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Remembering Charles Rosen, A Prodigious Pianist And Polymath

President Barack Obama and the late pianist and scholar Charles Rosen, after Rosen was presented with a 2011 National Humanities Medal on February 13.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama and the late pianist and scholar Charles Rosen, after Rosen was presented with a 2011 National Humanities Medal on February 13.

Pianist, classical music scholar and thinker Charles Rosen died in New York yesterday at age 85 following a battle with cancer. A prolific author, essayist and Guggenheim Award winner, Rosen published two staple books on classical music, 1971's The Classical Style and 1995's The Romantic Generation, and was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

Rosen also held the position of the Norton Chair of Poetics at Harvard University, a title previously held by Bernstein, Copland, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost.

Rosen lived and worked entirely immersed in both the spheres of language and music in a way few others could; in an 2007 review of a performance of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata Op. 57 and the Diabelli Variations Op. 120 he gave at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, critic Annette Morreau — calling the concert "a historic occasion" — observed in London's Independent that "the consummate writer, critic, musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen has been at the forefront of his many fields for most of his 80 years...To a packed hall, he gave a program that would tax the greatest performers half his age."

In an essay titled "Freedom and Art" published in the Review in May, Rosen himself wrote:

We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room.

Born in New York City, he was enrolled at Juilliard at age 6. Five years later, he left that school in order to study with Moriz Rosenthal — who in turn had himself studied with Franz Liszt — and Rosenthal's wife, Hedwig Kanner. A prodigious polymath, Rosen graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Princeton before venturing to study French literature in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar. As well as teaching at Harvard, he lectured and taught at the Unversity of Chicago, Oxford University and the University of California.

Five years ago, the University of Rochester published Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on His Eightieth Birthday. As a point of reference by which to gauge how widely admired and influential Rosen was, the essayists for this edition included Pierre Boulez, the late Elliott Carter (from whom Rosen commissioned work) and conductor Charles Mackerras.

As a pianist, Rosen ventured far and wide in the musical literature, from Chopin to Schoenberg. In 1999, Performance Today joined Rosen at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History for a fascinating and engaging exploration of how keyboard instruments had evolved between Bach's time and the turn of the 20th century, and how the evolution of that sound was reflected in the music of various composers. You can hear that session at the audio link above.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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