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.