In Praise of Music's Difficulty

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 23, 2000 | Go to article overview
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In Praise of Music's Difficulty

Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

The pleasures of reading Charles Rosen's essays on almost anything are keen, and when it comes to music this is so for a couple of reasons. The first is that Mr. Rosen is himself a pianist, who claims with characteristic brio, some would say brashness, to have taken up writing about music "to keep someone else's nonsense off my record jackets."

Reading Mr. Rosen on Franz Liszt while hearing him play the "Reminiscences de Don Juan" is a treat. Listening to another performer, say, Andras Schiff playing the "English Suites" of J.S. Bach while reading Mr. Rosen's discussion of how their loose dance form - allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet and gigue - became ground for the development, later in the 18th century, of sonata form, is similarly fine.

Mr. Rosen's books include "The Classical Style," awarded the National Book Award, and "The Romantic Generation." His "Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen," reviewed in this space and just reissued in paperback by the Harvard University Press, was a virtuoso demonstration of the critic's comfortableness in the other arts, starting with literature. In this new collection, "Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New," Mr. Rosen reminds readers of the difficulty experienced, and surmounted, by the first readers of James Joyce's "Ulysses" and, much earlier than that, of Dante's writing being so hard to engage that Boccaccio gave public lectures in Florence to explain the "Divine Comedy."

Mr. Rosen recalls the shocking impact upon viewers of the early cubist pictures, signifying the breakdown into multiple vision at the center of modernism in the arts. The essay here telling about his participation in a performance of Elliott Carter's "Double Concerto" for piano, harpsichord and two orchestras is a thrilling report of an exemplary real-life event, from the pianist's trying to get his right hand to ignore what his left hand was doing to a composition where "the accents of all four lines in piano and harpsichord never coincide," to banging his head on an overhead microphone and needing three stitches in his scalp.

At the heart of Mr. Rosen's music criticism is a belief that the best of the new has usually been difficult for listeners at the time, and that it is not enough to dislike a composition; one must try and understand it from the standpoint of people who passionately care for and want to play it. That is a principle to make every common or garden reviewer cringe, and I doubt that even Mr. Rosen is able to live up to it all the time - but that wouldn't make him wrong.

Not every art critic will agree with Mr. Rosen's contention that the difficulty of contemporary music is greater than that of contemporary painting, "largely because you can look at a picture in a few seconds but have to sit through a work of music for as long as it takes." But the main thing, and this is the second reason for wanting to read whatever he writes, is that in the combination of performer, musicologist and citizen of the arts at large, Charles Rosen brings abundantly humane breadth and depth to his subject.

His new book is a collection of Mr. Rosen's music criticism written over the past 25 years, mainly about music that he has enjoyed. The informing motif consists in three ideas or arguments: that in the study of music only limited scope should be allowed to "theory" at the expense of history and other considerations; that musicologists' neglect of the professional side of music needs to be remedied; and that "ambiguous relations" between criticism and the experience of music require what is written about music to have some impact on the way it gets played and listened to.

The essays are arranged to bring readers forward in time from medieval sonorities and triads to the present day and classical music's prospects such as they may be. But first, as with a concert program, comes something graceful and not difficult at all, a short essay on "The Aesthetics of Stage Fright," the physical symptoms of which are the same as "those found in medieval treatises which describe the disease of being in love .

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