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10 Questions for Charles Rosen

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"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or so the saying goes. Sometimes attributed to Frank Zappa, other times to Elvis Costello, the quote is intended to suggest the inherent difficulty of capturing one art form through another. But the iconoclastic pianist and author Charles Rosen has built a career out of disproving that old quip.

At 83, Rosen is part of an increasingly rare breed. He is not only the author of two best-selling books on music, The Classical Style (1971) and The Romantic Generation (1995), and four decades' worth of essays in the New York Review of Books, but also a pianist of considerable accomplishment.

In addition to writing, Rosen has held professorships at Harvard and Oxford; has recorded everything from Bach to Debussy and Boulez; and has given regular lectures and recitals (he'll present one of each at the 92nd St. Y, on November 14 and 20, respectively).

Rosen spoke with us about his far-reaching career, his love of Chopin, and the future of classical music.

The bicentennial of Chopin’s birth has brought out a flood of concerts, recordings and other tributes this year. Why do you think he’s gotten so much attention?

His reputation has changed a lot. He was considered a miniaturist and effeminate. He didn’t really play very much in public. He had a reputation of playing very softly. In fact, Chopin is quite brutal. People have become aware that he was a great master of long forms as well – the ballades, and the scherzos and the barcarole and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. All of them are longer than the average movement by Beethoven. The last two sonatas are really very beautiful.

What do you get from playing his music?

He was basically an interesting figure for me because he combined two influences that nobody else had done: He loved Italian opera and was a great master of writing Italian-style melody, and he studied the music of Johan Sebastian Bach his whole life, who for him was the most important. That combination is absolutely unique in music. It makes for a terrific contrapuntal texture that’s extremely rich. What’s going on with the inner voices is absolutely fascinating in Chopin. At the same time, he has this wonderful sustained line.

In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books you call Chopin "one of the most radical musicians of his time" but also deeply conservative and reactionary. What do you mean by this?

I’ve also been playing a lot Schumann lately. Chopin is actually a much more reactionary composer than Schumann is. Harmonically he’s more adventurous. But Schumann was the more modern composer. He treats the piano not as something in which you’d work out four-part voices like in Bach but treats the piano as a big vibrating instrument. His use of the pedal was much more modern than Chopin. Chopin’s influence was very great for composers like Wagner and even Elliott Carter.

You’ve championed Elliott Carter’s work throughout your career. As the dean of post-World War II modernist composers, do you think his style of music still has relevance?

I suppose, Modernism isn’t exactly in fashion right now. But it’s still a permanent part of the repertoire. I play the music I love so I’m not really concerned with whether it’s fashionable or not.

Are you drawn to his music by its intellectual challenges? Do you find it hits you on a gut level too?

In one respect, Elliott Carter is very reactionary. There are these long arabesques that are a huge expressive line. Rabid modernists were shocked that Elliott writes espressivo and they thought he was being old-fashioned. There is no other composer besides Elliott who knows how to write a long big line which is expressive. He does in a number of pieces. That’s what I love. It’s a gut experience.

But many people don’t seem to hear that. They just hear a lot of dissonance and complexity.

Obviously, the complexity interests us. I once said, ‘music which is difficult to hear on first hearing generally has more of a chance of lasting.’ It’s true. Someone said indignantly, ‘but what about Dvorak?’ Actually there are only two pieces of Dvorak that have entered the repertoire: The New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto. You don’t hear anything much else by him, whereas a more difficult composer like Brahms or Wagner you hear almost everything. Donizetti is a much easier than Verdi and yet Verdi’s lasted much better than Donizetti. Nobody plays Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata anymore whereas Elliott’s Sonata gets played quite a lot by pianists.

Is it true you came about writing books by accident? You used to write your own sleeve notes and a publisher liked them and invited you to write a book?

I didn’t publish any book until I was over 40 years old and the only thing that I only wrote was the sleeve notes for my records. The book that I wrote got good press so people asked me, they figured if you can write a book you can give a lecture.

These days, you give lectures often in tandem with recitals. Which do you enjoy more?

Playing concerts is much less fatiguing than giving lectures for an odd reason: If you play a Beethoven sonata, it doesn’t matter what kind of audience you have, whereas if you give a lecture you have to keep thinking if you’re going too fast for them – ‘should I go a little slower, should I repeat what I’m saying?’ You have to make some kind of contact with the minds of the people – whereas playing a concert is like creating a work of art. You make as beautiful a work of art as you can and you hope that people will love it.

What inspired your latest book Music and Sentiment?

At the end of the 18th century, with Mozart and Beethoven, sometimes there are themes with contradictory sentiments, like the beginning of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, which has a big contradiction in what kind of sentiment is represented. This whole idea of contrasting emotion is very big in that period. Then after the death of Beethoven it completely disappears. At the end of the 19th century things changed radically. Composers didn’t represent sentiments; they tried to provoke the sentiment and manipulate the audience.

How so?

At the end of Strauss’s Salome, when she has the head of John the Baptist and is kissing it, it’s quite clearly that you have the representation of an orgasm. Strauss adds this trill and the high theme never stops and there’s sort of a friction that goes on and on. It’s subliminal. It works on your nervous system when you hear it. Or in Stravinsky's Petrushka, for example, in that second scene where the marionette is in that rage, you’re continually jolted by the changes in rhythm. You have a bodily reaction, being jarred and jolted constantly by Stravinsky.

There’s been a lot of concern for the future of classical music. There’s evidence that audiences are aging and declining. What do you think?

I think it’s rather silly. The problems have nothing to do with the appreciation of music. It’s a much more economic one. Two things: If you make a classical record you can make a perfectly good profit of 10 to 20 percent from it, whereas if you do a pop record you could do a 200 percent profit. So people put their money into pop. That was not the case when I was making records.

When I was a small child, most people of middle class or even lower-middle class background had a piano at home. People learned to play the piano and they don’t anymore. It’s not a lack of interest in music but the piano has become a dinosaur a little bit. In the 19th century, if you were a girl from the middle class, you had to learn how to cook, sew and to play the piano in order to get married and so people had much more experience with the music. People still love music – they don’t learn to play the piano, they learn to play the guitar. It’s not a lack of appreciation, it’s a lack of contact.