Charles Rosen, Scholar-Musician Who Untangled Classical Works, Dies at 85
Charles Rosen, the pianist, polymath and author whose National Book Award-winning volume “The Classical Style” illuminated the enduring language of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 85.
The death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, was of cancer, said Henri Zerner, a friend of many years.
Published in 1971, “The Classical Style” examines the nature of Classical music through the lens of its three most exemplary practitioners. Given that these titans were working with the same raw materials — the 12 notes of the Western musical scale — as the Baroque composers who had preceded them, just what was it, Mr. Rosen’s book asked, that gave their music its unmistakable character?
The answers, he concluded, could be gleaned from a penetrating analysis of the structure of Classical compositions. It was precisely this structure that his book, through a painstaking unraveling of Haydn’s string quartets, Mozart’s comic operas, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and other seminal works, sought to make plain.
Though some critics took the book to task for its heavy reliance on musical notation (a work aimed at a general readership, they argued, should be accessible even to those who could not read music), most praised it as a masterly work of synthesis.
“The Classical Style” received the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1972.
As a renowned writer and lecturer on music who was also a concert pianist of no small reputation, Mr. Rosen was among the last exemplars of a figure more typically associated with the 19th century: the international scholar-musician. If as a writer he was known for aqueous lucidity and the vast, ecumenical sweep of his inquiry, then as a pianist he tended to rate a similar description.
“The granddaddy of all these writer-musicians is the American pianist and scholar Charles Rosen,” The Guardian wrote in 2010, going on to describe him as “a performer of the utmost distinction whose writing exactly mirrors his playing: subtle, precise, penetrating and, though by no means lacking in fun, intended to challenge.”
Mr. Rosen the pianist was known in particular as an interpreter of Beethoven, but also of Bach, Chopin and the 20th-century composers Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter. He appeared often in recital (in the 1950s and ’60s he was heard regularly at Town Hall in New York) and with some of the world’s leading orchestras.
Mr. Rosen the writer was additionally known for his book “The Romantic Generation” (1995), which explores European music from the death of Beethoven to the death of Chopin and is accompanied by a CD of musical examples played by the author; “Piano Notes” (2002), a collection of essays on the craft of pianism that includes a disquisition on the right thumb; a well-received monograph on Schoenberg; and many decades’ worth of articles in The New York Review of Books. His most recent article, in the Dec. 20 issue, is on the English Restoration playwright and poet William Congreve.
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.
Charles Welles Rosen was born in Manhattan on May 5, 1927. His father, Irwin, was an architect; his mother, the former Anita Gerber, was a semiprofessional actress and amateur pianist.
Young Charles took his first piano lessons at 4 and studied at the Juilliard School from the ages of 7 to 11. At 11, he began private study with the distinguished pianist Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Liszt.
Attending Princeton, from which he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in French literature, Mr. Rosen took few classes in the music department.
“I was too proud to take courses in music,” he told an interviewer in 2011, on being awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama. “I don’t mean to sound snotty, but it’s true: I knew more about music than most of the music graduate students.”
Mr. Rosen earned his Ph.D. in 1951, a banner year for him in other respects. That year, at 24, he also made his New York recital debut, at Town Hall, and recorded his first solo album, of Debussy études. The success of that record and other early recordings let him quit his academic career — he had been teaching French at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — for the life of a full-time pianist.
Reviewing a 1953 Town Hall recital by Mr. Rosen in The New York Herald Tribune, the composer Virgil Thomson wrote that he was, “at 26, one of the great piano technicians,” adding, “Under all the precocity lies a musical mind of great strength and modesty.”
But over time, Mr. Rosen’s writing career — born, as he told it, of dire necessity — began competing for his attention. The necessity arose in 1960, when his recording of Chopin nocturnes was released with liner notes describing one nocturne as “staggering drunken with the odor of flowers.”
“I had many thoughts about the piece,” Mr. Rosen told The Guardian in 2011. “That was not one of them. So I started writing the sleeve notes myself. People liked them, and after a while a publisher took me to lunch.”
This led eventually to his first book, “The Classical Style.” In it, Mr. Rosen, building on the work of Donald Tovey and other musicologists, set forth the structural principles that lend the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven its characteristic texture. (They include formal symmetry, a drive toward harmonic resolution, and dramatic expressiveness combined with structural complexity.)
Mr. Rosen’s renown as a writer led him back into teaching. He had long associations with the State University of New York at Stony Brook and later with the University of Chicago, where he was at his death emeritus professor of music and social thought.
His deep intellectualism, some music critics said, did not always serve his pianism well. While some reviewers praised his probing vitality at the keyboard, others called his playing percussive, overly cerebral and even cold.
Among Mr. Rosen’s recordings that have drawn nearly universal praise are those of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” and his last six piano sonatas, and of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and “Art of the Fugue.”
Mr. Rosen’s other books include “Sonata Forms” (1980), “The Frontiers of Meaning” (1994), “Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature” (2012) and, with Mr. Zerner, “Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art” (1984).
He leaves no immediate survivors.
In interviews over many years Mr. Rosen often said that he considered himself a pianist first and foremost. The scholarship, the teaching, the lecturing and everything else were, he said, almost incidental pursuits.
“Everyone needs a hobby,” he told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1981. “Some pianists collect Oriental vases. I write books.”