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Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist
By Charles Rosen

Published by Allen Lane, 3 July 2003
ISBN: 0-7139-9522-X £12.99
Hardcover
256 pages
[Published in the US as Piano Notes, The World of the Pianist by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 1 November 2002 ISBN: 0-7432-0382-8 Hardcover 256 pages US$25.00]

 

Having read Charles Rosen’s contributions to New York Review of Books (not to be confused with the New York Times Book Review Section which is something completely different) I looked forward to reading this book and was not disappointed. Apparently the genesis of the book was an article in the NYRB so some of the material in the book—a small amount actually—is adapted from that article, but is here greatly expanded and in every way enhanced.

Rosen is a fine writer; one can read simply to enjoy his prose, some of which deserves to be read out loud, and although he talks about very subtle, esoteric, and complicated things, one never has to go back to read a sentence a second time.

Right off he very eloquently says something I’ve been saying for years, that music is fundamentally singing and dancing, and that playing the piano, or playing almost any musical instrument, is an athletic as well as musical experience. The piano and the violin are the two instruments which interact the most with the human body during playing which goes a long way towards explaining why the most personal and expressive music has been written for them, because playing the piano or violin is almost like dancing, and you can feel the sound with your body as thought you were singing it. Jeffrey Tate said something similar in an interview once, that performers, and he was referring to singers in this case, remember their interpretations by how they feel not by how they sound and they can’t change them to suit a conductor’s preference without virtually relearning them from scratch. Rosen goes ever further and posits that while playing a pianist can feel music so strongly through the muscles and tendons in his arms and back that he may actually have no idea what he sounds like.

It is apparant that Mr. Rosen enjoys his life and loves music and playing, and conveys these feelings clearly. You come to like him right off because he wants to share with you very personal and esoteric things, and his enthusiasms are all infectious. He knows how to play every kind of music because he truly knows every kind of music and would be incapable of playing one composer in the incompatible style of another. Mr. Rosen writes so magnificently about playing the piano that you would think that he must be the greatest pianist in the world. But he’s not. And the reason is not hard to discover. If a man writes so well, why does he need to play the piano? Someone once said that Verdi and Puccini were great opera composers because they didn’t know how do anything else.

One of Mr. Rosen’s infectious enthusiasms is his love for the music of his good friend Elliot Carter. In this book, as in all his writings, he never misses an opportunity to add the name of Elliot Carter to any list of the very greatest composers no matter what the topic under discussion. Fortunately, this is one infection from which one recovers pretty quickly when the book is closed. Carter is somewhere between a fourth and fifth rate composer, no matter how many Pulitzer Prizes he may have won. I will admit that I have actually come to rather enjoy the Piano Sonata, and Mr. Rosen has had much to do with that. But where do you place a composer who wrote one OK piano sonata, some occasionally ingenious but interminable string quartets, and some colourful but vapid concertos? Somewhere on the Christmas tree near Julius Reubke, definitely below Darius Milhaud, maybe a little above Luciano Berio. The number of human beings on this planet who really think Carter’s Piano Sonata is as great as any by Beethoven is probably not much more than two — his mother and Charles Rosen.

But then everybody has a right to his own tastes. Mr. Rosen makes the point that the main reason we like a piece of music is that we have been motivated to get to know it well, and of course the only way to really get to know a work well is to perform it. How much I agree with him there! I never cared for anything by Benjamin Britten until my chorus learned to sing the Ceremony of Carols. And if Mr. Rosen can get away with pumping the reputation of Elliot Carter, then nobody can object if I use every tiny opportunity available to me to push my own favourite but neglected composer, Sir Donald Francis Tovey.

No, in my collection of thousands of CDs I have no music performed by Charles Rosen. The closest I ever came was some Scarlatti keyboard sonatas played on the Siena Pianoforte many years ago. Why does one suppose that this is? Probably because Mr. Rosen doesn’t need to play the piano, he can express himself to beautifully with the written word. A person who cannot write lengthy intellectual essays NEEDS to play the piano, he has nowhere else for his energy to go, he has no other way of speaking. Everything he (or she) is goes into the music, and we can certainly hear the difference.

Leonard Bernstein probably had the same problem. There are a lot of people, perhaps Bernstein included, who are surprised and bewildered that Bernstein never became the greatest composer of the late 20th century. After all, he was such an effective lecturer, such an effective teacher, such a great conductor, such a perceptive theorist...well, I think you get the idea. He didn’t NEED to compose music, although he did, and his music can easily be compared in quality to that of, say, Victor Herbert.

Johann Sebastian Bach had a profound and transcendent love of humanity, but he didn’t care much for people. He was elitist—impatient, abrupt and sarcastic. He was lonely much of the time and even his huge family couldn’t change that. But he could express his love through his music and no other way. Mozart was vulgar, addicted to women but unkind to his wife, fought with his father and his employers, spent much of his time lost in creative thought while playing billiards with one hand and writing out scores with the other. But he loves me and I love him, by means of his music.

I would love to meet Charles Rosen, because through his writing I feel I know him and would agree with his attitude towards life and much of what he says (and strongly disagree with some things, too) but maybe in person we’d have nothing to say to each other. I remember an article in, of all places, Life Magazine, about someone who sought out a favourite writer to have the ultimate soul to soul conversation, only to find that the writer in person was shy, tongue-tied, fearful, remote, and embarrassed about it all. Finally she understood: whatever there was was in the books. It all goes into the books, there’s no place else for it to go, nothing is held back, there isn’t anything left in the person. She writes books because she doesn’t know what else to do, doesn’t know any other way to speak.

Rosen discusses another point, the question of emotion in the performer versus emotion in the audience. The purpose of a performance is to transfer feeling to the audience. As Rosen points out, performing music is in general an unpleasant task. One writer (I forget who) said that the greatest amount of feeling in the spectator was produced by the most emotionless concentration on the part of the performer. There are obviously some exceptions to that as a hard and fast rule (e.g., Kathleen Ferrier), but we can come back to Bernstein here. He always thought that if he was enjoying himself then the audience was, too, in exact proportion. But as Rosen points out, it’s precisely at that moment when you’re overwhelmed by your own feelings that you can’t hear at all what you’re actually doing. He mentioned the pianist who is absorbed in his ballet at the piano bench, but also the conductor who is carried away so completely by his baton ballet at the podium and forgets to notice that the orchestra have lost the beat, or have forgotten all they should have learned at rehearsal and reverted to the old humdrum way they usually play the piece at Thursday matinees.

Perhaps Rosen’s most interesting comment has to do with the visual effect of performance. He points out that a piano is actually not a very expressive instrument. The only things the performer controls are the timing and loudness of the notes, nothing else. There is no such thing as a lyrical touch, for instance. Lyrical playing is a combination of timing and loudness. But then why do pianists make such hand signals at the piano? He mentions one pianist who would move his hand back and forth on the key while playing a sustained note as though he were playing the clavichord and producing a note with vibrato; and the audience, seeing this done, may very well actually hear the vibrato even though it could not possibly be there. Throwing the hands high in the air, as Rubinstein used to do when playing Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance may have an exciting psychological effect on both the performer and the audience, but it can have no other physical effect than to degrade the accuracy of the performance. And then we come to the conductor’s gestures. During a rehearsal, Stokowski just beat time, set a balance or two, and talked about the music to the orchestra, maybe scolding them for inattention now and then. But on the podium, under his special spotlight, he became the Isadora Duncan of the podium, interpreting the music for the audience and often doing little for the orchestra other than confusing them. But it was magic and it worked.

So, you see, if Charles Rosen ever comes to my town, I don’t know if I’ll go to hear him play, but I wouldn’t miss backstage!

Paul Shoemaker

 



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