Thursday 31 May 2012

Book Review: Charles Rosen, Freedom and the Arts

(This review originally appeared here, Charles Rosen's latest volume of collected essays being named Book of the Week in Times Higher Education.)

 I regularly recommend Charles Rosen's various writings to undergraduates reading music and have often done so to history undergraduates too. They certainly seem to appreciate him, even to the extent that an essay I recently marked furnished a fabricated Rosen citation to confirm a startling thesis of Mozart having time-travelled to crib some of his sacred arias from operas by Donizetti. Books such as The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Sonata Forms and Rosen's pregnant, slim volume on Schoenberg are staples not just of reading lists but, perhaps more importantly, of encounters by that elusive species, the educated general reader, with the fruits of musicology.

Rosen's breadth of interest and sympathy is one factor; another is that he is a writer who can write. This collection of essays, most but not all originating in The New York Review of Books, underlines and furthers appreciation of those and other virtues. Moreover, one is reminded that Rosen is more than a musicologist. Not only is he a pianist, having recorded works from Bach to Boulez, but he also surveys with enthusiastic erudition a number of literary topics.

One might expect a musicologist to be interested in writers with close relationships to music, such as Stephane Mallarme, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and even W. H. Auden, but Rosen's literary interests venture further. Thus we encounter Michel de Montaigne, Jean de La Fontaine, Bettina von Arnim and Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reminder of a time, and not just that of its writing, for 48 editions were published during the 19th century, when "reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time". Rosen reminds us that Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented specifically upon its value as entertainment.

Bookishness, in the best sense, rears its head, Rosen evidently admiring Burton's ambition "to present everything that had ever been thought or written about melancholy". This short essay ranges from Horace and Seneca, via theologians Thomas Adams and Richard Hooker, to Alfred de Musset and Geoffrey Hill, finally pointing us to Jean Starobinski and his account of the theoretical foundations of psychosomatic medicine. It whets rather than sates the appetite as, not so incidentally, does a discussion of a new Pleiade volume devoted to the Marquis de Sade's Justine: "Lack of literary talent is largely irrelevant. I think it would be out of place to demand a stylistically engaging description of the joys of raping a small child or of pulling out all the teeth of a beautiful woman...Sade's work proposes urgently...the delight of naked cruelty independent of any aesthetic cover or charm."

However, it is with music, not merely "as music" but as one of the arts, that Rosen's concerns most often lie. The distinction between text and performance lies at the heart of many essays. This may be historical, in terms of changing images of Mozart, an old-fashioned 1920s editor worrying that an article by Hermann Abert darkened the composer's image, making him sound closer to Michelangelo than to Raphael. All the better, we Post-Expressionists might say; at any rate, a picture, or in this case an artist, is often worth a thousand analytical words. Or it may be a distinction more performative in emphasis, Rosen citing Richard Strauss' telling admonition to Arturo Toscanini: "My music has bad notes and good notes, and when I conduct it one hears only the good notes, but when you conduct it, I hear all the notes." That is a relationship between the book title's "freedom and the arts" worth pondering.

We may enjoy good-humoured puncturing of many of the more absurd claims of the "historically informed performance" school. I could not help but smile knowingly at the likening of revival of interest in opera seria to "that new conservative movement that hopes to revive French nineteenth-century academic painting", the former revival attributed to a "strange alliance of two comic figures, the antiquarian" more interested in "ancient instruments and obsolete styles of performance" than in music, and the "opera buff...more interested in sopranos". There is a good deal more to it than that and, as ever, Rosen gravely underestimates Mozart's almost Neo-Classical La Clemenza di Tito, yet he provokes in the best sense. Even when comparisons, intentionally defying simplistic historical categorisation, verge upon the tenuous - "Rousseau's subordination of everything in the simplest form of melody was an interesting early version of dogmatic reaction to modernist complexity displayed by recent proponents of minimalism" - they stubbornly lodge themselves in the memory. What might we do on a rainy day with Rousseau and minimalism?

It is, moreover, surely exaggerated to claim that no one ever writes for posterity, even in the strong sense Rosen outlines. Liszt, for instance, did just that, not only in declaring his intention to "hurl a lance into the boundless realms of the future" - one might conceivably, if misguidedly, argue here for hyperbole and/or ideological avant-gardism - but in actively discouraging his pupils from performing his late, sometimes well-nigh atonal, piano works, lest their careers be harmed. Past readers of Rosen will recall that he does not much care for "interesting" but "minor" late Liszt, preferring the earlier works for their expansion of the frontiers of piano technique. It is no failing, however, if one ends up arguing with an essayist; Rosen's learning and generosity are signalled by the generally friendly nature of such argument.

Rosen's extended 2006 review of Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music stands among others as a necessary, indeed model, supplement to Taruskin's monumental, pugnacious, highly polemical six volumes. He expounds and criticises Taruskin's purpose, not so that one would recoil from reading him, but so that one feels compelled to do so. Moreover, Rosen hits the nail squarely on the head when he writes, "Taruskin writes much better about music he likes than about music to which he is indifferent", let alone, one might add, that to which he is hostile. Indeed, "you cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn". One may, of course, wish to condemn; one may even have good reason to do so. "Taruskin's claim neither to advocate nor to denigrate the music he discusses" remains, however, "a hollow one". Part of his project, rightly or wrongly, is to de-centre, indeed actively to undermine European and above all Germanic tradition, whether by discerning (some might say obsessively) alleged anti-Semitism, by presenting an avowedly American "outsider" - neo-conservative? - perspective on 20th-century music, or by replacing Schoenberg with Shostakovich as an object of veneration. Rosen, not at all hostile to Beethoven, Schoenberg and European culture in general, gently furthers the innocent reader's awareness concerning Taruskin's ideological premises.

There are a few oddities in Harvard University Press' production values, none more glaring than "Richard Burton" for the aforementioned Robert. The musicologist Arnold Whittall loses his final "l"; we encounter "Karl-Heinz" rather than "Karlheinz" Stockhausen. Sir Harrison Birtwistle, as so often, becomes "Birtwhistle"; England's greatest composer since Purcell is surely the most frequently misspelled of all. If, however, I must resort to such pedantry to voice the obligatory cavil, the reader may rest assured of recommendation. If you know Rosen's work, you will doubtless require no urging; if not, then this is a good place to start. Thereafter, and whatever your feelings, if any, concerning the composer in question, you may proceed surely to Rosen's advocacy in Arnold Schoenberg.