The 2008 Honorees

By Stuart Isacoff

Talk about tradition! He began playing for Leopold Godowsky at age 5 and continued studies with Moriz Rosentha l, a pupil of Liszt. His performances of Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy have been hailed as revelatory, and he has worked with such contemporary masters as Stravinsky, Carter, and Boulez. Add a formidable career as a writer, scholar, and teacher, and you have one of the master musicians of our time.

Don't call Charles Rosen an intellectual pianist. He bristles at the phrase, which has followed him for decades. The confusion, he says, arises from the fact that his venerated books--classics of scholarship that include Sonata Forms, The Classical Style (winner of the National Book Award), The Romantic Generation, and Romanticism and Realism, among others--are both meticulous and elegantly highbrow.

But don't put that label on his playing. In fact, don't try to categorize it at all. In the world of pianists it's easy to find pounders and pedants and nimble-fingered prodigies. There are period specialists and avant-gardists, and celebrity selfpromoters who flaunt assorted infelicities as if they were badges of honor. There are musicians we admire for their attention to surface beauty, and others who lay claim to a special understanding of structural form. But
Musical America's Instrumentalist of the Year transcends any such easy descriptions.

"I never wanted to be a specialist," Rosen explains, "but wanted instead to embrace the whole tradition. I'm proud of playing many different composers--from Bach and Schumann to Bartók, Stravinsky, and Carter--and of developing a different technique for each. They should each have their own character." That philosophy permeates a lifetime's worth of recordings, in which a listener can contrast the weighty voices of Bach's
Art of the Fugue with the featherlight, airy tones of Ravel; the rhythmic pliancy of Chopin's Mazurkas with the earthiness of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. There is nothing cold or clinical about any of it.

Truth to tell, however, the lure of the easy label hounded him even from the start. "I began my career in New York with four concerts," he recounts, "playing a wide range of repertoire. I got a rave review in
Time magazine, and another from Virgil Thomson, yet I still couldn't find a manager. Finally, I was placed with Columbia Artists and got a contract with CBS, who insisted that I must be a French specialist because I have a Ph.D. in French Literature. So I had to record Ravel for them."

That might come as a surprise to audiences at his recent performances of the late Beethoven Sonatas in London and New York. Critics described those interpretations as "poetic," "masterly," and "a lava-flow of invention." Indeed, at 80, Rosen is at the crest of a distinguished career that has been underscored by wide-ranging, scrupulous scholarship, impeccable taste, and a pianism of rare honesty--along with that refusal to be neatly pegged.

He’s even uncomfortable with my use of the term "honesty." I'm no more faithful to the score than Toscanini was," he insists. "You have to make adjustments for the sake of the music. Listen to the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in the performance by Toscanini. The melody is played in the cello and everyone else, according to the score, is to make a
fortissimo. But if you play it the way Beethoven wrote it, no one would be able to hear the cello. Toscanini makes a fortissimo for a split second, and then damps everyone down. That's better than what Mahler used to do--he changed the orchestration and moved the melody from the cello to the horns.

"So honesty is not quite the thing. On the other hand, you're right in a certain way. Someone once told me that he had figured out my 'trick': He said that whenever there is something really unusual in a piece of music, I bring it out. For example, there are strange details in Chopin that go against the grain, and some people try to cover them up. There are things in Beethoven's 'Waldstein' Sonata that people cover up in order to make the piece sound prettier. I don't want to do that. I want the details to stand out--though I also want a long line."

The early review he received from Virgil Thomson (November 4, 1953, in the
New York Herald Tribune) got a lot right: "Charles Rosen, who played last night his third Town Hall recital, is at twenty-six one of the great piano technicians.... If you look while you listen, you have an impression of Harold Teen [a high-school age comic strip character] turned Horowitz. If you listen while you look, you become aware that under all the precocity lies a musical mind of great strength and modesty. Also an exquisitely trained taste of no modesty."

The keen mind was a given. Rosen received his doctorate from Princeton, where he specialized in French literature simply because he found the head of that department to be
the most intelligent and charming teacher around. The school gave him a stipend, which allowed him to practice piano for four hours a day ("I can't practice more than that," he says). He was, he admits, too "snooty" to take a degree in music, because he already knew so much more than the other students in that subject. After all, he had been playing for Leopold Godowsky since the age of 5 or 6. "He put me on his lap and asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. And I said, 'I want to be a pianist like Josef Hofmann.' Gary Graffman was taking lessons from Godowsky too," reports the pianist, "but he was less sanguine and punched Godowsky in the stomach."

Even today, Hofmann remains an important model. As we speak, he puts on a recording from 1922-23 of Hofmann playing Scarlatti. "It's breathtaking," he declares. "Listen to how many levels of dynamics and touch he has going at once. There is greater subtlety than in Horowitz. This is what he wanted to be remembered for."

Rosen continued piano studies with Moriz Rosenthal, a former pupil of Franz Liszt, and then with Rosenthal's widow, Hedwig. He remembers bringing Schoenberg's Op. 25 to her, which she thought sounded terrible. "Maybe if you played it as if it were Chopin it would sound better," she suggested. "And she was almost right," he now says. "You have to play it as if it were Brahms."

Learning and playing contemporary music was always important for this pianist. He continues to be an advocate for the music of his friend Elliott Carter, and will be taking part in a Carter festival in Torino, Italy, this January. Of course, this also invites pigeonholing from certain quarters. "I always had a feeling that avant-garde music should be integrated within the whole tradition," he declares. "Music is not a competition. You don't ask, 'Is Beethoven better than Mozart, is Chopin better than Beethoven?' But there is no question that modern pieces are more difficult to grasp in a single hearing. Of course, that's not the case for music alone. People have trouble with abstract painting, and with modernist literature and poetry too. Some of Elliott's music can be thorny. Yet there are pieces by Beethoven that are just as gritty."

Charles Rosen's formidable writing career was launched simply because he thought the liner notes written for one of his recordings were too silly to let stand. In describing Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp major, a work filled with intricate counterpoint, a critic had said the music "staggers drunken with the odor of flowers." Rosen determined then and there to begin doing the describing himself. And his literary output since that time has been stunning. But first and foremost, he says, "I always wanted to be a pianist."

That he certainly is. And so much the better for all of us.

Stuart Isacoff is author of
Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization (Vintage), a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, and editor of the magazine Piano Today.


Search Musical America's archive of photos from 1900-1992.