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
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
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