Three by Charles Rosen

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John F
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Three by Charles Rosen

Post by John F » Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:11 am

The other day, for no particular reason except to pass the time, I reread one of Charles Rosen's pieces in the collection called "Critical Entertainments." Then I read another, and another, then took his second collection of criticism off the shelf and dipped into that. These are not new books, and the essays in them date back as far as 1972, mostly published in the New York Review of Books, but they haven't dated. So I thought I'd recommend them here to any who enjoy reading about music, along with his later book about Beethoven's sonatas:

Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New
Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature
Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion

All are in print, though only "Critical Entertainments" is in paperback.

Rosen introduces the first of these by, first of all, identifying his point of view as that of a performer, not a musicologist, and then by saying, "I have written almost exclusively about music that I enjoy. I think it is not always understood that in the criticism of the arts, pleasure is a prerequisite for understanding... At the very least, with any work that we find unsatisfactory, we must comprehend how it gives pleasure to its partisans... The necessity to comprehend love is equally important when one deals, not with works of art, but with ideas. Without understanding how ideas come to be held and how they can inspire passion, any criticism loses its validity."

The contemporary music Rosen likes best is that which many like least. He took part in the second complete recording of Webern's published music, and recorded Boulez's first and third piano sonatas for CBS. (He was to have recorded the second as well, but CBS canceled it when the other Boulez disc didn't become a bestseller. :roll: ) I read the essay "Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!" even though Carter's mature music leaves me cold; Rosen devoted much of it to Carter's sonata for cello and piano, which led me to listen to it on YouTube, and I found I like it. My corollary to Rosen's comments on criticism is that it's most valuable when it encourages people to listen, and least so when it's negative, which discourages listening.

"Entertainments" is apt as a description of Rosen's critical writing, perhaps surprisingly so. Of course his analyses and observations are mostly serious, but humor comes into it too, usually sly and sometimes sharp. I mark up my books and often put a ! next to something that makes me smile or laugh; in the Rosen essays these aren't on every page but are not so far apart. Reviewing Daniel Heartz's book on Mozart's operas: "If I understand Heartz's interpretation of a rising chromatic line correctly, with his shy reference to a sensuality at home somewhere below the breast and the vague suggestion that we are dealing with censorable matters, then I think he is erecting a construction, or constructing an erection, upon a very flimsy foundation. I do not believe a banal chromatic rise of a fourth even played on the G string is all that exciting."

As its subtitle promises, "Freedom and the Arts" is about literature as well as music. Rosen took his undergraduate and graduate degrees not in music but in French literature, and the last six essays are about literature from Montaigne to Auden. (Rosen's last published writing was a review of a new edition of the Restoration dramatist Congreve's complete plays.) Of greater interest, to me anyway, are seven essays mainly about Mozart dating mostly from the anniversary year 1991. Now and then, in these and elsewhere, I caught Rosen out in a minor error of fact, and I'm not the only one as Rosen himself confesses in his headnote to "Radical, Conventional Mozart": "At the opening of the following essay, the mistake of calling Joseph II the emperor Franz Joseph is so egregious that I have let it stand in the text in the hope that the public humiliation will make me more careful in the future." Unfortunately not. But as I said, Rosen's slips are minor and don't affect the substance of his analysis and argument. Finding them is one of the incidental pleasures of reading, when one can imagine for a moment that one is actually smarter than the author. With Rosen, that doesn't last long.

(Incidentally, he springs a surprise in the postscript to a comprehensive review of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: "My article on 'Sonata Forms' was rejected, mainly as too speculative, and I rewrote it, quadrupled its size, added all the jokes and examples I had been leaving out, and turned it into a book - which, in fact, beat the 'New Grove' to the press because the editors had a computer which filed articles with foreign accents (like Dvorák) and refused to disgorge them.")

The Beethoven book is a different species of critter. It was "inspired by the invitation to perform all the Beethoven sonatas at the Pontina Festival and to give a seminar on them for the piano students at the summer school in the Caetani castle at Sermoneta." Even though the introduction begins with an extended quotation from Proust, the book is almost entirely about interpretive details that probably only a performer of this music would find compelling or even meaningful, and most listeners are unlikely even to notice. Now and then Rosen takes a wider view, but by and large I didn't get much out of it.

Also provided is a CD of musical examples introduced and played by Rosen, nearly half of them from Mozart rather than Beethoven and concerned with the single tempo indication "allegretto." Toward the end Rosen plays a complete sonata, #22 in F major op. 54; in the finale, which he correctly calls a perpetuum mobile, he takes a perversely slow tempo most of the way and plays the coda lickety split. I know Rosen could play Beethoven well, not only from his recording of the last sonatas but from the first time I heard him, in a Town Hall recital of ca. 1960 which began with the sonata 0p. 110. (Or maybe it was Op. 109? I've lost the program. First time I'd heard the sonata.) But the complete cycle in the Pontina Festival is the only one I know of him playing, and from the op. 54 recording I'd guess it may have been pretty uneven.

I haven't done justice to the scope, depth, and frequent brilliance of Rosen's criticism; I couldn't, and I haven't even tried. But I hope this is inviting enough to encourage some of you to have a read.
John Francis

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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Jun 13, 2016 2:40 pm

Rosen is a demigod. I have long known those works by him. He was however mortal. His little book on Schoenberg is greatly flawed for his explanation that the twelve-tone system was invented because of an inevitable need for chromaticity to be filled. Nobody to my knowledge can explain modern composers. We're just lucky that within our lifetime there have been a few of great use. Within two generations, the art will be entirely antiquarian. I hate it, but the universe has not promised us an eternity of great art.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by John F » Mon Jun 13, 2016 4:53 pm

That sounds like Schoenberg's own justification of his move to atonality. Can you say if Rosen is quoting or paraphrasing Schoenberg, or if this is his personal view? I haven't read the book and don't own it. Anyway, Rosen makes statements here and there throughout his books that seem wrong to me, or at least that I disagree with, but they are nonetheless so rewarding in so many ways that I don't really mind.

For example, Rosen studied for years with Moriz Rosenthal, who was old enough to have studied with Liszt and earned Brahms's approval. Rosen says Rosenthal told him that Brahms always played chords arpeggio, which greatly surprised me. About Liszt's teaching, however, all Rosenthal said was that it was hard to get Liszt to leave the cafe and go back to the studio.
John Francis

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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Jun 14, 2016 3:21 pm

John F wrote:That sounds like Schoenberg's own justification of his move to atonality. Can you say if Rosen is quoting or paraphrasing Schoenberg, or if this is his personal view? I haven't read the book and don't own it. Anyway, Rosen makes statements here and there throughout his books that seem wrong to me, or at least that I disagree with, but they are nonetheless so rewarding in so many ways that I don't really mind.
I'm sure it was Rosen's own justification and not a quotation, direct or otherwise, from Schoenberg. It's funny that Brahms would come up, because IIRC he was the last great composer Rosen ever wrote about. (I'm not even sure that he ever did.) His book on Romantic music stops before Brahms.

I had a high school classmate whose piano teacher was not dear old Mrs. Troidle. This teacher knew Rosen well enough to invite him to Cornwall to give a talk that was not above heads of high school students. Alas, I only found out about it afterward and missed my opportunity.

BTW, in the interest of full disclosure and honesty, I re-read your post and realize now that there are a couple of things there I am not familiar with. I was too hasty in my response. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by John F » Tue Jun 14, 2016 7:23 pm

You're right that Rosen doesn't say much about Brahms in "The Romantic Generation" - a strange omission one would think. In the Preface he says, "In these writings on music from the death of Beethoven to the death of Chopin, I have limited myself to those composers whose characteristic styles were defined in the late 1820s and early 1830s." This is evidently what Rosen meant by his title "The Romantic Generation"; Brahms, born in 1833, was of a later generation, and so were Verdi and Wagner. This book was not, then, intended as a survey of the whole Romantic movement. Maybe Rosen's scope was limited by the book's origin as the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, which I was told led to a first draft of the book far shorter than what it later became. But Rosen did write three very interesting essays on Brahms, discussing among other things the awkward difficulty of his piano writing, which Rosen argues was deliberate and purposeful.

I'm sure Rosen would disagree that he wrote about no great composers after Brahms. In his view, Schoenberg is a great composer, and he wrote two essays about Elliott Carter, whom he clearly thinks of as a great composer. But most of his essays are either book reviews or occasional pieces, and he didn't go out of his way to write about composers just because he thought they were important or great. Maybe a last Rosen collection will appear from Harvard University Press, the publisher of the other collections - I'd certainly welcome it.
John Francis

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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Jun 14, 2016 8:02 pm

Well now I really have read all or most of those things, or think I have. I do remember his comments on the difficulties of the little-know Brahms etudes, which sometimes require the fourth finger crossing the fifth. (This is also, BTW, true of some of the Bach Trio Sonatas.) And I remember his rapturous recollection of playing the Carter Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, which he considered a masterpiece. What I retain in my mind of what he said of Verdi was that this composer succeeded in converting a trash aesthetic into great art, a very insightful remark that I doubt Lenny Goran would agree with. (He also wrote extensively on the not very well known influence of Bellini on Chopin.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by John F » Wed Jun 15, 2016 6:07 am

About Brahms's writing for the piano, I remember the first time I heard his first concerto. It was an open rehearsal at Tanglewood with Leon Fleisher, whom I'd read about but hadn't heard. I was really struck by the fortissimo piano trills in the first movement's main theme, which were brilliant as Fleisher played them. In other recordings and performances the trills sounded duller and a bit disappointing; Fleisher's recording remains my favorite after 50 years, not least because of George Szell's thrilling way with the opening ritornello.



Many years later, in one of those Rosen essays, I read:
Charles Rosen wrote:The best example of [pianistic devices that cruelly stretch the hands or make exorbitant demands on the weakest fingers] is his frequent employment of a trill for the fourth and fifth fingers with an added octave for the thumb. [musical quotation] This is from the opening movement of the Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor... Most of the trills quoted here are negotiable although hard to play with the brilliance and grand resonance demanded by the character of the piece, but the last one in bar 116 - an octave D with the fifth finger on an E flat - is wickedly difficult for the average hand as it traps the fourth finger between two black keys and makes the rapidity and sonority of the trill questionable. Many pianists, including Artur Schnabel, have rewritten these trills in the following Lisztian fashion: [divides the trill between both hands playing alternate octaves] But it was precisely to avoid the brilliant Lisztian sonority that Brahms asked for less effective trills which integrate more easily with the musical texture. There is also an essential aesthetic difference: the Lisztian version is easy to execute and it sounds difficult; Brahms prefers a greater difficulty partially concealed in order to avoid the appearance of virtuosity.
Leon Fleisher was a Schnabel pupil and plays the concerto, or that part of it, as his teacher did. The piece was one of his earliest successes, and when he finally returned to two-handed playing, it was the second concerto he performed in public after Mozart #12. In this YouTube clip of a Radio Italiana performance, he manages the trills well enough, I think he plays them in Brahms's way this time but I'm not sure, but after a few performances he dropped the concerto from his repertoire.



The rehearsal had an amusing moment in the finale, where Brahms has written an extended fugato passage which the pianist sits out silently. Fleisher was so absorbed in listening to this, or maybe his mind was wandering, that he forgot to come in. Laughter from him and some of the orchestra, and he and Monteux picked up at his entrance.

I keep remembering things like this from long ago. The reason I have them to remember is my parents' love of classical music; it's they who stopped off at Tanglewood on the way back from a trip to look over the Harvard campus. So classical music came easily to me, and I admire those who found their own way to it despite their parents' indifference or dislike.
Last edited by John F on Wed Jun 15, 2016 6:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
John Francis

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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by lennygoran » Wed Jun 15, 2016 6:23 am

[quote="jbuck919"]Well now I really have read all or most of those things, or think I have. I do remember his comments on the difficulties of the little-know Brahms etudes, which sometimes require the fourth finger crossing the fifth. (This is also, BTW, true of some of the Bach Trio Sonatas.) And I remember his rapturous recollection of playing the Carter Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, which he considered a masterpiece. What I retain in my mind of what he said of Verdi was that this composer succeeded in converting a trash aesthetic into great art, a very insightful remark that I doubt Lenny Goran would agree with. (He also wrote extensively on the not very well known influence of Bellini


What`s this about a trash aesthetic-wonder if Rosen was ever subjected to eurotrash ! Len :lol:

jbuck919
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Re: Three by Charles Rosen

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Jun 15, 2016 7:20 am

Fleisher, as you know, was a Baltimorean. Many years ago I heard his son perform at the Park School as Bunthorne in Patience. His voice had not yet changed, but he was beyond sensational, including the acting part.


There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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