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Death of a great musical mind

Charles Rosen – pianist, philosopher, polymath – has died in New York.

He was 85. The cause was connected to prostate cancer, his publicist said.

A pupil of Moritz Rosenthal and, spiritually at least, of Josef Hofmann, Charles held an unassailable authority on the music of Schoenberg and Elliott Carter and spoke with equal authority on the rest of the canon – and, indeed, on French literature, in which he had a doctorate, and French cuisine, in which he did not.

We once crossed swords on a BBC radio programme, discussing declining attendances at classical recitals. Charles said: ‘I remember a concert where I played for an audience of 15.’ He paused for  moment, then added: ‘Of course, 12 of them held Nobel Prizes…’

May he rest in bliss.

UPDATE here.

With composer Colin Matthews and Haydn biographer H C Robbins Landon (c) Lebrecht Music&Arts

And incredible Scarlatti…

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  1. This news makes me very sad. Rosen was a very fine pianist and an extremely compelling writer on musical and social matters. And now with his death and the death recently of Elliott Carter, two bright lights of modernism are forever dimmed. To paraphrase Josquin’s “Deploracion on the Death of Ockeghem”– “Put on your mourning garments, and weep great tears from your eyes, you young modernists, for you have lost your good father.”

    • Very well put, Lloyd. And the Josquin quote only makes the more sense as one realizes how vast was the knowledge and skill of these two great polymaths and statesmen of Modernism. “The Emperor has gone, and he has taken his trumpeter with him.” A late Rosen performance of the Carter Double Concerto with Ursula Oppens and Oliver Knussen at Tanglewood is available at the Boston Symphony site. He plays it with the same intelligent, direct clarity that he plays Scarlatti.

      • Dr. Fulkerson–yes! You and I know each other from our Wagner-loving friends, and I must say that while both Carter and Rosen were both modernists, they had enough of the western musical and literary canon in their brains that eclipsed Mitt Romney’s binders full of women. In short, they knew just as much about the past as they did the present and the faddishness of trends. Their stubborn refusal to just go along with the crowd and with fashionableness was the result of a strong sense of history and self. We would do well to remember this as performers and composers–that you are part of a long history, and you “didn’t build that.” Well, not alone at least.

        • Stephen Carpenter says:

          ” In short, they knew just as much about the past as they did the present and the faddishness of trends.”
          That is the measurement so beautifully and concisely put. If the eyes are on the horizon and facing forward, the only way one knows that is to have the history at your back. I am saddened that the only way I can experience these great minds is through what they left us, and that is a tall mountain indeed.

        • Lloyd, all agreed. I didn’t know about Romney’s binders full of women, but let’s not judge a potential Don Giovanni too harshly, that is a legitimate role. After all, 47% of people don’t get enough lovin’.
          Re Rosen’s knowledge, when he was a guest professor at UC Berkeley while I was in graduate school there (as a composition student I was not expected, maybe not short-listed, to take that seminar), those in his seminar were cringing at his thorough familiarity with the repertory – and beyond. Apparently it was not possible to always follow him. At one point the seminar was white-knuckling it as Rosen gave a spontaneous discursus on the piano sonatas of Weber, which he then played by heart, admonishing everyone all the while about how important it was to know this music. I think everyone made it out alive, but I get the impression that when Rosen got to the point of writing about Weber’s piano music in The Romantic Generation, he was restraining himself. No one would be surprised that he could play all of H., M., or B., …but one piano sonata after another of Weber? No one saw that coming. His recital was of the Diabelli Variations together with the Hammerklavier Sonata. It was flawless.

          • Colossal knowledge of the repertoire is one thing, but the mastery of it another. Rosen was simply astonishing. I played the Schumann Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14 in college because he told me after he lectured on Schumann at that school that “one should only play the early versions of Schumann because they were much more daring.” And so I played the first version of that magnificent Sonata because of him.

            Furthermore, Christopher, I think you are right–I think he was showing restraint when writing about composers who are now considered not top-drawer. You can sense him wanting to be more generous and positive about Dussek and Weber, and that his publishers wanted him to write more concisely. That massive book SONATA FORM was supposedly the article written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music in 1979 and rejected as impossibly long!!! I wish we had 2,400 page books by Rosen!

          • I’m not surprised to learn that the Classical Style was rejected by Hitchcock for being too long. Charles Rosen was one of the few who could plausibly review the entire Dictionary, which he did. He also repeatedly made mincemeat of Richard Taruskin. And always so much more civilly than Taruskin deserved. There is further about the Taruskin paranoia over the CIA, a fight Taruskin picked in, I think, the New York Review of Books, in Rosen’s Freedom and the Arts. Taruskin is a latter-day de facto Soviet enforcer – everything he says could have been written in Moscow in 1965 – OK maybe 1975 – and the slight hint that a concert once in Italy with a piece by Carter was supported by the CIA sends Taruskin into paroxysms. Rosen gives him his just desserts. Taruskin is an embarrassment to me as a Berkeley man. I did not know until recently he had ever been there. My thumbnail of Richard Taruskin: he writes like a Socialist Realist insisting on American transparency.

  2. I am saddened to learn about these sad news and I feel sorry that I never got to meet him. I admire his command of a wide-ranging knowledge portfolio and his curiosity. His search for a rapprochement of scholarship and performance reminds me of Rosalyn Tureck, among other giants.

    We very much need people of this caliber in the twenty-first century!

  3. Thank you for posting this sad news. Rosen’s writings and recordings will live on.

    Can you confirm your source for stating that Rosen was a pupil of Josef Hoffman? Rosen was greatly influenced by his playing, but I don’t believe he ever took lessons with him. If he did, I stand corrected.

    However, Rosen was a pupil of the great Moriz Rosenthal.

    • John Parfrey says:

      Quick search in Wikipedia. I didn’t check the source, but here is what I found: “In his youth he studied piano with Moriz Rosenthal. Rosenthal, born in 1862, had been a student of Franz Liszt. Rosenthal’s memories of the 19th century in classical music were communicated to his pupil and appear frequently in Rosen’s later writings.

      “Rosen has said[1] that the pianist Józef Hofmann, whom he heard every year from age three to twelve, was a greater influence on him than Rosenthal. He recalls having played for Leopold Godowsky at age seven; Godowsky asked Rosen what he would like to be when he grew up, and, to Godowsky’s amusement, Rosen answered, “I want to be a pianist like Józef Hofmann.” Rosen has also named Arturo Toscanini as a great influence.”

    • Mr. LeBrect clearly wrote the word “spiritually.” I knew Charles for decades and worked closely with him. Charles never studied with Hofmann. But he did hear Hofmann many times and he idolized Hofmann. I can’t remember how many times Charles would sit at the piano and say “Hofmann played it like this..” and proceeded to imitate the older man. Charles would point out that Hofmann could be quite bad at times, but when he was serious, Hofmann was Olympian.

      Frank Bell

  4. Charles Rosen’s book “The Classical Style” was my “bible” when I was an undergraduate at Yale. What a brilliant man and scholar. I am saddened to hear of his passing.

  5. My piano teacher knew Rosen at Princeton. He told me Rosen was the most brilliant sightreader he’d ever encountered. Rosen could play an orchestra score at the piano as if it were a Mozart sonata.

  6. Steven Ledbetter says:

    This is sad news indeed. I got to know Charles in the ’70s when he gave a public lecture at Dartmouth College, where I was then teaching, and spent one amazing hour speaking to my class and joining me as well on my radio show. A brilliant, penetrating mind, highly opinionated, but never afraid (or unable) to defend his opinions, and able to say calmly, “I’m sorry, but your wrong” and then explain why. He always referred to me and my own work (such as my Marenzio article in the New Grove or my Boston Symphony program notes) more generously than I could have imagined, and with that he made me feel more like a colleague than I would have dared otherwise. I have many of his recordings from over the years, and I will continue to treasure them as well as memories of stimulating conversations now long past.

  7. During part of the ten years (1987–97) that I lived in Paris, I had the address of 11 rue de l’Arc de Triomphe. Sometimes when i was leaving or returning to the flat, I could hear someone playing the piano — rather well, I though, as far as I could hear it. When i discovered that Charles Rosen had a pied à terre at 9 rue de l’Arc de Triomphe, I knew just good the playing I could half-hear really was. It was years before I bumped into him in the street, though.
    I once mentioned to the FInnish composer Jouni Kaipainen, when he was noting down my address, that Charles Rosen lived next door. He stopped dead: “Charles Rosen? When I read _The Classical Style_, I couldn’t compose for six months”. The book had an immediate on Jouni’s style: his clarinet concerto _Carpe Diem_ has a Haydnesque wit and brilliance.

  8. Sad, indeed. His box set of the late Beethoven sonatas has always been a favorite of mine. A few decades agi, when I worked at the LA Times as a beginning music journalist, I did a sit-down with Mr. Rosen. I was scared you-know-what-less — so intimidated by this great musician and musical mind. Like a horse ridden by a nervous beginner, he sensed my fear and remained distant and fairly bored. But he answered my questions clearly and sympathetically. I wish I had another chance years later. As Susan noted, his “In the Classical Style” remains THE book on the subject. I’m teaching a course on that period and will, of course, use the book as my primary resource. His combination of intellect and musicality was a rare and wondrous thing.

  9. Jerry Pritchard says:

    I had the great opportunity to spend three days with Rosen when he did a short residency at the university I was teaching at at the time for concerts, formal lectures and class presentations. I was his host and guide and, thus, had a tremendous opportunity to talk with him over lunches and dinners as well as en route around campus and to his hotel. His wide-ranging knowledge, insights and ability to express his ideas were a bit overwhelming, but you knew you were in the presence of of an intellectual, a perceptive scholar/writer, and a first rate musical mind. He really influenced my thinking and career greatly.

  10. Rosen’s Classical Style was required reading in my music history and theory classes in college. ALL his other books are worthwhile reads as well. I had the chance to meet him and experience his comprehensive mastery of the classics when he gave a lecture/recital of Schumann (illustrations of how sometimes Schumann made his pieces LESS interesting when he revised them) that also managed to include some moving words of Thomas Mann on Wagner (from Dr Faustus on the Prelude to Act III of Meistersinger, if I recall correctly). We were all simply stunned at the breadth and depth of his knowledge in multiple cultural areas.


  11. Gavin Smithers says:

    Charles Rosen played late Chopin for an hour at our local music festival in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire in May 2011. He walked with a stick and was very frail, but he played the B minor sonata with a formidable sense of its architecture, great fluency, momentum and power. His playing was expressive emotionally, but this focus on the structure of the discourse meant it wasn’t what you would call “romantic” in the pejorative sense.

    When he acknowledged the applause a huge smile lit up his face. This wasn’t gratitude. It was pleasure- the pleasure of sharing a vision of what this great music was about.

  12. About the dwindling audience attendances, Rosen wrote this in his book Critical Entertainments, “The piano sonatas of Schubert were never played during the his lifetime for an audience of more than twenty or thirty people.” The music world has truly lost a cultured and erudite musician.

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