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Job vacant: philosopher pianist

In the March issue of Standpoint, out today, I reflect on the unique double role played by the last Charles Rosen, an pianist and intellectual who could – often did – pick a fight in an empty room. Which is to say, he lived and thrived on the vigorous exchange of ideas while playing the piano for connoisseurs.

Every generation has its philosopher pianist. Oddly, the combination does not seem to work with other instruments (for reasons that I touch upon in the essay). But with Charles gone, who steps up to the plate to match the job description?

Pollini? Perahia? Thibaudet? who?


I have some ideas. Read on here.charles Rosen3

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  1. That’s obvious Norman, David Owen Norris fits the bill in so many ways……and shortly to be a symphonist too…..

  2. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, without question, should this philosopher role (which is a useful label more than a reality) be necessarily confined to pianists. Otherwise, consider Gidon Kremer’s work and choices.

  3. Definitely agreed re: Aimard, Why not also include Barenboim (both as pianist and conductor) and Boulez (as conductor and composer)?

    • I forgot to include Brendel, who is so well-read, and for those from San Francisco in the know, the pianist, Paul Hersh whose intellectual curiosity and background literature, art and aesthetics always entered into his conversation and analysis with great enthusiasm- and he was a student of Shure (Schnabel tradition). As I think about it, now that the juices are flowing, years ago, as a student I had been told (without a way to verify it) that many in the Berlin Philharmonic had advanced degrees, and with the Symphony’s wide-ranging programs and immersion in so many different types of communities, one would expect a cultural understanding and ability to communicate that would be different for its members than the standard classically trained orchestral musician. As for Russia, Richter’s teacher was Heinrich Neuhaus who had urged him to educate himself in art, literature and philosophy, so it might be valuable to examine others of Neuhaus’ students who may be still alive and later generations who might fit the bill.

      Maybe this changes your parameters, and takes it out of the not so empty room (of pianists), but your comments stimulated some thinking about it.

  4. Alex Benjamin says:

    Stephen Hough or Jeremy Denk could fit the bill, adding a touch of humour quite different than that of Mr. Rosen.

  5. Hough is certainly a brilliant theologist-pianist – extarordinary man and artist, wityh very profound things to say.

  6. I think both Alex Benjamin and Halldor are correct: Hough!

  7. I second the Denk/ Hough suggestions, with some caveats. I believe both to be essentially monolingual, a real shame. You can’t / should not read Proust in English. I look forward to Denk setting his periscope to a wider view, though I do relish his writings. He rarely discusses other art forms.

    • I cannot speak for either pianist, but I’d be willing to bet that Mr. Hough is multi-lingual. Pretty much comes with a British Education, especially when coupled with an incredibly bright mind.

      • What second language do Brits (really) learn? Most Americans learn a second language, commonly Spanish, during middle and high school. But it is taught so perfunctorily that none ot it sticks, not even for minimal conversation skills. There are exceptions but I do not exaggerate by much.

        • Martin Locher says:

          I imagine it’s quiet tough for most Brits and Americans to learn, and especially keep the knowledge of, a forgeign language in their countries.

          Maybe some more “language bar” projects are needed. Bars, restaurants where certain tables are reserved for people to speak a certain language. Here in East Switzerland such a project exists (or at least used to). They have/had, financed by moderate fees of the guests, language teachers sitting on the respective tables to help if help is/was needed.

          • Great idea. Some colleges here in the States have language tables, though they may be reserved for students who are majoring in the language. Anything to improve fluency, especially in a natural setting, would be good.

  8. Roberto says:


  9. Rosen’s shoes will be very hard to fill. Forty years ago he was a professor of mine in college and in addition to his vast and penetrating erudition, his masterful and captivating playing, he always had patience with us lowly students and gave us his undivided attention. A truly great man in so many ways…

  10. Norman, I believe he’s right there on the “pages” of Arts Journal — and that’s Bruce Brubaker. His “Pianomorphosis” blog is philosophy very often, and it comes not on the sheets of the New York Review of Books, but in the format of the early 21st century.

  11. I’m thinking another possible candidate might be Marc-André Hamelin.

  12. Anna Elisa says:

    I would sure check out Ladislaus Horatius, brave philosopher and fabulous pianist of Hungarian origin living in Sweden. He has given courses and workshops for a long time about philospphy and musica humana. English versions of some of his thoughts can be found e.g. on

  13. For a great (and also humorous) demonstration of “piano philosophy” check out Bruce Brubaker’s talk called “Praeludium” on YouTube:

  14. What a nice selection. I can almost see Lenny and Glenn smiling.

  15. Derek Castle says:

    Reiner, wish I had thought up a clever username like yours (presumably from ‘reine Torheit’; isn’t it in Wagner somewhere?). Reminds me a bit of the determined-to-be-outrageous German comedienne, Helga von Sinnen (as in ‘Bist du von Sinnen? – Are you out of your senses?). I think that’s in Wagner, too!

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