Charles Rosen, why didn’t I think of saying it like that?


Charles Rosen, pianist, author, keen observer

While hunting for the answer to a thorny question of Beethoven interpretation (still hunting, I hope to discuss the answer in a future post) I came across a book given to me as a gift, which I’d not yet read. This was Charles Rosen’s (1927-2012) Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist. I opened it to a random page and immediately met a sympathetic new friend.

Rosen has a style that is spare without being dry, and warm without trying too hard to win you over. In witty, dispassionate prose, he observes things about the music world that make one think: “That’s how I feel, exactly! How come I never put it like that?”

It’s a slim volume that doesn’t waste words. Here are just two potent observations, with which I heartily agree: 1. music conservatories train for contests, and contests tend to create artificial situations which don’t reward individuality; and 2. “Pianists should, in the best of all possible worlds, play only the music they love and — this should carry equal weight — to which they think they can bring an interpretation that is deeply personal.”

Mr. Rosen also addresses the practical concerns that we pianists are almost afraid to bring up, for fear of being considered nutty. One such problem: pianos that look fine from the outside but whose innards are in bad shape. I have often arrived at a venue to rehearse for a performance, to find the piano in poor regulation (meaning that the action of each key responds differently to the same touch) or with uneven voicing of the piano hammers (meaning that one key or set of keys blast out too loud, or whisper too dully, in comparison to its neighbors.)

In one instance, I was so upset by the piano’s condition — a prestige-name instrument in a well-known hall — that I insisted to the management that they call the piano technician in right away. I had a long list of things that needed to be fixed. Later, I heard through the grapevine that the management, who were not themselves musicians, decided I must be crazy because some other well-regarded pianist had just played there and didn’t complain a bit!

Here is Charles Rosen, in Piano Notes, describing my situation:

“Busoni once said that there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists. That may be true enough, but a defective piano takes away much of the delight of the performer, and for the proper functioning of the world of music, the musicians should derive as much pleasure as the public. What is more troubling for pianists to face is the fact that many of the irregularities that bother us are largely impreceptible to an audience, which does not consciously realize that one note lacks brilliance and another is too harsh. Moreover, a note in which one of the strings is slightly out of tune makes a less agreeable sound, and the audience is more apt to think that the pianist is insensible to tone quality than to understand that one of the unisons is flat.”

Next time I encounter a bad piano problem, I’ll make sure to have these comments from Piano Notes ready. No one could argue with such logic, presented in such a disarming way.


There are 3 responses to “Charles Rosen, why didn’t I think of saying it like that?”

  1. As a lay person, I had no idea in what ways a piano could be out of joint, so to speak, and thus deliver a sub par performance. Whenever I have the pleasure of learning about a subject in greater depth, it helps me appreciate it all the more. As a great admirer of your performances, I would find it fascinating if you would demonstrate these issues so that I could endeavor to hear what you are talking about, that is, if my untrained ear could discern such a thing. You can be sure the next time I listen to a concert, I will be thinking about this post. Thanks for educating a novice such as me!

  2. There was so much in this posting that made me want to learn more about the “artificial situations” of contests and about the condition of pianos in concert venues. Most of all, I was intrigued by the quote, “Pianists should, in the best of all possible worlds, play only the music they love and — this should carry equal weight — to which they think they can bring an interpretation that is deeply personal.” From what I’ve witnessed of your performances, you must select pieces that resonate deeply yet I wondered if this is exhausting, too. As always with your postings, I’m left feeling that there is so much more to music, musicians and performances than I ever expected.

  3. Thanks for commenting on this post, Debra and Adriana. Just two days ago, I attended a piano recital in which the pianist (I heard first-hand from his friend) had struggled mightily with the instrument. The ideal of course would be to travel with one’s piano, like Kuerti or Horowitz.
    Back to Charles Rosen: a reader sent me an e-mail saying that 55 years ago she had worked for a concert agency in Paris, and recalls Charles Rosen as an attractive young man coming to the agency to look for bookings. Even he had to put himself out there, to make a start!