in: News & Features

December 11, 2012

Eminent Pianist and Scholar Charles Rosen Has Died


It’s a shock to realize that Charles Rosen has passed from our musical scene.  At 85, he had still been active on keyboards, both piano and typewriter, and still been making regular appearances in New York Review of Books, where he wrote with utmost vigor and clarity. He died in Manhattan on Sunday.

Charles Rosen was a comprehensive musician, an outstanding pianist and one of the best writers on music ever.  The scope of his knowledge was immense, and its depth showed on every page of his many and various books and articles, from The Classical Style to The Romantic Generation to Sonata Forms, and even to books on Schoenberg and Elliott Carter.  Today’s students and knowledgeable music lovers return to Rosen’s writings again and again, not only to read about the great composers and their works, but to comprehend them historically and as components of the literary and dramatic traditions, which Rosen knew thoroughly (his doctoral training was in French literature).

I continue most of all to admire Rosen’s The Romantic Generation (1995), which was the result of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1980-1981.  Among many revelations in that book, one could learn for the first time of the previously little-known alterations that Robert Schumann made in the third movement of his Phantasie for piano, op. 17, before that great work was published.  On the last page of the original version, a dozen measures duplicate, as a flashback with subtle changes, the exquisite ending of the first movement.  Schumann’s revised measures, probably made at the behest of Clara, are played everywhere today but have always seemed to me anticlimactic.  Rosen recorded those original measures, too, and I much prefer them to the final version, although, to be fair, I have yet to meet another pianist who agrees.  (It may take some time.)

I last heard Rosen play in 1985 in Chicago, when he and Rolf Schulte were the soloists in Berg’s Kammerkonzert conducted by Ralph Shapey, one of several unforgettable climaxes in a week-long centennial celebration.  Some years later, I spoke with Rosen, taking issue with his assertion that the Marsch in Berg’s Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6, was an example of an atonal sonata form.  I think he accepted my rebuttal; but since then, I have come to see what he claimed for that piece, and I’m glad he raised the question.  Nor will we forget his profound accomplishments in the service of new music; he was the soloist in the first recordings of Stravinsky’s Movements and Carter’s Double Concerto, registering the permanence of those masterpieces.

Ave atque vale, Charles Rosen, loyal servant of the art of music, and one of the best.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. I cherish his introspective recording of the Goldberg Variations. It is as different from Glenn Gould’s overly excited first version as a recording can be.

    Comment by Allan Kohrman — December 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  2. The word “amazing” is tossed around all too much these days, but one of the most remarkably AMAZING concerts I ever attended was given by Dr. Rosen at Sanders Theater in conjunction with some lectures he delivered at Harvard. The program was made up of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Piano Sonata” (btw, since the word “hammerklavier” means “piano”, this is actually Beethoven’s “Piano Piano Sonata”) AND his “Diabelli Variations” BOTH ON THE SAME PROGRAM! This was almost a case of too much transcenedent music to take in all at once, although I suppose that could be said of any performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — December 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm

  3. To many serious Boston-area music-lovers over the last 40+ years — “serious” meaning the sort who paid close attention to whatever Charles Rosen wrote and performed — one of the amazing revelations was that this formidable, prodigious musical and cultural intellect and keenly stylish writer had once been pals and Princeton roommates with our own such, Michael Steinberg. Rosen helped him with French, Steinberg told friends, and introduced him to Gluck, and he helped Rosen with German, Steinberg’s native tongue. Rosen was a “person I learned a hell of a lot from…. He was endowed with extraordinary intellectual as well as musical powers, and was interested in many things. … I gained so much from contact with [him] — partly by talking, and partly by making music. We played four hands together. We read piles of orchestra stuff in improvised, four-hand arrangements, and went through all of the organ literature, three-handedly. … Rosen was a major source of musical enlightenment”(this from a mid-1970s interview with Deena Rosenberg). Whether you knew them personally or only from the printed page, the idea of those two minds in the same space was (and is) boggling.

    Rosen’s writing was fabled in several respects, more good than bad: it was awe-inspiring, unbelievably (in the literal sense) wide-ranging, often entertaining, while also capable of smallness with close to gratuitous barbs. His off-the-top-of-his-head lecture/demonstrations were “punchy, but genius,” as another critic described it. Veteran acquaintances found Rosen in his younger days to be seldom an “agreeable or even likable person; to put up with him you had to really want the good stuff he had.” (He never wrote one word about Steinberg, I believe; one sensed a serious falling-out, at least on his part.) Like most of us, however, Rosen mellowed a bit with time. He came to wear his immense seriousness and learnedness a little more lightly. With fawning young critic-students, he was kind, patient, ever instructive. He replied to letters and, in response to one querying note about Bach, sent along his new edition of fugues complete with fingering and typically penetrating notes. He gladly shared strong enthusiasms, about Charles Mackerras and Bill Evans and very much else. He had a practical, almost modest bent, emphasizing how music performance always and only arises from what is possible and feasible at that moment, and that recordings tend to make us forget this. “Note that pianists never sneeze” is another pleasing recollection.

    Rosen’s recordings are, to my ear, all over the place. Some sound a touch severe or pallid as to color, and others are, worse, technically and rhythmically clunky (Mozart) or drifting (Bach). The last movement of his Emperor Concerto is so fast as to be almost brittle, not like his Beethoven solo recordings or the more solid Bach. Rosen’s live playing that I heard was ravishing: Chopin, Schumann, marvelous Carter.

    Responding to those who found his exhaustive analyses and deep insights too technical, too daunting, Rosen would point out that we do not need to analyze aesthetic processes or strategies, and understand them in words, in order to experience the art. If we’re paying proper attention, we get it without written explanations.

    Comment by David Moran — December 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm

  4. A shrewd appreciation of the man:

    Comment by Richard Buell — December 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm

  5. At my invitation, Mr. Rosen played two recitals at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in the early 2000s. More than either concert however (which had some sublime moments mixed with some other moments…), his lecture on the classical period, the rise of public concerts, and the general cultural milieu of 18th century Europe was spectacular. He spoke without notes, played countless examples from memory (beautifully) and was simply brilliant. He also regaled us at post-concerts parties with stories of his colorful life in music. My favorite was this anecdote: As a little boy, he was taken to play for the great pianist Josef Hofmann. After playing, Hofmann had him sit on his knee for an ‘interview’. Hofmann asked Rosen what he wanted to do when he grew up; Rosen replied “I want to play the piano as well as Moritz Rosenthal.” That quickly concluded the interview. (And indeed, Rosenthal became Rosen’s main teacher.) Mr. Rosen was one of a kind, and as musicians and music-lovers, we’ve been enriched by his many contributions to the art.

    Comment by David Deveau, Artistic Director, Rockport Music — December 13, 2012 at 9:32 am

  6. Thanks to Mark DeVoto for this sensitive tribute to Charles Rosen, whose passing leaves a gap in our public musical life that will be felt for a long time. Charles’s writings and playing were fired by the same deep love and knowledge, and his verbal brilliance remains unforgettable. Readers may wish to have a look at the volume of essays in his honor entitled “Variations on the Canon,” edited by Robert Curry, David Gable, and Robert Marshall (University of Rochester Press, 2008) which includes, along with essays on many musical topics from Bach to Stockhausen, a group of personal tributes by Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, and Charles Mackerras. It ends with a bibliography of Charles’s writings and a discography of his recordings, through 2008. And what other festschrift would have an essay by the honoree himself, this time Charles writing not about music but about his beloved early field of studies, French literature, with an essay on Montaigne. It is a model of subtle observation on the great French writer’s views on the relationship between style and content and on obscure meanings in his writings. It can, just possibly, be read as an implicit embodiment of Charles’s reflections on his own published essays and reviews, which must often be read between the lines to get their full import, as he says of Montaigne.

    Lewis Lockwood, Fanny Peabody Research Professor of Music Emeritus, Harvard University, and Distinguished Senior Scholar, Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, Boston University

    Comment by Lewis Lockwood — December 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

  7. How alluring to learn that Charles Rosen wrote an essay on Montaigne. I will look it up (and likely assign it to students…)

    Comment by Ashley — December 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  8. Here’s another skillful appreciation of Dr. Rosen, from Jeremy Denk, who surely would not have become as skilled a musician and writer as he is without Rosen’s example. R.I.P.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — December 19, 2012 at 8:26 am

  9. Thanks, James C.S. Liu, for that link to Denk’s lovely and loving tribute.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 19, 2012 at 8:38 am

  10. When a friend told me the news of Charles Rosen’s death, I was saddened. He was a polymath in fields including music and literature, as well as being a major pianist. His Harvard Concert remains in my memory: a packed Sanders Theater waiting forever as the announcer kept telling us “he’s on his way from dinner with the President (of Harvard) .”The performances were powerful (oppii 120 & 106). I think we heard him at Tufts 20 yrs. later in the last 3 Schubert Sonatas (am I mistaken?-help!). If he could be snarly at times, that was ok in view of his huge contributions. His early relationship with our own Michael Steinberg while both were at Princeton is recalled in MS’s”Symphony” compendium,in which their relationship with the emigre composer Martinu is lovingly recalled. They kept this saddened genius going while most of his wonderful symphonies were being composed here in America. What a bunch of connections!

    Steinberg at Princeton, when both attended to the emigre Master ,Martinu, is wonderfully recalled in MS”s “The Symphony.”

    Comment by morty schnee — December 26, 2012 at 9:18 pm

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