Charles Rosen 1927-2012
The news of Charles Rosen's death earlier in the month took me back to my college days, when I was fortunate enough to play for him a number of times. I'll never forget the first time I met him: we were sitting waiting together in an RNCM admin office for some reason, and for twenty minutes I was subject to an unending monologue about music, cookery, architecture and I forget what else. I was almost immediately lost, but fascinated by a mind more agile than any I'd ever encountered. In a later meeting, when I tried to 'join in', my thoughts were immediately refuted by such a stream of erudition that I felt overwhelmed. This was a fairly common experience. One just did one's best to follow the stream of piercing insights. It seemed impossible to have a real dialogue with Charles, but beneath the apparent certainty was real curiosity, and on rare occasions he would return to a comment of mine he had seemingly dismissed, having clearly thought about it.
His teaching style by contrast was undemonstrative and generous. He imposed rather little of himself, and didn't seem to feel the need to get people to play the way he did. His observations were generally to do with the musical text or structure, and often got to the heart of some problem or other. He once told me, with the touch of hyperbole typical of many of his statements, that the only thing a teacher could teach a pupil was how to practise. A bit extreme, perhaps, but the more I teach the truer it seems.
However, the memory which overwhelms all others is a performance he gave in Manchester of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. It was shockingly invigorating, utterly uncompromising, and brought out all the strangeness of the piece and the extremes of its structure without in any way being self-conscious or self-serving. For me, it was like hearing Beethoven play. I'll never forget it.
It was a great privilege to know him. I'll leave you with a quote typical of his mental agility and humour. In it, he's talking about a passage in the last movement of Beethoven's piano sonata op.111 in which a slow melody goes so high up the keyboard that the pianos of Beethoven's time haven't the slightest chance of sustaining the sound.
"More than any other composer before him, Beethoven understood the pathos of the gap between idea and realisation, and the sense of strain put on the listener's imagination is essential here. The best argument for using the pianos of Beethoven's time in place of the modern grand piano is not the aptness of the old instruments but their greater inadequacy for realising such an effect, and consequently the more dramatic effort required of the listener. The modern piano, however, is sufficiently inadequate to convey Beethoven's intentions."
This is a great remembrance. It makes me curious to hear the late Beethoven sonatas on a period instrument. I will also never forget my introduction to Messiaen after listing to you play the 20 Regards at UConn. Thank you.
Posted by Ben Fuller on 10 March 2013