Charles Rosen, Pianist, Writer and Intellectual, Dies at 85

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Charles Rosen – the polymath pianist, lecturer and author of numerous books on classical music and the humanities – died in Manhattan Sunday of complications of cancer. He was 85.

Rosen's death was announced by his longtime spokesman, Constance Shuman.

In a career stretching six decades, Rosen maintained interconnected lives as both a scholar and performer. His numerous essays and two best-selling books on music, The Classical Style (1971) and The Romantic Generation (1995) defined him to the public as part of a rare and vanishing breed of “intellectual pianists.”

As a recitalist and recording artist, Rosen was known as a late Beethoven and contemporary music interpreter (especially the imposing works of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez), although his Chopin and Schumann were equally admired. He was noted for his lecture-recitals, in which he discussed weighty philosophical, literary and stylistic issues, often while seated at the keyboard. Although he publicly regretted that his intellectual credentials distracted attention from his career as a performer, it also became a frequent publicity hook.

Rosen was born in New York in 1927, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family lived in Washington Heights until he was age six, when they moved to the Upper West Side; they settled in a book-lined prewar apartment where Rosen lived for the rest of his life. Rosen began piano lessons at an early age four and enrolled at Juilliard at seven as a student of Moriz Rosenthal. He received his BA, MA, and PhD at Princeton – in Romance languages ("I never took a music course at Princeton," he once told an interviewer).

In the early 1950s, Rosen was a literature lecturer at MIT, but taught only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, to leave the other days free for performances. His recital career took off but he frequently returned to academia, holding posts at SUNY Stony Brook (1971), UC Berkeley (1976-1977), Harvard (1980-1981), Oxford (1988), and finally, at the University of Chicago, where he was a professor of social thought and music from 1986 to 1996.

Rosen's first book deal came in 1970 after a publisher spotted his album liner notes. “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,” he told WQXR in 2010. “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.”

The eventual result was The Classical Style, a landmark work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose first edition won the 1972 National Book Award and remained in print for more than two decades. Known for its dense and evocative analysis, the book was followed by Arnold Schoenberg (1975), and Sonata Forms (1980), as well as a number of reviews and essays in the New York Review of Books.

The Romantic Generation (1995) has a less formal finish as a work of literature – which included a spirited and eloquent defense of Berlioz – but is likewise regarded as a landmark text.

Rosen continued to perform and publish well into his 80s (he never married). His last book, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, issued in May, included such chapters as "Structural Dissonance and the Classical Sonata" and "Theodore Adorno: Criticism as Cultural Nostalgia." In New York, his recitals were regular fixtures at the 92nd Street Y and Lincoln Center until the past year.

Although Rosen was called "severe and intellectual" by no less an authority than the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, he was not doctrinaire, and was known for his free approach to composers' metronome markings. And for all his prominence as a scholar, Rosen insisted that performing was his first love, as he told WQXR:

“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, '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.”

Shuman, his publicist, said that no funeral is planned although further memorial arrangements will be announced at a later date.

Below: Rosen was a longtime champion of Elliott Carter, who died on November 5. A few days after the composer's death, Rosen offered the following reflections on Carter's music and legacy to Q2 Music: