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Could there ever be another Charles Rosen?

The role of pianist-philosopher was invented by Artur Schnabel, a formidable mind and ferocious performer. It seemed sui generis. No other instrument bred artists whose public intellect was as powerful as their stage persona.

Alfred Brendel developed along similar lines. Daniel Barenboim likes nothing better than an hour spent in philosophical speculation. Sviatoslav Richter was an ambulant encyclopedia. It was not enough to be intellectual, however. The p-p had to be formidably articulate.

None, even in the notably verbose French culture, outshone Charles Rosen for virtuosity with words and ideas, alongside a captivating flair for keyboard interpretation. Charles died this week, aged 85.

(c) Marion Kalter/Lebrecht Music&Arts

Here is a recent video of Charles in his element.

Will there ever be another like him? Contemporary culture militates against both intellectualism and classical music. Public intellectuals seek their references in rock. Classical pianists have taken to reading thrillers.

Still, there are a few who excel in both dimensions. Piotr Anderszewski, for one. Jeremy Denk another. My neighbour Stephen Hough, above all.

Someone should organise a contest for the vacant title of pianist-philosopher. Any further nominations?

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  1. Arthur Rubinstein was an avid reader and collector of books. He once remarked that he didn’t have many friends among his pianist colleagues because the only books they ever read were the telephone book!

  2. Did Schanbel invent the pianist-philosopher? I’d trace the lineage all the way back to Franz Liszt. And I suppose I hardly need add that Glenn Gould was yet another link in the chain. As for the current crop of pianists, I am pleased to see that Jonathan Biss seems to be developing nicely in this direction.

  3. Pianist-philosopher nominations today? Richard Goode. Murray Perahia. One from the last fifty years might be Ernst Levy, a towering virtuoso with a deeply philosophical, a super-intellectualist. His remasterd discs on Ward Marston’s label are truly penetrating versions of the masterpieces he plays and are accompanied by some reprinted lectures he would give on occasion. Fascinating reading!

  4. Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Andras Schiff come to mind.

  5. Ian Pace.

  6. On a lighter note, I would also include Oscar Levant — his writings were always in a humorous vein, but buried within was a much deeper philosophical nature. He was very skeptical of the whole musical performing business, which was perhaps a bit of a rare attitude in his day and age. A virtuoso pianist, improviser, and perhaps the most brilliant interpreter of Gershwin aside from the composer himself, he was unfortunately unable to shake the “Hollywood pianist” epithet which the critics had applied to him (all the more for acting in a few movies himself).

    Another pianist and avant-garde composer who wrote books of a philosophical (or semi-philosophical) nature was George Antheil: his “Bad Boy of Music” gives many revelations of what it was like to be a travelling concert pianist and composer of new music in Europe between the two world wars. Just reading about the time he took a loaded pistol on stage with him at a piano recital in Germany was worth reading the entire book!

  7. Asking who the next Charles Rosen might be is like asking what the next great petroleum powered car might be. He does not represent something that belongs to the future, nor should he be. His thinking was strongly shaped by modernism and formalism. Even in his avant-garde tastes he leaned toward a relatively conservative, highly structured elitism. This led to a rigidity in his thought that left him unable to formulate a meaningful dialog with important advances in musical understanding during the last 20 years of his life. (That’s not to say I agree with a lot of “new musicology.”)

    He held to modernist aesthetic and social concepts that were already questioned by most American musical intellectuals by the 1990s. (And in most other fields much earlier.) He spoke of music in terms of sensual pleasures rooted in universal laws of nature that shaped style – an idea that became increasingly difficult to support due to the biased tendency to equate universalism with Western ideals. In fact, I think these closed views led to a kind of ponderousness in his thought that became apparent in his playing. He seemed to lack an artist’s playfulness and appreciation of paradox. Could that be why he failed as a performer? In his isolation, he turned to the more conservative values of Europe’s hide-bound contemporary music world which is still buried in modernism.

    Sadly, I cannot think of any notable public intellectuals who are musicians, much less pianists. Perhaps the pretense of being one is also a by-gone ideal, but I hope not. Those that appear will likely be diametrically opposed to what Mr. Rosen represented. They will continue to question musical elitism. They will not only reject it, but openly castigate the entrenched whiteness that still shapes the demographic of almost every performance of classical music. They might celebrate aspects of Romanticism but also look at its tendencies toward authoritarianism and absolutism, and how those qualities led Europe to catastrophe. Perhaps the next Rosen will be someone like a Chic Corea with the mind of bell hooks (she doesn’t capitalize her name.) Anyway, my two cents though I am not qualified to say anything on the topic because I haven’t spent enough time reading Mr. Rosen’s valuable work.

    • William:

      “They will continue to question musical elitism”

      Which composers represent musical elitism today?

      • Very few Americans, though they are still common in Europe. Wolfgang Rihm, Magnus Lindberg, Brian Ferneyhough (works in the USA,) Kaija Saariaho, Adriana Holsky, Pascal Dusapin, Philippe Hurel, Philippe Manoury and countless others are examples. When I spoke of elitism, I meant it in much broader terms than solely contemporary music. Some feel classical music is inherently elitist, and others that it is only used in an elitist manner. I tend toward the latter, but do not have any set opinions on these hopelessly complex issues. I hope the next Rosen will not be someone who is doctrinaire.

        • The question is : which composers do not represent musical elitism ? You mention Chick Corea. Interesting example. If you listen to his 1960′s albums, they are quite “elitist” indeed (raw free jazz with a touch of minimalism). Of course, after that, he changed his mind, decided it would be more convenient to make money, and began to compose and play, well, sh*t. Besides, if the future of musical thought is Chick Corea, let us all convert to scientology (supposing scientology is something you convert to). — No objection about bell hooks, though!

          You do not define elitism : is it a matter of musical language (some composers would be inherently absconse, thus “elitist”) or is it simply a matter of people not caring about classical/contemporary music ? I do not think that Charles Rosen can be held responsible for classical music not being appealling to the masses. I do not think that classical/contemporary music is “inherently elitist”, but I do not think either it is up to classical music to attract people who do not care about it. Which is a fundamental right of theirs!

          You imply that classical music should be used in a less elitist manner. Does it mean that we sould say to people who like e.g. Rihanna : look, you think that classical music is not for you, but, if you take the time and listen to a Mozart symphony, you will find it as moving as Rihanna. But this is clearly patronizing, not to say plain paternalistic (“classical music is superior to whatever trash you are listening to, if only you had access to it!”). So who is elitist now ?

          • I would define classical music in the USA as elitist, not due to its content, but due to the economic structures surrounding it. Our patronage system is by and for the wealthy, as are the private schools where composition is most prominently taught. In continental Europe where I have lived for the last 33 years, private universities are generally against the law because they feel it creates forms of classism. As the lingusit Noam Chomsky has noted, the principle function of elite schools is socialization in elitism itself.

            From about 1950 to 1980, contemporary music was often elitist in its complexity and frequently descended to pseudo-intellectual obscurantism. One senses that same ethos in Rosen’s writing style, which was common in the music world at the time – the Milton Babbitt bilge, as it were – all those composers with black rimmed plastic glasses being mathematical composers during the science craze caused by the Sputnik era of the Cold War.

            On the other hand, I equally dislike much of what has happened since 1980, which seems like a swing to the opposite extreme, a kind of pedantic, parochial, post-modern populism for suburban white guys trying to be cool. So there’s some polemic. Forgive me if I don’t debate all of this. Too busy at the moment, and its all too subjective to ever be resolved any way.

    • @william osborne…

      You offer an excellent and thoughtful perspective.

      I don’t think of Rosen as a pianist-philosopher either, I see him as primarily a theorist and academic. Having read him in depth: “The Classical Style” elucidates many elements of structure and style that were revelatory in their day. He applies a post-Schenkerian approach to forms that had previously been seen in a much more simplistic way. But i think the prose is pretentious, and quite often even it is convoluted fashionable nonsense.

      Rosen’s Beeethoven recordings are fascinating and convincing – I never heard them as “cold” as many have said.

      I regret Mr Barenboim’s attempt to occupy the public intellectual mantle. It isn’t convincing. His book with Edward Said, Parallels and Paradoxes, actually showed Said to be the much more interesting musical mind. Barenboim shoots himself in the foot with Furtwangler-worship and grandiloquence.

    • Charles Ghisalberti says:

      “… entrenched whiteness that still shapes the demographic of almost every performance of classical music. ‘
      I was just waiting for that. Tell me how this isn’t racist. All the ways that serious music study has changed over the last 20-30 years: Gender studies, world music, analysis of hip-hop and rock as though they are worthy of study.
      A sewer and a cesspool. Rosen upheld great enduring musical values – yes, of Western Music.

      • Amen! I am not a white man, but thank God for this “elitist” music, and not the nonsense that is hip-hop and rock. Trash on either end of the racial spectrum is still trash. Charles Rosen is dead, but we hope that intellectually challenging music and great intellect and virtuoso technique can go hand in hand in hand.

  8. David Boxwell says:

    If a pianist-philosopher does not blog, can he (or she) be a pianist-philosopher?

  9. What about Hans Von Bulow as a pianist-philosopher-intellectual-conductor from 150 years ago? Has there ever been anyone else like him?

  10. Most of the comments are unwilling to say something positive about a person who has made a contribution to understanding classical music and performance all the while commenters are masquerading as those with much to say. Their obits will be blank save their family.

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