RIP Charles Rosen, pianist and scholar

Charles Rosen, cover of "Music and Sentiment"

This book was written from the conviction that understanding music does not come from memorizing an esoteric code. ([Charles Rosen, *Music and Sentiment*, 2010](

Today, I heard that the noted pianist and musical scholar Charles Rosen died at 85 yesterday.

Charles Rosen

I type these words while his book of this year (2012), “Freedom and the Arts” is visible on my book shelf next to my computer: I had taken it out of the library a while back. I own copies of several of his previous books, starting with his famous [“The Classical Style”] which was my introduction to his thinking about music. I also own a number of his piano recordings.

Put simply, Charles Rosen changed the entire course of my life. Without him, my life would have been completely different, and I would have been a completely different person.

I don’t actually remember exactly how I came across Rosen’s writings. Here is what I remember about the context.

Freshman year in college

I’ve mentioned before that I entered freshman year in college having very little musical background, either as a listener or as a performer, but in order to fulfill a core requirement, in my first semester took an “easy” music appreciation course called “Piano Music of the 19th Century”. I also made a new friend in my dorm during freshman week, who happened to be a big fan of Mozart and lent me some of his recordings.

In any case, freshman year in college was the year when I fell in love with music all over again, having mostly ignored it after my middle school disasters in music class and band class. Because I made some new friends (from my math and science classes) who were heavily into classical music, I ended up listening to their collections and getting into it myself. Since one of them was a fan of Mozart and the other of Beethoven, it was natural that I became very familiar with music of the Classical period, focused on the late 18th century.

Accidental discovery of Rosen

At some point before sophomore year, I must have seen Rosen’s book “The Classical Style” in a local book store and browsed it and found it sufficiently engaging and approachable to buy it. I liked that he combined both readable text as well as excerpts from scores and actual music theoretic analysis. In order to understand better the analysis, of course, I had to learn some music theory, and I eventually ended up taking a two-semester “non-majors” course on music theory. But the book was readable even without much theoretical knowledge.

Making me think

What Rosen’s book did for me was that it made me think about music, and also about a lot more than music.

I’d had a year in college of listening to a lot of music for enjoyment, but felt I wanted to understand more of what I felt or experienced intuitively. Rosen explained things about how the Classical era’s music was very different from the Baroque that preceded it and also very different from the Romantic era’s that followed it. He talked about musical forms and structures, the emergent harmonic language, as well as contemporary changes in society, in philosophy.

I came away from the book with a much better understanding of various ongoing debates about composer “intent”, about whether some music is “better” or “more advanced” than others, about whether old music should be played on modern instruments, about culture in general. I didn’t necessarily adopt Rosen’s opinions about things, but enjoyed that he provided reasons for them.

Other books

Over the years, I picked up several new books by Rosen as they appeared. Here are examples of what I learned from two of them.

Frontiers of Meaning

The 1994 slim volume “The Frontiers of Meaning” was interesting because Rosen argued that music has “meaning” and offered his own personal story about changes in his musical taste and understanding. The big message was that if we don’t understand a piece of music, we would do well not to immediately dismiss it as junk or noise, but try to understand it on its own terms, and maybe even end up actually enjoying it.

Rosen notes that although he found the string quartets of Béla Bartók harsh and incomprehensible at first, he came to like one of them a lot. He still never ended up liking a different one.

For me, the takeaway message from the book was that if we want to enjoy life, and enjoy as much music as we can, we should open ourselves up to new possibilities.

Arnold Schönberg

Another memorable book was a 1996 book on Arnold Schönberg that was really fascinating in its discussion of this controversial composer and theoretician. Rosen portrayed Schönberg as a unifier of the past as well as creator of the future.

As I’ve mentioned before, I still do not enjoy much of Schönberg’s music, but thanks to Rosen, I understand where he was coming from, and I think that is important. I also better understand why I like the music of his I like.


Over the years, I went out of my way to obtain some rare recordings of Charles Rosen himself playing piano, such as the late Beethoven piano sonatas, to test how his interpretations matched what I imagined they would be, from his discussions in his books. I was surprised by some interpretive decisions, and not all of them “worked” for me, but I felt a sense of satisfaction that here was a guy who not only thought about and wrote about music, but performed it also.

Some obituaries


The breadth of Charles Rosen’s interests and knowledge was one of the most appealing features of his work: he talked about music theory, piano performance, art, philosophy. I’ll miss his presence as an analyst and cultural commentator.

(Update of 2013-03-11)

An entertaining article by Norman Lebrecht.

(Update of 2013-05-22)

In light of future discussions of the influence of Charles Rosen on my thought, I felt I should mention that what he introduced me to was a modernist sensibility that, while unapologetic, was also honest and not rigid or doctrinaire. I respected that, given my ambivalence about the modernist philosophy and attitude, an ambivalence I still have two decades after first reading him (I do not consider myself a modernist). As mentioned, this modernist sensibility is at odds with aspects of Romanticism, which had been my default sensibility until I started immersing myself in the music of the Classical era.

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