Monday, December 10, 2012
Pianist and intellectual Charles Rosen died yesterday, age 85, at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. That's as it should be: he was the quintessential New Yorker, and died across Central Park from the Upper West Side apartment where he lived for most of his life. It was his parents' apartment before him, and presumably he inherited it from them.
I have a few Rosen anecdotes, but first, the important stuff. Rosen was an extremely smart man, learned in many fields. I assume he was best known to the general public as a pianist, where he had quite a pedigree, as a student of Moriz Rosenthal, himself a Liszt and Mikuli pupil. Rosen's Ph.D., though, was in French, and he taught university-level French at MIT and Harvard.
He was a fine pianist, recording a fair amount of the core classical-era repertory and known especially for his Beethoven. For me, his most significant work as a pianist was as a champion of the music of Elliott Carter and other modernist and 20th c. composers. Among other things, he was one of four co-commissioners of Carter's Night Fantasies, an exceptionally important work in Carter's oeuvre, which Rosen recorded.
Rosen also published a number of books about music, though he said many times - once within my hearing - that he never took music classes when he was in school. Some musical scholars looked on Rosen's books with suspicion, though I believe over time they came to be more accepted with the academy. He was a tireless writer of articles on a range of subjects, many of them published the New York Review of Books.
Rosen taught music at Stony Brook when I was a grad student. Enough of my contemporaries wanted to grow up to do criticism (as opposed to musicology - see the writings of Treitler and Kerman on this subject, from the late 70s and early-to-mid-80s) that I felt somewhat out of place in the student body, as someone who was interested in manuscript studies and transcriptions. I never did take a class with Rosen, and I can't remember anything about how others liked him as a teacher.
I encountered Rosen a couple of times in the last decade. There was a concert of the late Beethoven sonatas that had its good and bad points, complete with a polemical talk on a number of subject. (I think I might be closer to Rich Scheinin's views today.) There was his participation in Reactions to the Record 2 at Stanford in 2009. He performed the Brahms/Handel Variations there rather clangorously; one pianist friend simply left the hall before he played. It would be fair to say that toward the end of his life, his piano skills weren't what they had once been. And during one talk, he was rather contentious, to put it politely, in disagreeing with one prominent scholar, whom I'd swear knew more about the subject at hand then he did.
In retrospect, I'm rather pleased with my two direct interactions with him at that conference. Joe Horowitz played a spectacular-sounding, and spectacularly self-indugent, 1930s Stokowski recording of some Beethoven, and Rosen was visibly shocked when I said that yes, I did like the performance, though I wouldn't want my Beethoven like that every day. And I asked him to sign my copy of The Music of Elliott Carter, where it joined the signatures of Ursula Oppens and the Pacifica Quartet. He initially demurred, but I insisted, and as he signed, he looked happy to have been asked.