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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Charles Rosen

Charles Rosen, one of America’s great writers on music, began his writing career almost as an afterthought. In 1951, the year he turned twenty-four, Rosen earned his PhD in French literature from Princeton, made his New York performing debut, and recorded his first album. The native New Yorker quickly became one of America’s most renowned classical pianists, playing in recitals and as a soloist in orchestra concerts around the world. His career blossomed so rapidly that, by 1955, Rosen was able to leave his academic position teaching French at MIT after only two years, although he’s held many distinguished temporary academic positions since, including at Harvard, Oxford, and Chicago universities.

Rosen’s performances impressed some of the twentieth century’s most prominent modernist composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and Rosen’s friend Elliott Carter, all of whom asked Rosen to play their music. He’s especially acclaimed for his recordings of those other musical pioneers such as J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Arnold Schoenberg, and for the first complete recording of Claude Debussy’s Études. Honored as the 2008 Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America, his recordings have spanned the standard Classical and Romantic repertoire but also explored less frequently navigated territory, such as twentieth-century French music.

Rosen’s career as one the country’s preeminent classical performers triggered his parallel vocation as a writer about music. He had shunned the subject while in college, where he majored in French literature. “I was too proud to take courses in music,” he recalls. “I don’t mean to sound snotty, but it’s true: I knew more about music than most of the music graduate students,” having studied piano since he was four years old and read much on his own. Unimpressed by the sleeve notes for one of his 1960 recordings, Rosen decided henceforth to write his own.

Those notes caught the eye of a publisher, who invited Rosen to write whatever books he wanted. Thus began a long and distinguished career of writing about music, especially in the New York Review of Books, whose editors Rosen credits with his insistence on writing that is intelligible to general readers rather than only academics. Although portions of some of his books are aimed principally at that latter audience, “I did my best to make it clear to the average reader,” he says. His lectures, sleeve notes, and reviews often form the basis for his books, which number more than a dozen so far, with a new book of essays forthcoming from Harvard University Press this spring.

Rosen’s inclination to write extensively about music history grew out of his love of art history. “I was always interested in literature and art,” he recalls. “I used to go to museums when I was a child. If art historians could write great books on Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo,” he reasoned, “then I could certainly write about Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.”

Rosen’s writing on the transformative impact of that great triumvirate culminated in one of the century’s most important books on music, the 1972 National Book Award winner, The Classical Style. Other important works followed, from The Romantic Generation (which grew out of his Norton Lectures at Harvard University), to his most recent, Music and Sentiment. He’s also written about literature, food, and art history. Rosen is astute at finding particular touchstones—the first sentence of Madame Bovary, for example, or a Degas nude—that exemplify fundamental cultural shifts such as the rise of Romanticism or Modernism. Rosen’s style is erudite, but decidedly nonacademic, and sometimes, like his conversation, sprinkled with wry, occasionally self-deprecating wit.

Lacking formal training in musicology, Rosen relies on his prodigious self-study and experience as a musician in his writings about music. And conversely, Rosen’s experience as a writer and historian disabused him of the notion that a given way of playing a piece represents a final answer or definitive interpretation. “If you do any work in scholarship, you can become suspicious of fashionable approaches and critical theories” because they usually change, he says.

Not surprisingly, his own performances have been praised for elucidating the musical structures of the great compositions. They’re informed by both his extensive historical study and knowledge of how a work has been interpreted since it was composed. “If you play a Mozart concerto, you can’t ignore the way Mozart played it and we know something about that,” he explains. “But you also have to have some sense of both the original and how it’s changed after two centuries. You need both modern and historical interpretation.”

By Brett Campbell
Brett Campbell lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes about music and other arts for the Wall Street Journal, Oregon Humanities, and many other publications.