Charles Rosen

Dominique Nabokov

Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991

Charles Rosen’s first review in these pages appeared just over fifty years ago, in the February 26, 1970, issue, and it was an absolute stinker. The object of his philippic was the second edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, and he laid into it with a will: “The Harvard Dictionary of Music offends against decorum on the first column of its first page.” Having set the terms of engagement, he lashes about him left, right, and center, starting with “the initial entry, A,” before pulverizing con abbandono and Abbreviations. Within a paragraph he expertly punctures any pretensions to authority or even usefulness the hapless tome might have:

True howlers and misinformation of course abound in all dictionaries, and the Harvard Dictionary of Music is no exception, but they are to be expected and even welcomed; they complement the more serious parts of a work of reference as the satyr-play sets off the tragedy. I am as delighted as the next reader to find Ravel’s Jeux d’eau defined as Water-games, as if it were not the play of fountains but a form of water-polo. To read again that Beethoven introduced the trombone into symphonic music (to say nothing of the triangle and the big drum) should excite more sympathy than censure, and the idea that Schoenberg actually intended his Music for a film sequence as part of the repertoire for silent films, like the pieces labeled “Help, Help,” is too ludicrous to mislead, and too engaging to wish corrected.

This somewhat barbed benevolence doesn’t last. He is unrelentingly detailed and seemingly omniscient in his assault:

The examples of typical rhythms of ars nova and ars antiqua are oddly chosen: the purpose of ars nova notation was to accommodate easily a wider and more complex range of rhythm, and the ars nova example is both simpler and more limited than the one of ars antiqua. This is another case where a correct presentation can misrepresent the essential musical point.

Pausing for breath halfway through the onslaught, he observes that until this point he has dealt largely with errors that could easily have been avoided by a respect for the nature of a dictionary—its necessary clarity, elegance, and order. “But there are graver charges to be preferred against the Harvard Dictionary; it is often tendentious, its approach is too frequently unhistorical, and it is consistently stuffy in outlook.” The bloodbath of a review ends on a killingly kind note:

It remains to be added that the book is handsomely presented, the paper is splendidly white, the print agreeably black and legible…. The volume is sturdily bound, and sports its crimson colors bravely.

Who was this new Aretino, this Daniel come to judgment? He was scarcely unknown. Since his debut in 1951, Rosen had established himself at the forefront of American pianists, with a discography that revealed the uncommon reach of his repertory: Bach, Haydn, late Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy (one of the first recordings of the complete Études), Ravel, Bartók, Martinů, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Carter, plus Scarlatti and Mozart played on the famous Siena pianoforte. He notably embraced both the classical repertory and the ultramodern—in the case of Carter, the newly composed. What characterized Rosen’s music-making was rigor: fierce intelligence, structural clarity, textual authenticity. And then, perplexingly, there was Virtuoso! Electrifying Performances of the World’s Most Difficult Piano Showpieces, an hommage to the keyboard lions of another generation.

Here was a curious phenomenon: an austere showman, poised on a Classical-Romantic axis, but with an appetite for the most abstruse contemporary music. And as his first New York Review piece revealed, one possessed of a formidable depth of knowledge, both musical and historical, and the ability to express himself with force, clarity, and wit. Not to mention that he was immensely handsome, tall and slim, a fashion plate in his concert tails.

The year after that first review—the harbinger of many more over some forty years—his first book appeared, The Classical Style, an exhaustively researched and brilliantly conducted investigation into the three towering masters of the First Viennese School: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It immediately became, and has remained, a bedrock of our understanding of that period and that music, required reading for anyone, practitioner or listener, who wanted to know, in the words of Rosen’s great friend Milton Babbitt, what those pioneering geniuses “were up to.”

The Romantic Generation (1995) performed a similar service for Chopin, Schumann, and the young Liszt, while the dauntingly entitled Sonata Forms (1980), some fifteen years earlier, had enthrallingly exposed the backbone of the musical form that for nearly two centuries held Western music in so powerful a grip. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about all of these books is that though they are unapologetically technical and analytical, they have the pace and the excitement of detective stories—The Classical Style, as the pianist Jeremy Denk observed in his New Yorker reminiscence of his friend, “reads like a thriller.”


These three books, as well as Romanticism and Realism (1984), an important contribution to art history coauthored with his longtime companion Henri Zerner, form the core of Rosen’s reputation as a scholar, but there are ten more books that collect essays on a broad range of subjects, from the cookery books of Elizabeth David to the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, from the painting of Caspar David Friedrich to madness in poets, many of them written for these pages. The title of Critical Entertainments (2001) could stand for all these collections, in which he gives free rein to his sense of fantasy, his love of the arcane, his sharpness of tongue, his sauciness. He is never less than vivid: reviewing The New Grove Dictionary of Opera in 1993 (on the whole quite kindly), he discerns a “gaping void” at its heart:

[In opera] 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.

In these writings he shows himself to be a great entertainer, but never merely that: just as his major critical writings all have the form of inquiries, so these smaller pieces are driven by his ceaseless curiosity. In the introduction to Freedom and the Arts (2012) he says:

Listening and reading with intensity for pleasure is the one critical activity that can never be dispensed with or superseded…. Only a rereading [of Montaigne’s essays] will tell us that his conclusions are generally provisional and the interest for the reader lies in the voyage and not in reaching the goal.

It is of himself as much as of Montaigne that he writes.

Scattered throughout the books are passing references to Rosen’s own past, but nowhere can one find a detailed account of his life. He was born Charles Welles Rosen in 1927 in New York City, in the apartment on 78th and Columbus in which he continued to live until his last illness; his parents were Irwin, an architect closely associated with the distinguished Beaux Arts practitioner William Welles Bosworth—closely enough for Charles to be named for him—and Anita, a great beauty who had once been an actress and was an accomplished pianist; she was nearly twenty years younger than her husband. Charles betrayed astonishing precocity, both intellectually and musically, accurately reproducing on the piano what he heard long before he could read music. He liked to tell the story of how, exposed at a very early age to Debussy, he protested that there should be a law against it: “I’d been brought up on Beethoven and Wagner. And I was furious.”

In an important sense, Rosen never ceased to be that precocious boy, always ahead of everyone else, avid to learn, and compulsively eager to share his knowledge. He started music lessons at the age of four; when he was six, he enrolled in classes at the Juilliard School, and at eleven he started studying with Hedwig Kanner, the wife of Moritz Rosenthal, one of the greatest of all piano virtuosi, a pupil of Liszt, and a friend of Brahms. Intrigued by the boy wonder, Rosenthal increasingly took over the teaching, introducing him to the prodigious techniques of high Romantic pianism. Rosen later recalled:

He immediately understood that I had a taste for difficulty and intellectual effort. That’s why he asked me to learn the Beethoven Sonata op. 106 (the Hammerklavier), the fugue, when I was just thirteen years old.

Rosenthal was a highly cultivated man, a student of aesthetics with a degree in philosophy; the teenaged Rosen also studied privately with the composer Karl Weigl, one of Mahler’s assistants in Vienna, another polymath, who read Greek fluently and had a law degree from the University of Vienna.

Such was the astonishing intellectual and artistic community almost literally on young Charles’s doorstep. Weigl advised the boy to pursue a university education, so he went to Princeton, but not to study music. “I really did know more music as an undergraduate than the postgraduate students,” he told Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian. Instead, he attended lectures by the composers Babbitt and Martinů and the musicologist Oliver Strunk—all of whom he knew personally through Rosenthal and Weigl—while studying French and coming under the influence of Ira Wade, a noted Voltaire specialist.


He stayed at Princeton for seven years, leaving in 1951 with a Ph.D.; he then went to Paris on a Fulbright to study the relationship between poetry and music in sixteenth-century France. He may have been happy to be out of the family apartment: his father, unemployed for some years, had become increasingly bitter, while his mother, sometime after the birth of their second son, Donn (who grew up to be a distinguished ichthyologist), contracted Parkinson’s disease. This led her husband to forbid her ever to do anything for herself—in effect turning her into an invalid. Rosen fiercely opposed his father for this.

In Paris, Rosen became involved with the raffish businessman Tommy Michaelis. His attitude toward his own homosexuality was curiously modern, according to the cellist David James, who was very close to him in the 1990s: it never crossed his mind, says James, that there might have been anything wrong with it, though in the 1950s, as many American expatriates discovered, these things were easier in continental Europe. Returning to the United States, he taught a part-time course at MIT on French civilization, in French.

The rest of the time he pursued his career as a pianist, mainly out of town; after two years he was taken on by Columbia Artists and only then came to wider attention. For a prodigy he had taken an awfully long time to find his public. What he had told Rosenthal a decade before remained true: he had a taste for difficulty and intellectual effort. Even in high Romantic repertory, his performances have a certain austerity, a muscularity, a seemingly conscious avoidance of easy charm; they are not notable for warmth or sensuality. In Bach and late Beethoven the lucidity and the engagement with the music take one very close to the heart of it; in Carter, Boulez, and late Stravinsky, the clarity is laser-like. But in Chopin and Schumann, in Liszt and even in Bartók, one misses flesh and blood, ardor, caprice.

It is striking that in private or in the lecture hall, it was a different story. “Mid-meal he’d shuffle to the piano to demonstrate,” wrote Denk:

Critics often said that his playing was cerebral or stiff, but his playing in private felt wonderfully wayward, Romantic, old-school. True, sometimes it was just erratically erratic, but it could also be meaningfully erratic, inspired erratic: precious liberty from a more forgiving time.

The composer Christopher Fulkerson recollected a seminar when Rosen was a guest professor at Berkeley:

At one point Rosen gave a spontaneous discursus on the piano sonatas of Weber, which he then played by heart, admonishing everyone all the while about how important it was to know this music…no one would be surprised that he could play all of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven…but one piano sonata after another of Weber? No one saw that coming.

This is surely what Rosen was talking about when he said, “Pianists are like tenors—we’re very stupid; they like to feel their voices, we like to feel the ivory under our fingers.”

It seems that after a point he no longer felt this, not in public, at any rate. No doubt the explanation lies in something with which he was becoming increasingly familiar: stage fright. As early as 1972 he wrote for the now long-defunct magazine Prose an essay he called “The Aesthetics of Stage Fright”:

The stifling air of the concert hall, the unnatural costume of the performers, the harsh lights—all this is meant to turn playing into performance, into a dramatic act midway between melodrama and the decathlon. The silence of the audience is not that of a public that listens but of one that watches—like the dead hush that accompanies the unsteady movement of the tightrope walker poised over his perilous space.

He came to the conclusion that the performance

must be protected from confusion with the everyday occurrence of music heard and overheard, and for this stage fright is not merely symbolically but functionally necessary, like the dread of a candidate before an examination or a job interview, both designed essentially as a test of courage. Stage fright, like epilepsy, is a divine ailment, a sacred madness.

This is accurate, far-reaching, and funny, but it’s doubtful that it can have offered him much comfort or reassurance.

Charles Rosen and Elisabeth Zerner,

Henri Zerner

Charles Rosen and Elisabeth Zerner, Engelberg, Switzerland, late 1950s

His concert and recording career began increasingly to take second place to his teaching, writing, and public speaking; finally he would only lecture if he could also give a recital. Zerner reports that he rarely played at his best in the first half of a concert, and Pierre Boulez—with whom he had earlier happily collaborated on a number of recordings, including a prodigious album of the composer’s first and third piano sonatas—became nervous about working with him. Nothing daunted, Rosen continued to pour out ideas in profusion, in public and in private, buoyant and brilliant to the last. If he had a tendency to take over the dinner table—on one occasion Carter and his wife spent the morning after a party calling up their friends to apologize for Rosen’s overexuberance—it was due neither to arrogance nor vanity but, in the words of David James, “because he wanted to teach his circle. He spent his time trying to push us, his circle of friends, further than we could ever go.”

Writing continued to pour out of him to the end, including a sharp and very sexually aware account of the plays of William Congreve, the last piece of his in these pages, published shortly after his death. The urge to increase his knowledge and then to share it was an overwhelming imperative, whether it was the techniques of lutenists in the seventeenth century, a new translation of Balzac, the correct principles of viticulture, his latest viewing of Bringing Up Baby (his favorite film), or the newest episode of Absolutely Fabulous. “It was very tiring to spend time with him, absolutely exhausting,” says James. “But he was the most generous person. He meant the best, he did the best, with this incredible intellect which was quite frightening. It was like being in the middle of a tornado.”

Nearly at the end, still fascinated by the new, he gave a talk called “The Challenges of Modernist Music.” “I’ve been asked to talk on the subject of modernism,” he said, “and I’m a little afraid that I may have written myself out on that subject.” The penetrating quotation from Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections with which he prefaces his talk is a living refutation of that.

All great excellence in life or art, at its first recognition, brings with it a certain pain, arising from the strongly felt inferiority of the spectator. Only at a later period, when we take it into our own culture and appropriate as much of it as our capacities allow, do we learn to love and esteem it.

He died in 2012, heavy with honors. The year before—along with, among others, the poet John Ashbery, the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, and the historians Robert Darnton and Teofilo Ruiz—he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama; at the time of his death he was emeritus professor of music and social thought at the University of Chicago, a suitably compendious designation for the most comprehensive of musician-authors. But the honor that might have pleased him most was a posthumous one: Denk and Steven Stucky had the barmy but inspired idea of turning The Classical Style into an opera, which was performed in 2014 and whose characters include not only Tonic, Dominant, and—an understated role, this—Subdominant, but also Charles Rosen, who sings an arioso, “The Birth of Classical Style”:

Just imagine it—the chaos of the period
from the death of Handel to 1775:
The successes were all partial.
A composer had to choose
between dramatic surprise and formal perfection,
between expressivity and elegance.

And now, eight years after his death, comes one final offering: The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking, a translation of a book that first appeared in French in 1993. It consists of a series of conversations between Rosen and his old friend Catherine Temerson (who died in 2015). “Catherine,” says her husband, Israel Rosenfield, in his foreword,

knew Charles and the circle of musicians that were close friends of her family—Elliott Carter, Arthur Berger, Dimitri Mitropoulos, among others—since her childhood. Her mother was a painter and her father a violinist. Her mother prepared superb dinners, and her father played sonatas with Charles. They lived for music.

There have been a number of highly successful conversation books with musicians—Daniel Barenboim with Edward Said, Harrison Birtwistle with Fiona Maddocks, and, of course, the granddaddy of all such enterprises, Stravinsky with Robert Craft. The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking is not quite like any of these, which are—or are made to seem to be—real conversations, with give-and-take between the participants. The present volume is more formal, almost catechistic: Temerson (who, in addition to being a skilled amateur violinist, was by profession a dramaturg) seems determined to elicit statements of intent from her friend; above all, she is preoccupied with the place of analysis in Rosen’s performing life and that of musicians in general.

His inclination is to be as ambivalent as possible, but she is determined to pin him down. “Are musical analysis and musicology necessary training for a performer?” she asks. “A certain type of analysis is not essential for a performer,” he says. “It may be a source of pleasure, but there are great performers who have never looked at music from this perspective.” “When you approach a new work,” she continues, “do you begin by analyzing it?” “Analysis has nothing to do with it,” he replies. “I am only following the composer’s instructions, which are written on the page. One begins by rendering what is written before moving on to seeking color, expression, and so on.” “So, what, exactly, does analysis consist of?” persists Temerson. And he fires back a brilliant answer:

It’s important to focus on the particular devices each composer uses and show precisely how his music differs from that of his contemporaries, or that of composers before and after him. It is essential to situate him in relation to the style of his era, whose characteristics have often lost all their intensity and freshness. The dominant idea of a work and the feelings it expresses must be understood through the technical means deployed.

So perhaps Temerson was right to persist with her question. Rosen elaborates by saying that in the case of, say, Schumann,

it is not enough to say that he is the composer par excellence of pathological moods. A listener may perceive this in a vague and fleeting manner, but any demonstration must be based on the technical means that Schumann invented to conjure these states of mind in music.

Then he becomes more expansive:

A shortcoming of musicology, and it is often a serious defect, is to forget to put oneself in the place of the composer looking for inspiration from the past. Handel’s rhythmic energy allows us to understand his harmonic procedures, his way of constructing a melody, and his conception of opera. Everything is ruled and guided by his sense of rhythm: the drama, the structure of the acts, the choirs, the oratorios, the suites of arias.

Here one really finds oneself in Rosen’s presence, as he starts to spin a line of thought as elegant as any Bellini cantilena. Whether “conversation” is quite the word, though, is another matter. Denk, in his New Yorker reminiscence, observed, “When I came across the word ‘discursive’ in one of his obituaries, I laughed: Charles was really a spigot of information that could not be shut off by any normal means.” It is nonetheless thrilling to watch him take an idea for a walk:

As Proust said, the artist maintains tradition in destroying the previous style, in accomplishing a work of destruction. This belief has disappeared. Artists and composers try to attach themselves to the past in another way. In the works of Berio, for example, the quotations appear like ghosts from the past; they integrate themselves into the music but remain pale and denuded of their original vitality. These ghosts are nevertheless evoked to affirm the connection between postmodern music and the grand classical tradition.

Left to his own devices by Temerson, he exuberantly casts his net wider and wider still. Discussing eighteenth-century writers who play with form in the way their composing contemporaries did, he naturally mentions Diderot, but also Tieck and Brentano, with whom few readers—among whom I am not one—will be on nodding terms, then completely pulls the carpet from under one’s feet by referring to an early play of the English dramatist Alan Ayckbourn, whose brilliantly plotted farces, staples of Broadway and the West End as well as the provincial theater, rarely feature in discussions of eighteenth-century music.

This little provocation fails to elicit a lively response from Temerson. Determined, perhaps, to get one out of her, he moves on to Schumann, describing the way in which, in Dichterliebe, the composer “wrote willfully mediocre music to accompany a cynical poem,” which is a bit of a slap in the face for those of us who find ourselves unutterably moved by the work. Willful mediocrity? Perhaps, one wonders, Rosen is uncomfortable with the directness of the poem’s sentiments? But he’s off again already:

Romanticism is not a style but a project. The Romantics abandoned the idea of the center in art: they brought out the value of what had been considered marginal. They overturned the hierarchy of genres…. Schubert’s Winterreise or Schumann’s Dichterliebe are just as much masterpieces as the St. Matthew Passion.

At its most enjoyable the conversation, despite Temerson’s determined efforts to impose some intellectual rigor onto it, segues delightfully into very high-level table talk that makes one long to have been there:

I also have a profound admiration for the last works of Fauré: his last quartet, the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor…But outside of France, neither Ravel nor Fauré have the same status as Schubert or Schumann, not to speak of Bach or Beethoven. The great exceptions are Debussy, and Stravinsky, a very French composer at heart and the greatest composer of our century after the death of Debussy. Well, perhaps not greater than Schoenberg, but his music is certainly more fun; I suppose one could say, more interesting….

[Mahler’s] reputation has changed. In my youth, his music, which I like a great deal, was not much appreciated; it was considered excessive and overblown. He owes his popularity to the phenomenon of the virtuoso conductor. His music makes the talents of conductors shine and some, about whom I have mixed feelings, owe their career to him.

He could go on in this vein forever, but again Temerson draws him back to her idée fixe: “What is it that distinguishes the pleasure of analyzing from the pleasure of playing?” “Playing an instrument,” he replies robustly,

is a physical, muscular pleasure. No one becomes a pianist unless they feel an intense pleasure in moving their fingers, above all in bringing them into contact with the keys…. Nobody says to himself: I will become a pianist. One says: I couldn’t bear to do anything else.

This is a note that recurs in The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking—the practical realities of the job of piano-playing—and Rosen is matchlessly eloquent about it. But in light of his increasing inhibitions on the concert platform, his passion is somewhat poignant. To Temerson, he speaks feelingly about stage fright, which even penetrates into the recording studio:

This is what distinguishes the amateur from the professional: they both have stage fright, but the amateur shows it and the professional hides it….

During a recording session, one is prey to the inverse evil. You begin with complete calm and confidence. And then you play. You listen and you are not happy with the result. So, you play it again. And disaster: you made the same mistake at the same place! Little by little you become gripped by anxiety…

No mention here, twenty years on from “The Aesthetics of Stage Fright,” of divine ailments or sacred madness. Nonetheless, despite the scourge of self-consciousness, the book ends with a moving affirmation of the centrality of the performer: its last words are “our music will survive as long as there are musicians who experience physical pleasure in performing it.”

The translation by Catherine Zerner, alas, is sometimes bizarrely literal: in a passage about Winterreise and Dichterliebe, the French original, cycles de mélodies” (song cycles), becomes “cycles of melodies,” which is frankly meaningless; the slavish rendition of the French on as “one” results in stiff, remote, and utterly un-Rosen-like utterances: “Before modernism, one believed that by representing the world, one explained nature and history.” “Je veux dire” becomes “I want to say” instead of “I mean.” “The one who plays,” says this clumpy Rosen, “is always aware of modulations, tonality, and, usually, the way the voices develop.” The one who plays? The French original has “L’exécutant,” which any schoolboy would surely translate as “the performer” or even “the player.” Rosen, the most elegant of phrasemakers, is made to sound oddly stiff and formal, almost pontifical. Is this perhaps Harvard University Press’s belated revenge for that stinging review of the Harvard Dictionary of Music all those years ago?