morbid Intensity,” the question of expression is addressed head-on. Chopin evaded the sentimentality of the salon style “by magnifying it and exaggerating it, by forcing it to the point of morbidity”; the overloading of intense detail is demonstrated in several pieces, including one truly ripe camembert of a nocturne, Op. 55, no. 2 in E-flat. Chopin made false sentiment real by intensifying it, says Rosen, and of course he dilates upon the technical means of this intensification. One might add that the technical high finish also militates against sentimentality by establishing authorial distance. The silky counterpoint and the elegant forms make it impossible to forget the agent who is manipulating sentiment, false or real, from the outside.

A memorable reading of the Berceuse addresses the question of technical display in Chopin. Virtuosity is transmuted into tone color:

The work is pure tone color. Structure—conceived as harmony and melody—is close to minimal, but then structure in this piece has largely become texture. The harmony is painfully simple… Over this monotonous underpinning the right hand delicately plays a series of minuscule etudes, two-and four-bar structures in each of which a simple but tricky figuration rises or falls sequentially over the keyboard almost independently of the basic harmony. The apparent indifference of the right hand to the left, of the figuration to the underlying harmony, creates a web of delicate dissonances, a grill of sonority like the mixtures on a Baroque organ that never disturbs the insistently repeating harmonic structure but seems to have a life of its own.

If I say less here about book 2 of The Romantic Generation, as I am calling it, than about the other books, that is not for any lack of appreciation or admiration but because it offers fewer surprises to admirers of The Classical Style. Book 2 is the most cohesive, lucid, and comprehensive of the three; these are classical virtues, and this book-within-a-book is an extraordinary tribute to the flexibility of classical criticism—in the hands of the right critic. It will change the way we think about Chopin, and it should change the way we play him.


Book 3 raises, as it were, the historical ante. It is the most various of the three books, covering Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and opera, and probably the liveliest. Sometimes it is also haphazard, virtuosic, or joky (I think). Works and topics that are manifestly central turn up here—the Liszt Sonata and his Transcendental Etudes, the “Scène d’amour” from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, Bellinian melody—together with some engaging peripheral subjects. Liszt’s “Die Lorelei,” a song that begins a little like Tristan und Isolde, provides occasion for some thoughts on artistic influence and a professional joke about the famous “Love-Death” harmonies. Hard by this comes what can only be called a small, virtuoso seminar paper, fortified with tables, comparing five different versions from 1838 to 1861 of the Sonetto di Petrarca no. 104. Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, a fantasy on themes (and more) from Don Giovanni, testifies to virtuosity in another sense. Rosen reads it as Liszt’s self-portrait as Don Juan. It is the first track on the CD accompanying the book.

One might expect the chapter venomously entitled “Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch” to treat the oratorio St. Paul and “O for the wings of a dove.” But no, it unpacks an early concert fugue for piano, in E minor, Op. 35, no. 1, in which startlingly Bach-like meditative counterpoint is interrupted by an inspirational chorale. This music “substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion,” “it does not comfort, but only makes us comfortable,” and it is said to initiate the whole strain of nineteenth-century pseudo-religious music extending to the César Franck Chorales and Parsifal. The aphorisms take on an uneasy cast if we know that eighteen-year-old Mendelssohn composed the E minor Fugue while sitting up all night with a dying friend.

There is a certain amount of musicological boilerplate in book 3, splendidly polished up, of course, but still somewhat vacant, about Liszt and his vulgarity, Berlioz and his solecisms, opera and politics, and so on. The excathedra manner becomes more noticeable. The chef d’oeuvre of the Berlioz chapter, an analysis of tonality in the “Scène d’amour,” contains many fine insights. Rosen helps us hear this music; but he does not help us fathom the particular fervor that attaches to the love theme when it comes in the dominant key, just twenty-three bars from the final cadence, by telling us only, at the end, that Berlioz’s plan is unclassical. This is criticism in need of a new paradigm. In the bad-tempered opera chapter, the pages on Bellini seem less illuminating than usual, though they display some ravishing unfamiliar melodies, and while Meyerbeer puts in a cameo appearance, Carl Maria von Weber is not so much as mentioned (we meet him elsewhere as a composer of piano music that interested Chopin, like Hummel and John Field, never as the father of German Romantic opera). Presumably this is a joke, or else it is exceedingly absent-minded.

After Liszt the falloff is pronounced, and the disturbing thought presents itself that a magnificent study of the best early Romantic music for and with piano is turning itself into an ill-conceived history of early Romantic music. But Rosen is not writing history, of course, and certainly he does not make any such claim. What he is doing is presenting us with some very striking personal snapshots, not all of them in the best possible focus, to go along with his richly textured portraits of Schumann and Chopin. That does not add up to a historical panorama; and it needs to be criticized, and appreciated, in its own terms.

In the final chapter Rosen circles back to Schumann because he feels that he is the most representative figure of the Romantic generation, a position he occupies as much for his limitations and failures as for his genius and his triumphs. Schumann’s decline in his late years becomes emblematic.

This is a debatable historical judgment; others would say the generation’s representative figure was Wagner. (There may have been a reason after all for the silencing of German Romantic opera.) But Rosen feels what he feels, and unless I am mistaken this final chapter was not written without some twinges of distress. Unhappy biographical considerations come quietly to the fore: Schumann’s madness, his systematic bowdlerization in later years of his radical early music, and his helpless ambition to produce a German music worthy of Beethoven. From adolescence on Schumann was fascinated and terrified by insanity, like many Romantic artists, and in a series of powerful analyses we are shown how he incorporated “elements of madness” into his work. We are also told that life and art are separate, and that those elements are “stylistic rather than autobiographical”; but can’t they be both? The maddest Schumann piece of all is “Florestan,” his depiction of his own violence—I think that when Clara Schumann played Carnaval in concert, leaving out the family portraits “Eusebius,” “Florestan,” and “Chiarina,” she particularly did not wish to play “Florestan.”

The decline can probably be laid partly to burn-out or mental deterioration and partly to self-imposed objectives that were unrealistic as well as overweening and chauvinistic. Shame, says Rosen, fueled those ambitions:

By comparison with the monumental output of Beethoven, his own works and those of his colleagues seemed to him trivial. There were, he wrote, too many composers of nocturnes, bagatelles, dances, characteristic pieces; what was needed was symphonies, sonatas, quartets—the sublime, in short. No one, least of all Schumann, was able at the time to acknowledge that the fundamental task and achievement of his age was to attain the sublime through the trivial.

Least of all Schumann—because the “need” he was postulating and publicizing was for a specifically German music. The route through triviality was ideologically blocked.

Some other feeling—puritanism, fear of appearing mad—caused Schumann to tone down audacities in his early work when he returned to it later. He purged his work of eccentricities to prepare himself for the high style. According to Rosen, his symphonies, oratorios, and so on suffer first and foremost from his inability to vary the pulse, to move persuasively and powerfully from one kind of motion to another—an art that died out with Beethoven. In large forms (and even in some shorter ones) the rhythm becomes obsessional and ultimately inert.

Still, limitations can have their virtues, and The Romantic Generation ends with a marvelous outburst of enthusiasm for (and by) the Novelette in A Major, Op. 21, no. 6, in which Schumann dashes incomprehensibly from theme to theme and key to key in a continuous acceleration, with the tempo ratcheted up by successive metronome marks, up to a brave little joke at the final cadence. It is a pity room was not found on the CD for this piece of inspired madness.

Charles Rosen’s Schumann stands out as his most original and haunting portrait (here or elsewhere), both because of his character—as Rosen presents him—and because of the author’s patent involvement with his subject. Rosen is gripped by Schumann the poet of the fragment, the radical, the obsessional, the joker flirting with chaos and the irrational: with Florestan, in other words. There are other Schumanns: the “jolly, old German, beer-drinking college student” mentioned in a depressing aside, the waltz-composer manqué doggedly churning out the undanceable, and the mawkish Eusebius, who never learns to stay at a proper distance from his work. More importantly, there is the symphonist and the writer of large-scale works.

One understands after reading this book why no true classicist can contemplate Schumann’s large forms with sympathy. Chopin, with his instinctive understanding of classical formal principles, could produce strong Romantic forms; Schumann, lacking that understanding, produced what seem distended pseudo-classical ones. This music will require another critic or critics, bringing new critical apparatus, like the nexus of ideas that Rosen draws together under the rubric of the Romantic fragment to embrace and illuminate the unclassical, anti-classical Florestan. I think we can predict that the Schumann of the piano cycles and the song cycles will now be Rosen’s, for some time. Together with his Chopin, another extraordinary portrait, this will be the lasting contribution of this important book.

This Issue

July 13, 1995