Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Charles Rosen (1927-2012)

Charles Rosen, the classical pianist and writer, died of cancer on Sunday at age 85 in Manhattan, which is also where he was born. His books The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation are full of uncommon insights on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt.

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Rosen the polymath was possessed of a lightning-fast, seemingly limitless discursiveness that has been described variously as enchanting and intimidating.

A conversation with him, associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.”

It was said of Mr. Rosen that when he practiced the piano, a discipline to which he hewed daily well into old age, he might choose to read something — not a musical score but an actual work of literature — at the same time.
In an article on freedom in art, he wrote:
Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know.

We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room. Schiller claimed in the Letters on Aesthetic Education that art makes you free; he understood that the conventions of language and of society are in principle arbitrary—that is, imposed by will. They prevent the natural development of the individual. The clash between the imposition of meaning and freedom has given rise to controversy in ways that Schiller could not have predicted. . . .

The ambiguity of spoken or written language is far less than the ambiguity of musical meaning, a disconcerting ambiguity powerfully described by Denis Diderot in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets:
In music, the pleasure of sensation depends on a particular disposition not only of the ear but of the entire nervous system…. In addition, music has a greater need to find in us these favorable dispositions of the organs than painting or poetry. Its hieroglyph is so light and so fleeting, it is so easy to lose it or to misinterpret it, that the most beautiful movement of a symphony would have little effect if the infallible and subtle pleasure of sensation pure and simple were not infinitely above that of an often ambiguous expression…. How does it happen then that of the three arts that imitate Nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and the least precise speaks the most powerfully to the soul?
I have quoted this elsewhere (in The Classical Style as an epigraph), but it is important to see how clearly the nature of musical discourse was understood by the second half of the eighteenth century. Felix Mendelssohn found the meaning of music more precise, not less, than language, but that is because music means what it is, not what it says. . . .

The triumph of Beethoven’s musical image of freedom [in his Ninth Symphony] depended on more than just the contemporary popularity and relish for the idea. It needed an adequate musical language for its expression with subtle and complex articulations. These articulations had thickened within a few years after his death, making way for a powerful and rich chromaticism. . . . We are always haunted by the past, even when we try to destroy it. . . . Our freedom is hemmed in on every side. We must be grateful for what remains.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I like his words so much here, and dislike his playing so much, that I have to conclude he chose the right career. And that's a sign of practical wisdom.