Diary: Pianist Charles Rosen, The Performer as Critic

Charles Rosen (d. 2012) was a concert pianist and writer about music and culture. This exchange comes from a series of conversations with Catherine Temerson recently published by Harvard University Press.

Q: What, exactly, does musical analysis consist of?
It’s important to focus on the particular devices a composer uses and show precisely how his music differs from that of his contemporaries, or that of composers before and after him. It is essential to situate him in relation to the style of his era, whose characteristics have often lost all their intensity and freshness. The dominant idea of a work and the feelings it expresses must be understood through the technical means deployed.

Nothing compels us to describe the impression that listening to a particular work gives us; we may enjoy the impression without bothering to describe it. If we wish to understand it, however, description is essential, and some recourse to technical terms unavoidable. To understand the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, number 31, opus 110, one must show that the poetry of the adagio is reintroduced and integrated with the grandeur of the fugue; the relation of tempos must be analyzed, as must the relation of tonalities in the first and second fugues; one must furthermore explain that the adagio returns in a key very far from that of the beginning, giving the impression of a distant harmony, and that little by little the initial harmony is reestablished.

We might also take the case of Schumann. It is not enough to say that he is the composer par excellence of pathological moods. A listener may perceive this in a vague and fleeting manner, but any demonstration must be based on the technical means that Schumann invented to conjure these states of mind in music. In certain passages of his works for piano, the two hands are staggered, and our sense of rhythm is constantly offended. At times, he uses effects that seem totally illogical on first hearing and only become logical as the piece develops. In this respect, he very much belongs to his era, a period in which the collapse of religious feeling led to a glorification of madness.

Many writers, from Gérard de Nerval and Hölderlin to Charles Lamb, sought to replace logical reasoning and rationalism with a new form of comprehension. Schumann represents this current in the realm of music.

Anyone who listens attentively to his music will feel this illogical, irrational, almost unbalanced quality. We shall, however, remain on the level of hazy small talk if we do not proceed to specify exactly how he manages to convey this impression. We might experience the effects of the mechanisms he deploys; perhaps these would strike a deep chord of emotion within us, but we won’t be able to say we understand.

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Q: Could you give us examples?
I could cite the bird’s message in the third stanza of the lied on a poem by Heine, “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen” (“I wandered among the trees”; Liederkreis, number 3, opus 24, 1840). The message is in fact an illusion, and Schumann makes this clear to us by employing a key that is never established and thus remains unconvincing, unreal even. Also, it must be added, this key comprises a single chord, repeated almost without variation. It is interesting to see how Schumann successfully integrates this third stanza to the structure of the lied: the first stanza ends on the most important note, melodically speaking, whereas the second ends on a lower note, and it is on this last that the unreal chord of the third stanza is built, a chord he strikes repeatedly without development or change. Introduced as a violent intrusion, the chord is repeated as though it is an obsession. Schumann then shifts abruptly back to the key of the first stanza, as though it had never been interrupted. Using these mechanisms, he manages to evoke the musical equivalent of a hallucination.

The works of Schumann, like those of many Romantic—and even classical—composers, are often the bearers of content beyond the music itself. Pastoral works (symphonies, sonatas, quartets, or movements) always incorporate iconographic sounds that recall the countryside, but in a strictly fictional manner. The sound effect produced by two hunting horns playing hollow-sounding fifths evokes distance and woodlands. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the sound of horns was associated with distance and, at times, absence. Beethoven begins his sonata “Les Adieux” with the strains of a hunting horn to conjure, not the hunt, but rather distance, separation, and absence.

Q: The mechanisms you’ve just described are readily accessible, but is it always possible to write about music for a lay audience?
That is a question broached by the remarkable writer E. T. A. Hoffmann in an essay responding to a minor composer who had proclaimed that Mozart’s modulations were too complex to be appreciated by the broader public. The example Hoffmann picks is the cemetery scene from Don Giovanni, where the statue nods to accept Don Giovanni’s invitation to dine. This scene is set to music in the form of a duet in E major, but the nod is followed by a surprising C natural, played by the orchestra’s bass section. A professional musician, observes Hoffmann, recognizes the naturalized submediant and applauds Mozart’s mastery, while the average listener trembles without wondering what the harmonic effect represents—he feels full well how surprising and weird it is. Only the half-knowledgeable musician is distracted by the chromatic shift he is incapable of explaining. The learned musician and lay public are thus united in comprehension and admiration; only the mediocre musician is excluded. Hoffmann’s commentary is edifying for showing that to explain music it is necessary to possess profound technical knowledge, while at the same time, for a certain level of understanding and appreciation, such explanations are not necessary.


Charles Rosen was a pianist, Professor of Music and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and the author of numerous books, including The Romantic Generation, The Classical Style, and Freedom and the Arts. He received a 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Obama “for his rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas.” Catherine Temerson was a translator and literary director of the Ubu Reportory Theater in New York.


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Image: An 1850 daguerreotype of composer Robert Schumann
Excerpted from The Joy of Playing, the Joy of Thinking: Conversations about Art & Performance, by Charles Rosen and Catherine Temerson, translated by Catherine Zerner, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.