Interviewed by Alan Blyth for Gramophone, February 1971
Charles Rosen leapt to my piano and started to play a snatch from a Saint-Saëns concerto to illustrate a controversial point he was making, namely that Britten is the Saint-Saëns of today's music. Back in a chair he was offering equally provocative comments on the way some conductors ornament 18th century music. Rosen is a compulsive, voluble talker whose ideas on subjects ranging much wider than music – good food and literature are the most common ones outside his specialised topic – are as lively as they are sometimes outrageous.
He is also just about as much at home with the pen as he is with the piano and the spoken word – witness his book, The Classical Style, a study of the musical language of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He believes that this research and reasoning has great relevance to his work as an executant. 'These three were known and recognised as a group as early as 1815, even before last-period Beethoven. ETA Hoffmann implied as much in his contemporary criticism when he saw that Beethoven was the only true inheritor of Haydn and Mozart and he acknowledged Beethoven's unique position when he began a review by saying 'Now we'll consider a new work by the composer'.
'I have tried to define exactly what was the musical language of these three composers. It's not something that can be discovered by looking at works by the minor composers of the time – the great ones are not influenced by the average music but only by what they hate and admire most. To understand a language you must understand the rules of the vernacular but that doesn't apply in music. Thus Haydn is not re-creating from Dittersdorf or Stamitz; he's setting up his own feeling for musical language with every piece. Dittersdorf and Stamitz must be understood in the light of Haydn – not vice-versa. In fact, that's the way music progresses; it's the prestige of the great composers that counts and not the normal language.
'So I begin my book with a long introduction about the whole technique of writing music used by the three composers. Then I take the field in which each was at his greatest and examine particular works in detail. With Haydn I've studied the symphonies, quartets, chamber music with piano and oratorio – only works written after 1770. In Mozart's case, I've taken the piano concertos, the quintets with viola and the comic operas. So much of the classical style, particularly Mozart's, evolved from the Italian comic operas of composers like Piccini. Haydn's late development stemmed from his work on operas at Esterházy – I think that work accounts for the enormous change in his symphonies that occurred around 1780.
'For Beethoven, I've written a general essay on his relation to the whole classical tradition, and taken this as a departure for examining different aspects of his work. For instance, I compare the variation movements in the sonatas with those in the last movements of the Eroica and Choral symphonies. The finale of the Choral is particularly interesting. Here you have a four-movement structure superimposed on a variation form itself superimposed on a concerto form. In addition to this you have a contrapuntal, fugal texture placed as a sort of development section.'
In his book, Rosen also studies very minutely the Hammerklavier, a work he has recorded twice and which he learned with Moriz Rosenthal as a boy. 'From 1812 Beethoven had difficulty in writing music. We have to ponder whether this was caused by psychological or stylistic reasons, or if there was a stylistic upset that caused the psychological one. The Hammerklavier broke this sterility so I thought i t would be a good idea to study it. Indeed the longest quotation – and there are more than 400 of them in the book – is of the whole development of this sonata's first movement'.
I wondered how he related his theories to his practice, not only in this work but in the Beethoven sonatas generally. 'I'm not sure if they do relate too much. I had studied the sonatas for years, of course, before I even thought of writing the book. Indeed, all my analyses of the Beethoven sonatas are post facto –that is, they are post performance. I would never think of starting an analysis of a piece and then play it, but I'm aware my interpretations have been consciously affected by what I've learned by studying them for the purposes of the book. For instance, there is no question in my mind now that Tovey was right when he said, long before I did, that late Beethoven returns to Haydn and Mozart, while the early sonatas are much more like sonatas in the sense that they adhere more closely to the form itself – as it was codified much later in the century.
'When we discuss Haydn and Mozart and late Beethoven it would be better if we dropped the idea of sonata form as a certain shape into which the music was poured, and thought instead of the ideals that are involved. Haydn and Mozart both wanted a piece that started from a point of stability and became increasingly dramatic with a climax three-quarters of the way through when the music reached a moment of greatest tension. Then they often began the recapitulation with the second subject and so created a kind of mirror symmetry. So far as I know, composers of the 19th century such as Schumann, Hummel or Weber always obeyed the rules. No, the sonata for Haydn and Mozart was as free as the Ballade for Chopin or Schumann's Carnival'.
Why has Rosen chosen to study this period rather than any other? 'Well, however much we may admire, say, Bach or Chopin or Debussy, the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is the norm by which we judge all other. I also think that, while there are good books on the Baroque style and musical language, there's nothing comparable on the Classical period and I would like to emphasise again that seeing these composers against the other music of the time is a false view. It simply doesn't hold water. Haydn didn't take established forms and do something original with them – you can appreciate him perfectly well if you haven't heard a single note of Stamitz and Dittersdorf. Much harder for me to tackle has been the vexed question as to whether music has a meaning and, if so, what kind. I've tried to show where and how Haydn expands a 16-bar idea in a trio and, in another example, how a quartet exposition modulates away from the tonic to the dominant'.
Of course, Rosen's sympathies range far wider than this particular period and he tries to play as wide a repertory as possible. 'Apart from the classics, I suppose I'm at the moment most interested in the Second Viennese School, Boulez and Elliott Carter and I've been recording a great deal of this music as well as the late Beethoven sonatas. As you know, I recently played in the first complete performances of Boulez's Eclats both in London and Paris. Still, I've not lost my enthusiasm for the virtuoso school of piano playing. As far as the Liszt fantasies are concerned, I think only one is worth playing – the Don Giovanni piece. I remember Josef Hofmann playing it when I was about 13'.
Mention of Hofmann has him recalling the story of how as a boy protege in his native New York he was put on Godowsky's knee and asked what he wanted to grow up to be. Back came the innocent reply – 'Why, a great pianist – like Hofmann. In fact at this time – when he was about seven – he was already at the Juilliard and not long after he began to study theory as well as the piano.
Despite this bent towards music in his boyhood, he studied French literature when he went to Princeton, and the relationship between poetry and music in 16th-century France when he won a Fulbright scholarship to work in Paris. 'Back in the States in 1953, I began to teach French literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while at the same time beginning my concert career. As this gradually developed, I had to give up my other studies but I still lecture, mostly in New York at the Stonybrook College'.
Even his leisure is packed with intellectual activity. 'I read a great deal, preferably in a foreign language so as to keep these fresh. I also like to solve crosswords as it's such good training in concentration.' He also contributes to the New York Review of Books and this brings him into contact and up to date with literary and political trends. Yet, despite, or perhaps because of, these multifarious activities, he is very much a man of the world. The pursuits of the mind are with him related to everyday affairs. The theoretical and practical musician is very much one and the same Charles Rosen.