Rosen’s Sins of American Omission

As somehow who knows how difficult it is to balance the conflicting roles of artist and scholar, I’ve long thought of Charles Rosen as a hero and a model. He’s not a favorite pianist of my pianist friends, but for me the structural sense he brings to Bach and Beethoven etches their works in granite, rendering his powerful interpretations indelible – I don’t share the common opinion that he is scholar first, artist second. As scholar, I’ve always admired his refusal to rely on second-hand information, his relentless efforts to scour an entire repertoire, no matter how obscure, to back up his irrefutable pronouncements.

That makes it feel all the more like a betrayal, then, that he can be so casually mendacious when it comes to the 20th century. In the penultimate chapter of Piano Notes he goes through the history of composing for piano and, brilliantly as usual, details the contributions of each composer who had an impact on piano technique: Beethoven, Chopin, Schuman, Liszt, Debussy. But then, when he gets to American music, aside from his predictable paean to Elliott Carter, he sums up the entire field in these words:

[Speaking of the 1920s, after discussing Bartok and Stravinsky:] The experiments with clusters and polytonal effects by Charles Ives’s music for piano began to be obscurely known in these years, but found real understanding only later. The new ideas in the use of tone color on the piano developed by Olivier Messiaen in the 1930s remained hidden from the general public until the early 1950s. By that time, several composers, John Cage in particular [italics mine], had experimented with prepared pianos, placing different kinds of material on the strings of the piano to make unusual sounds. These experiments have not survived very well, nor did the novel technique of requiring the pianist to stand up and reach into the piano to strum the strings have much of a future. As I have remarked, it is significant that no purely mechanical attempts to make the sound of a piano more varied and more picturesque have survived except for the soft pedal.

At the end of the 1940s, however, the sonatas of Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and Samuel Barber once again called for the sonority of the grand piano. Composers began to invent novel contributions to piano technique, principally Pierre Boulez and Karl-Heinz [sic] Stockhausen….

Excuse me? Let’s start with a name conspicuous in its absence, the name famous in the 1920s for having introduced more novel ways to play a piano than anyone since, arguably, Franz Liszt: Henry Cowell. Cowell’s kaleidoscopic array of tone cluster types – with the fist, with the forearm, with the fingers, all black keys, all white keys, all chromatic, sometimes with a top note brought out melodically, sometimes accompanying a left-hand melody in parallel – are mentioned only once, early in the book, lumped as “Cowell’s tone clusters” into a list of percussive effects (not all clusters are percussive), and then utterly ignored in this detailed resume of piano technique. Cowell’s equally colorful variety of inside-the-piano effects (muting, plucking, harmonics, lengthwise stroking) are anonymously dismissed as “strumming,” something that “doesn’t have much of a future” (no matter how many composers have imitated it since, most notably George Crumb, Stefan Wolpe, Annea Lockwood, and Frederic Rzewski). Cowell’s cluster notation alone has become universal, changing the very look of piano music. No less a figure than Bartok wrote to Cowell to ask permission to use tone clusters.

Then let’s take that glib reference to Charles Ives: it seems to promise that more will be said, but the name never reappears; the Concord Sonata gained national fame in 1939 and was recorded in the 1940s, but Rosen hasn’t yet had time to assimilate the achievement (despite waxing eloquent for pages about how every pianist should acquaint themselves with the entire repertoire). First, Ives anticipated Cowell in not only the wild effect of playing with fists, but also in using a felt-covered stick of wood to delicately press down a couple dozen keys at once to let the overtones swirl around. Then – to do for Ives what Rosen does for Chopin and Schumann – there’s the Ivesian mega-chord, so humongous and polytonal that it feels slapped onto the piano in a frantic arpeggio; the use of quiet dissonant “overtones” above fortissimo chords; the use of contrasted dynamics to distinguish different layers of music played at the same time; and the practice of different layers of music at different tempos. Rosen credits these latter two innovations to Elliott Carter, someone who – surprise! – spent his impressionable years visiting Charles Ives and becoming more familiar with Ives’s innovations than just about anyone of his generation. Of course, Carter has notoriously done his best to smash Ives’s reputation as an innovator, and his friend Rosen is happy to help out. (Rosen also calls Carter “perhaps the only major composer of his time who has never written a single twelve-tone piece.” But neither did Conlon Nancarrow or Henry Brant – and “perhaps” they’re major composers, too.)

And while one might conceivably write off Cowell and Ives off as isolated cases, there were similar effects being paraded by Leo Ornstein, George Antheil, and, to a lesser extent, Dane Rudhyar. What we’re discussing is the new pianistic techniques of an entire American generation, and one whose work has remained continuously influential.

And then there are those “several composers” who used prepared piano, John Cage in particular. Forget that the story of Cage’s invention of the prepared piano in 1940 to accompany a dance at the Cornish Institute, where he didn’t have room for a percussion orchestra, is well known and widely printed. The experiment “hasn’t survived very well,” of course, despite the fact that Amazon.com currently lists 17 full or partial recordings of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (as opposed to only 8 recordings of any of the precious Boulez Sonatas), in addition to the recordings now out of print, in addition to all the myriad recordings of Cage’s other works for prepared piano, in addition to works for prepared piano by other composers, including most recently John Adams. Is Rosen even aware of the choreographic piano technique required by Cage’s Etudes Australes? I have to doubt it. And how about all the new pianistic discoveries of John Adams, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Frederic Rzewski, all of whom have written works now considerable as standard rep, let alone what’s become possible when one retunes a piano, as Ben Johnston and La Monte Young have proved? (I won’t even go into the expansions of piano technique and sonority spearheaded by Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans; since they weren’t writing scores for other pianists to perform, Rosen can justifiably consider them outside his territory, but an admission of deficient familiarity would have been gracious.)

Coming from some Rachmaninoff-playing piano hack at a third-rate college, I’d shrug this off as regrettable ignorance, but Rosen is famous for backing up his sweeping generalizations with encyclopedic experience. Yet he leapfrogs over Ives, Cowell, Antheil, Ornstein, Cage, and others to nuzzle up to Boulez and Carter, friends of his whose music he’s played, and who in his universe appear to have written the only worthwhile music to really, I mean really, use the piano in the last 80 years. There are so many ways he could have ameliorated the horrible bias of this impression: admit that American music isn’t his thing, that he never got into Ives, that he doesn’t enjoy playing Cowell?s Tides of Mananaun or Tiger, that he found Cage bewlidering or a charlatan, that he hasn’t studied the 20th century in the same amount of detail as former eras. Instead, he presents his history of piano technique as complete and definitive, off-handedly leaving the Americans out. And why not? His high-falutin’, Europhile friends in academia and the classical music world feel the same way he does, and will either not notice the omissions and dismissals, or grin in silent complicity. The truth is, Rosen is one of the most amazing scholars on 18th- and 19th-century European music in the world today – in addition to which he has played a lot of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Carter. But when he pretends to be a 20th-century scholar as well, he signs his name to an elitist lie that consigns many of the best-loved and most influential American composers (the Europhilic Carter always excepted) to the margins of history. As one of the biggest Charles Rosen fans around, I feel I had a right to expect better.

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