Another Remembrance of Charles Rosen
Charles died two Sundays ago. When I came across the word “discursive” in one of his obituaries, I laughed: Charles was really a spigot of information that could not be shut off by any normal means. My first close encounter was in 2007. It was a dinner that began innocently enough around 7 P.M. Well after midnight, there I was, listening in what I hoped resembled rapt attention while he narrated—for reasons that, even then, I couldn’t recall—the plots of several plays by Alan Ayckbourn. My brain had become an achy fuzz. One of the hosts kept trying to get Charles off track by telling filthy Yiddish jokes, which Charles divinely ignored, his expression a mix of pretended confusion and distaste. At some point the other host explained to me that if I wanted to survive, I had to just get up in the middle of a sentence and flee for the hills. This eighty-year-old man was outlasting me. I would sadly have to be rude in order to preserve what was left of my sanity.
Charles’s obituaries call him a “polymath,” a “scholar-musician;” they laud his “ferocious intelligence,” his “all-around brilliance.” Behind all these epithets lurks the unavoidable and vexing question: Should a musician have a brain? I mean, a brain over and above what’s necessary to move the fingers, eat, sleep, make charming chitchat at gala dinners with sponsors, etc. We say “thinking musician” as if it were a freakish breed, like a peacock that talks, distracting you from its glorious feathers. There was something freakish about Charles Rosen, like any miracle. It didn’t seem like he should still exist, in 2012. As he reached back in memory to cite “The Art of the Fugue” or to quote a poem by Baudelaire or castigate you for your ignorance of Valencia oranges, you marvelled at the volume of information, and later, at the love he still had for it all. Mid-meal he’d shuffle to the piano to demonstrate. Critics often said that his playing was cerebral or stiff, but his playing in private felt wonderfully wayward, Romantic, old-school. True, sometimes it was just erratically erratic, but it could also be meaningfully erratic, inspired erratic: precious liberty from a more forgiving time.
Charles got in a lot of disputes: he could be quite wicked; he wrote a lot of hilarious letters about others’ incompetence. One of his favorite anecdotes involved a prominent music writer in a prominent publication who had referred to three modulations to D-flat major in an opera of Verdi. At that first dinner, he observed that in fact a) none of them were modulations, and b) none of them went to D-flat major. Ouch (also a bit of hyperbole). He loved when people were epically wrong; along with the completeness of the takedown, there was the neatness with which it could be phrased, like a cherry on top. He was a lot of fun in snark mode, but it made me think about separating the desire for truth from the need to be right. The most beautiful element of Charles, for me, was after all this learning and accumulation, the smile with which he would play some beloved modulation, or demonstrate some trick of pedalling: suddenly again a child, innocence meeting knowledge at the end of the road. When I played Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” for him, he showed me how releasing the pedal in the middle of a held chord actually creates a crescendo in the bass—in the middle of a sustained note eerily an unnoticed voice comes alive. When I got the effect he wanted, he beamed with real pleasure, aesthetic pleasure, and the pleasure of having communicated something precious—the kind of pleasure that life should be all about.
In October, I went over to his apartment and played Brahms Op. 118 for him. Despite the dual influences of pain and painkillers, he stopped me continuously, to observe a middle voice, a pedalling, or unseen landmarks that governed interpretation. So many brilliant distinctions, and so much faith in the power of an idea. After stopping me almost every bar to painstakingly observe details of the score that I had missed, he said “Jeremy, you really need to make this piece your own.” Charles, I thought, thanks for that pithy summary of the Catch-22 of classical music. I played something else. He began to doze off a bit in between observations, then wake and resume.
Read it all. Rosen taught at the University of Chicago from 1985 to 1996. I wish I had taken a class from him, or at least gone to hear him give a recital. It would have been a real treat to witness him at work in the flesh.