Art of the Piano

Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 285-94.

Denis Dutton

Charles Rosen is so familiar to readers as an acute music theorist and historian of European ideas and literature that it is easy to forget that he is one of most stimulating and compelling pianists of the last fifty years. In Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist (Free Press, $25.00), he combines his intellectual and musical gifts to take stock of his profession as concert pianist. The result is engaging, insightful, and for lovers of piano artistry, not a little disturbing.

The piano, in case no one has noticed, is in steep, serious decline. My piano tuner, Adam Linning, began his career in Glasgow. He worked for the largest piano retailer in the city: it had seventeen tuners on the road in 1954, the year Glaswegians first got television. By 1959, when he left for New Zealand, there were three other tuners working with him. Adam explains the decline in terms of Glasgow apartment space. The piano and the TV had to share the living room, and so long as the room flickered with gray-blue light, the piano had to remain silent.

People all over the Western world used to gather around and sing together at the piano – in my childhood experience, any group of a dozen middle-class adults would contain at least one competent sight-reader who could play, if not Beethoven, then Christmas carols, reductions of Your Hit Parade songs, or scraps of boogie-woogie. This meant that there was abroad in the land a critical mass of amateur pianists who knew enough about music literature, notation, and performance to constitute a core audience for the piano masters of the day – Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau, Cherkassky, and the like – and who also had an appreciation of jazz greats such as Art Tatum.

The decline in the number of amateur pianists, people with knowledgeable admiration of piano playing, has tracked the decline of the piano virtuoso as classical star. Recording too has played a role in these changes. I doubt that there was a greater love of classical music fifty years ago than now. But attendance at live performances of anything is no longer required in order to attain familiarity with repertoire. Recording, particularly from the LP era on, enormously enlarged general knowledge of the musical literature: people who a hundred years earlier would have been lucky to hear three Haydn symphonies or two Handel operas in a lifetime can now, no matter where they live, listen to them all. Recording did to music something like what the Roman alphabet and moveable type did for news and literature: it enabled the universal dispersal of all of music’s products, the worst to the best. For years professional musicians tended not to appreciate this. While it is true that there are fewer people about who can actually play Scarlatti sonatas, that has to be balanced against the agreeable fact that knowledge of these small masterpieces is no longer limited to the fifty or sixty included in early editions, from which was derived the same two dozen that we would hear from pianists over and over. Now we can hear all 550+, and learn about them for ourselves (Arts & Letters Daily even links to a website where you can find any Scarlatti sonata in seconds, click on it, and listen.)

This is a big change. Keyboard virtuosity goes back a long time, even before Bach, although it was Liszt, as inspired by Paganini, who gave the piano its first real idol. Enter Edison a few decades later, and with his appearance it became possible for people to joke, “The only instrument I play is the phonograph.” If there are fewer pianists able to make a living performing the classical repertoire today, it is because a world of mostly non-pianists that is oversupplied with CDs just doesn’t need them all, either to hear the playing or enjoy the music.

Charles Rosen

A notable aspect of Charles Rosen’s regard for piano playing is that he conveys no dewy-eyed nostalgia about the passing golden age of pianists. It’s a part he could play to the hilt, if he wished. His teacher from 1938 till the old man’s death in 1945 was Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a student of Liszt. Rosenthal left a legacy of mid-1930s recordings which are worth hearing, though I’d not trade them for Charles Rosen’s records. (An earlier Edison “hill-and-dale” disk of Rosenthal playing the first Chopin étude from op. 10 also stands out in memory as superbly crisp and clear.) Rosen makes nothing of this lineage, reporting, “I could never find out anything about Liszt’s teaching methods from Rosenthal, except that it was difficult to persuade Liszt to leave the café and go back to the studio for a lesson.” Rosen is skeptical about pianistic genealogies, the idea that any of the master’s style might be authentically heard from a pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Beethoven.

In fact, the whole idea of historic authenticity as a musical ideal is an annoyance to Rosen, and not only for reasons familiar from the work of critics of authenticity such as Richard Taruskin. Rosen agrees that it would be very difficult ever to know with certainty what Beethoven’s playing or Bach’s ensembles sounded like. In addition to this skeptical concern, he also alludes to practical problems with trying to attain authenticity, complaining that in Mozart symphony recordings made in the early days of the return to authenticity, the players had to retune ever thirty seconds; all that stopping and starting resulted in changes of tempo that were “oddly irrational.”

Maybe so; but Rosen’s overall objection to the cult of authenticity is deeper, and has more to do with his conception of what music and music interpretation has to be, if it is to remain as a living art. He attacks this issue from more than one direction. Consider recording. Rosen argues, “When recordings replaced concerts as the dominant mode of hearing music, our conception of the nature of performance and of music itself was altered.” His view is that the works of the classical tradition were, pre-phonograph records, vehicles for artistic performance – the piece of music was something only experienced on an ephemeral occasion. Once works could be recorded, they became “historic monuments or objects in a museum.” I take his point about music experience to be analogous to what the invention of writing might have done to the experience of the Homeric epics. We can suppose that, notwithstanding the amazing memory feats of the Greek rhapsodes, once writing had been invented, a performance of the Odyssey would have taken on a rather different air. Accuracy came into the picture when there was an independent text against which a performance could be judged.

A defining moment in the history of music was the decision to systematically record all of the Beethoven piano sonatas with Artur Schnabel, beginning in 1932. Irving Kolodin has written somewhere of the intense excitement this series of recordings caused as they were released. Kolodin, as I recall, was impressed that it was Schnabel whose presumably supreme interpretations were being recorded. Rosen, on the other hand, sees that recording event as taking the focus off the performer: “With the Beethoven sonata project, the emphasis was principally on the music, although Schnabel was considered its greatest exponent.” The trend continued through the Beethoven string quartets with the Budapest Quartet and went on with all sorts of other “completes” – Haydn symphonies, Bach cantatas, Debussy piano music, and so forth. “Except for recordings made by famous tenors,” Rosen writes, “the emphasis in classical recording has for the most part recently been on the work, and even more on the composer” – the performer being spotlighted as the composer’s “most accomplished representative.”

Rosen is right that recording has altered how we regard musical works, but I’m not so sure he’s exactly on the mark here. It does appear that the early recordings of complete sets were purchased mainly for repertoire. But one of the problems facing the classical recording industry today is that the market is saturated with repertoire. What will sell will be a performer – a big name pianist, for example, someone like Evgeny Kissin giving a fresh view of standard repertoire. A discount importer nearby to where I live has bins of CDs of standards – Sibelius symphonies, Brahms concertos, Chopin, and the like, all in adequate performances – for 54 cents each. At that price, the standard repertoire is no longer the issue: it is finding something new to do with it.

Rosen notes that “the eccentric and portentously personal interpretations by artists of the 1920s and 1930s” were not suitable for the later decades after the introduction of LPs, when a “faithful reflection of the composition” was more important than a unique, personal performance. He then disparages as a “myth” the notion that pianism was “more free in the grand old days of the past.” But listening to the standard, so often tepid and correct, recordings of the 1950s, I’d say the atmosphere then was less free, and that a saturated market for repertoire today has actually forced pianists (or allowed them) to present themselves with something like the swagger of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If, as Nietzsche says, a dying culture goes out in the blaze and sputter of fireworks, then the piano is dying in pretty spectacular fashion, with the likes of Argerich, Pletnev, and Volodos. Rosen does remark that depending on how you listen, some old performances can seem “breathtaking and knuckleheaded, dazzling and revolting.” True; but compared to fifty years ago, there are more, not fewer, pianists playing like that.

In any event, it is Rosen’s position that high quality – or greatness – in piano playing or any musical artistry is achieved at a more personal level than can ever be produced by a method, or at the feet of some teacher. This goes especially for revivalisms of one kind of another. The only way to revive a style, he says, is to accept it as it has come down to us: a “hardened” thing whose rigidity prevents “the free play of imagination.” One example he gives is of the “hairpin dynamics,” tiny crescendos and decrescendos that twenty years ago was de rigueur in authentic Baroque performances. Another is Paderewski’s device of not playing the hands strictly together (left hand, then right). This form of rubato, he argues, when it is used routinely, becomes “a cheap way of persuading the listener that one is playing with deep feeling and sensibility, with the expression smeared like butter indiscriminately over every phrase of the work.”

It’s the mechanical nature of the device that Rosen objects to. If you look at any stylistic device used by musicians of the past, it is normally in the service of a deep and achieved personal, musical expression. There is no way, if I understand Rosen aright, to achieve this by the application of a method. Along with his mention of imagination, the position has a distinctly Kantian ring: techniques can be taught, but inner genius – the only thing that makes art worth knowing – is a natural endowment that can only be expressed if it is already there. The problem for a pianist is how to find a way between two traps, “two complementary forms of subservience.” One is a “self-indulgent and frivolous confidence in our own ego.” The opposite subservience is to the academically correct, including authenticity slavery. If you avoid these alternatives, you just might emerge with a moving and original interpretation of the music, something that delivers a sense of renewal, “the impression of fresh contact with the music.”

Note that Rosen speaks here of an impression of fresh contact, as opposed to fresh contact itself. This is a little like what Sam Goldwyn said about the crucial importance of sincerity in acting: once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. My own sense is that Rosen subscribes to a emotivist, perhaps even romantic theory of art as personally expressive, but that he is too much of a modernist to feel entirely comfortable saying so. His ambiguous attitude toward personal expression shows itself in what he allows might be “one method” for coming to “an original yet responsible interpretation, though (taking the point back again), he says it may be “overvalued”: abandoning the usual modern editions of music in order to return to the Urtext editions or even original manuscripts.

Perusing original documents, he says, can give the pianist “the impression” (that word again) of having a direct contact with the composer: “We think we have entered the creative mind as we study the eccentricities of the handwriting, observe the hesitations and slips of the pen…. The alien handwriting and notation can have an extraordinary effect of suggestion; we start to notice details of the text that have escaped us, and which may even have escaped everyone else until we came along – or so we might think until we become better acquainted with the words and performances of those that came before.”

There is a charm in what Rosen suggests, along with that ambiguity. On the one hand, he is skeptical, even cynical, about the capacity of study to bring a musician to an ultimate inner truth in a musical work. His attitude strikes me as almost deconstructive: there is no hope of discovering some inner “presence” of the composer’s mind in the work, because no such entity exists. On the other hand, it can help pianists to pore over scores imagining they derive a closer contact with a composer’s mind – their search may be illusory, but it may aid them, giving a confidence that results in a fine interpretation. I know a doctor who uses acupuncture in his practice. After years of experimentation and a wide knowledge of the literature, he realizes the needles and their placement (which he went to Beijing to study) is worthless as a real medical procedure; but it gives him something to do and time to talk with his patients. The needles are psychologically beneficial, even though they are clinically inert. I also know a man who practiced astrology until he discovered quite by accident that working from a completely wrong horoscope was perfectly fine for any client. So long as he was giving the client time and the space to discuss problems and projects, any horoscope was an good as any other. Analogously, Rosen seems to me to be in a similar spirit telling pianists to study old manuscripts and Urtext scores. It may result in a better interpretation – but if we are going to be serious, let’s not kid ourselves that on the basis of historical research alone it will be more true than anyone else’s (Schnabel produced fine performances based on false notions of Beethoven’s phrasing). If the pianist believes he is by such communion coming closer to the composer’s essence, it may be all to the good: “The belief may be too often mistaken, but the illusion of coming into direct contact with the past is intoxicating and persuasive, and can result in an interpretation that carries conviction. Sometimes confidence is all that’s needed.”

In other words, Rosen is all in favor of whatever builds confidence as a psychological support, a heuristic device, so long as no one thinks there is anything really to be confident about. He writes, “I am suspicious of teachers who claim to have invented the only successful method of bringing out the best in young performers, of theorists who claim to have invented a unique approach to analysis, or of historians who wish to reduce all the developments of the musical style of the past entirely to the determinism of social conditions.” This general skepticism about musical dogmas – music teachers’ methods and musicologists’ theories – is an attitude Rosen cheerfully applies to himself: it gives Piano Notes a pleasantly ironic touch.

Which is not to say that Rosen does not feel passionately about some issues in music. There’s no irony, and in fact a faint tone of bitterness, in his disappointment that avant-garde modernism has not taken hold in music. He blames a number of factors, not all equally convincing. He accepts as regrettable fact that the avant-garde has not attained the same popularity in the twentieth century that contemporary music did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beethoven and Wagner both provoked controversy and resentment, but won out in time. The same cannot be said for Schoenberg, who provoked resentment in audiences, and still does. More popular composers such as Bartok do not have the same large public that Brahms did – “Even Stravinsky does not evoke the same public affection as Verdi.”

Turning to piano music, he says that “relatively few” pianists even attempt pieces written after 1920 and “this is not so much because the public does not favor this music, but because so many of today’s professional pianists and certainly the great majority of amateurs are unable to come to terms with it.” Maybe some blame can be put on performers for not communicating the message clearly or dramatically enough. But why not blame the message itself? I’d not mind at least some discussion of the possibility that Boulez’s piano music just isn’t as good as Liszt’s. I can’t accept that the avant-garde languishes today because performances aren’t up to scratch.

Rosen must realize this, as he says next, “To comprehend the distaste for modernism, it must be admitted at the start that the greatest works of modernism in all the arts are, much of the time, fundamentally disagreeable when first encountered.” The list of works offensive to contemporary audiences is a long one, including Mozart and Beethoven, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, and so forth. But though these works attained audiences outside the intellectual class, it’s been harder for modernism in music. Rosen refers to Anton Webern’s wistful dream that the postman would someday do his rounds whistling a twelve-tone row. The trouble is, of course, that the postman wants to whistle a tune, not a composer’s intentional foiling of the very idea of a tune, and it seems to me that this fact must, sooner or later, to be faced if we want to analyze the failure of modernism in music.

Avant-garde painting and literature, Rosen argues, have less trouble with acceptance. From the side of painting, he says, people are impressed by the sums of money paid for modernist works. Painters are therefore “less burdened by the foolish accusations of elitism.” I’d have thought high auction prices would make elitism an even more supportable accusation in painting. In any event, modernism is less of a problem in painting and literature, Rosen argues, since “one can walk by a painting rapidly or put a book down.” The person who dislikes modern music, he says, is more-or-less physically trapped in a concert hall situation, stuck perhaps in the middle of a row.

And feeling especially stuck, as Rosen might have added, when the modern work is served up as disagreeable vegetables in a meal that includes the meat, potatoes, and dessert of the likes of Bach, Beethoven, or Richard Strauss. In fairness to those unsympathetic listeners, it must be allowed that there is an element in much concert programming that insists that we can only have our Brahms symphony if we’ve sat through our Stockhausen. Listeners may not be merely ignorant, tone-deaf conservatives when they exclaim, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”

But Rosen is in no mood to be fair, and he puts the arguments in favor of modernism at their robust best. Many of the best modern poets – Mallarmé, Rilke, Stevens, Celan – are still incomprehensible to college grads, he says. Delacroix was called a childish scribbler, and worse has been said of Picasso and the New York School. Rosen was told that as a small child – a five-year-old accustomed to Beethoven and Wagner – his first reaction to Debussy was that such music must be made against the law. The moral of the story for him is that “A love of classical music is only partially a natural response to hearing the works performed, it also must come about by a decision to listen carefully, to pay close attention, a decision inevitably motivated by the cultural and social prestige of the art.”

It is hard to disagree with that, but an aesthetic naturalist (there are a few of us about), will want to push hard on the question – what is the partial “natural response,” and how big a part does it play? I wish he had directly addressed the topic. Music is a temporal art, and like every other, its beauty lies in relationships. The capacity to appreciate music requires that the listener be able to distinguish tones and tonalities, remember elements in music, and plausibly predict at each moment what the next note, chord, transition, or cadence is going to be. Pieces of music are like novels in that respect: every note, like every word, is experienced against the remembered background of all that has gone before and the imagined prospect of all that might come to pass in the remainder of the work. Modernism in music has always challenged listeners’ capacities for memory and prediction: Prokofiev is more difficult than Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives tougher than Schumann.

The problem for modernism is that with atonality it reached a point where intelligibility, and therefore pleasure, was stretched beyond the breaking point. The aesthetic effect of music depends in most instances on its ability to incite predictions and then foil them: think of the dramatic modulations of Beethoven, or the sudden, unexpected shifts into major keys in Schubert. Completely unpredictable music can no longer surprise its listeners: if just anything can be expected, nothing can enter experience as unexpected. Naturally, when listeners lose the capacity to make predictions because a musical work is too complicated for them it may be merely a matter of their own musical stupidity or laziness: if your musical capacities are challenged by Guy Lombardo, you’re going to find The Rite of Spring so much noise. It does not follow that anyone who describes an exercise in atonality as noise therefore must harbor tastes that run to Guy Lombardo.

If “noise” is a term of abuse in this context, it is matched by accusations of “conservatism,” and that is the very word Rosen uses. He upbraids ignorant critics of modernism, likening them at one point to the biblical creationists who object to modern science. He is also dismissive of so-called neotonal composers (e.g., Henryk Górecki, Philip Glass, though he gives no specific names), saying they are “inspired by a natural reaction to the complexities of modernism.” Once again, I’m not convinced that the issue is over “complexities,” and construing it in that manner sidesteps other issues in order to imply that listeners can’t cope. While he mentions Berio, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Elliott Carter as under-appreciated modernists, there are other strains of modernism that go unremarked by him, and they are neither atonal nor neotonal: Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, for example. These composers are popular among both intellectual elites and the musically naïve, and they cannot be called either reactionary or avant-garde.

Moreover, their music is nothing if not complex. In fact, if I were to compare Shostakovich string quartets with anything by Stockhausen, I rather suspect that the problem with the latter would turn out to be a relative lack of complexity, rather than too much of it. Anyway, it’s an odd concept, complexity. I’d hope not to underestimate Finnegans Wake, but to call it superior to Hamlet because it’s more complex is like calling Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist better than Velázquez’s Las Meninas because it’s more complex. I love Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, but could not call it superior to the Mozart A minor piano sonata, even though it is in a sense more complex. What we want from art is not sheer complicatedness (every stone, leaf, or snowflake has that), but that rarest of artistic commodities, meaningful complexity: layered relationships that amplify and alter each other as they come together to create an expressive unity.

It’s hard to disagree with Rosen that neotonal music “is a poor substitute for the subtle and powerful work of the past.” So indeed is a lot of contemporary music a poor substitute; let us therefore hope that the future offers powerful musical experiences beyond either routinized dodecaphony or the blandness of Philip Glass and John Adams. In the meantime, as we await the appearance of a new Beethoven to give music this needed shove, we have Charles Rosen’s rich and rewarding intellectual and pianistic performances to enjoy. There is much made in Piano Notes of the physicality of piano playing, which is entirely fitting, as Rosen is such a muscular pianist. His strength, however, is as much intellectual as physical. There is not a page in this book that does not incite thought and argument. He remarks at one point that it is not enough that hard music be hard to play: it should sound hard too. The same can be said for his musical aesthetics, which is deep and provocative. As philosopher of music, he does not make hard aesthetic ideas seem easy.

University of Canterbury, New Zealand


Copyright © 2003 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.