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Culture Wars: A traditional modernist

Charles Rosen talked to Mark Ryan about innovation, Beethoven and the Marquis de Sade

'Matthew Arnold once said there's a great deal you can't understand unless you understand that it's beautiful.' Charles Rosen belongs to a dwindling school of critics who love music and have no other axe to grind. Regarded as one of the most thoughtful and original pianists alive today, with a repertoire that extends from Bach to Beethoven and from Schumann to Boulez, Rosen is equally well known for his writing - his best-known works, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and The Romantic Generation have become landmarks of musical scholarship.

What seems to distinguish Rosen from most critics is that he is immersed in his subject, rather than standing outside observing it. Many see the problems of musical interpretation as issues which they can take up and leave down. For Rosen the musician, solving these problems, understanding the work of individual composers and also the nature of music itself, is his life's work. He is often described as a Renaissance man, but there is nothing ornamental about Rosen's learning. It is the man himself.

Rosen is both a staunch defender of the classical tradition and a firm advocate of innovation. One of his most recent spats in the New York Review of Books was with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. In a speech delivered, somewhat bizarrely, at the Davos economic summit, Lloyd Webber attacked what he called 'the new führers of the musical establishment' - the advocates of avant-garde music. That this accusation was first made at least 40 years ago, and that many of the original avant-garde are now old and venerable institutions themselves, seemed to have escaped Lloyd Webber's notice. While the young fogey demanded a return to more easy-listening music and attacked what he saw as the corrosive influence of the avant-garde, Rosen, who made his debut in 1947, defended new music and the struggle for innovation as the very essence of the classical tradition itself.

'I have no objection to his tastes in modern art', Rosen tells me. 'The only thing I objected to was his picture of a conspiracy or a cabal preventing easy or user-friendly music being played. That is completely false. Easy music is played all the time: lots of orchestras keep doing it. Difficult music is played fairly rarely and, on the whole, when it is played it's not really played that well, because they haven't had proper rehearsal time.

'I've never said that if you played a lot of difficult music all the time you would get a huge audience for it - in fact, I don't think difficult music ever will get a large audience. But a great deal of the music people consider difficult, such as Webern, Schoenberg and Berg does have a capacity to attract a minority which is extremely passionate about it, and insist they want to play it. A lot of people don't mind hearing the user-friendly easy music that Lloyd Webber would like on the programme, but nobody is passionate about it. Whereas difficult music, most people don't want to hear it, but the people that want to hear it want to hear it a lot. This gives rise to the conspiracy theory.'

The passion aroused by what is difficult and challenging is a theme which Rosen has returned to frequently in his writing. 'Paul Valéry, when he was very young, read Mallarmé and he said that Mallarmé created this enormous resentment. People hated the fact that they read his poetry and they couldn't understand it. But once they began to understand it, all the easy poetry seemed very bland. Valéry said that they didn't want to read poetry that yielded itself without resistance. It's very funny that sexual image. It's like seduction', he chuckles: 'if it's a pushover, it's no use.'

Rosen often alludes to the sexual character of the deep passions aroused by music. The works of the greatest innovators of the past were often attacked in sexual terms as monstrosities or perversions. One contemporary of Beethoven's, the composer Karl Friedrich Zelter, compared Beethoven's work to children whose father is a woman or whose mother is a man. That the initial shock and even revulsion so often gives way to fascination, then to passionate love, is all the more remarkable when we consider the intellectual unity and rigorous inner logic of the musical idea that so strongly characterises Beethoven's work.

In his emphasis on passion and the restless character of musical development, Rosen returns frequently in his writings to the Romantic tradition from which springs so much of our aesthetic sensibility. 'Reichardt in 1794 said that any composer today wishing to continue the tradition would have to wipe out the language of tonality and start all over again. I find this extraordinary: the prediction that somebody comes along and handles tonality so beautifully and expresses all the emotions so well that we have to wipe out tonality and start all over again. It's like a prediction of the avant-garde in 1794.

'What characterises modernism is the ambivalence towards the past - both the insistence that you forget the tradition of the past and start again, and the insistence that this is the only way of preserving the past. The only real innovators are the ones who destroy the past and then create it themselves on an entirely new basis. This has been going on for at least 200 years, so of course it's old; it may be a tiresome process, but it's a normal one. What characterises modernism generally is that there is a small group of people who attempt to look critically at what's going on and try to find new ways of approaching various problems, both in art and in society.'

There are great obstacles standing in the way of a vibrant musical culture. Part of this, Rosen admits, lies in the nature of music itself. 'One of the reasons that Mozart is much easier to listen to is that there's a tremendous amount of stuffing in Mozart, conventional phrases which you can transfer from one piece to another, all those florid scales and arpeggios, conventional endings to the phrase and so on. Throughout the nineteenth century composers tried to get away from this, to minimise it more and more and today you can't do that - except ironically, like a red rag to a bull.

'I was talking to Elliott Carter recently; he said that when you sit down to compose you feel like you have to almost reinvent a whole new musical language. That is a big problem: we do not have a common musical language which can be used with great facility, without thinking. You can't just sit down and pour out music the way Mozart did. Brahms said it would have been wonderful to be a composer at the time of Mozart, when it was easy to write music, because Brahms was already finding it hard. Beethoven didn't find it hard - he made it hard, deliberately went out of his way to make writing music difficult. We're all still living under the legacy of Beethoven; we feel that the composer should be extremely original, and if not we reproach him. And it becomes harder and harder to do.

'What is extremely difficult is to be original and to carry the public with you.' But this problem is not that new. 'I was reading the diaries of the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century, Leopardi. I came upon an entry: "It is impossible to write an original melody that will please the public. If it is original, the public won't like it." This is 1827, it's a perennial problem, it's been going on for a very long time.'

Much of Rosen's recent writing has responded to feminist critics who maintain that Beethoven's place in the canon was not so much a result of his own achievement as the result of an ideological apparatus that created the myth of his genius. By extension, musicology today should aim to rediscover those contemporaries who were silenced by the mythmaking. Rosen always answers this kind of challenge with good grace, generously acknowledging any insights which might add to our understanding of the music or even of the society in which it was produced, while demolishing the central argument.

The simple fact, argues Rosen, is that composers such as Dussek and Wölffl, never stood comparison with Beethoven. Even by 1812, Beethoven's supremacy was unquestioned. The new musical historians who argue that because other composers were played more frequently they were therefore held in higher regard are making a simple error. The others were played more because they were easier to play and easier to listen to. The tantrums of even the most eminent musicians when confronted with the task of performing a new composition of Beethoven's were well known, as was his disdainful fury in response. Berlioz reported that when the 'Ninth symphony' was first performed in Paris, that conductor and orchestra had rehearsed the symphony every day for a whole year before they felt sufficiently confident to give a public concert.

In his emphasis on the integrity and irreducible essence of great art, Rosen is travelling in a very different direction from current criticism which stresses the socially constructed nature of taste. For social constructionists, what becomes accepted as great art has little or nothing to do with the art itself - it is all down to ideology or structures of power outside art. But Rosen contends that great art sweeps aside everything else and sets the terms of public taste. He rejects the notion that posterity bestows value on art. 'The idea that posterity decides is not true', he says. 'We decide right away. Occasionally we make mistakes, and once in a while an important reputation will disappear, but very rarely. It is extremely rare that some writer or artist who is almost unknown in his lifetime suddenly becomes very important.'

According to Rosen, most art today is rubbish. But so was most art in the past. 'I've always loved walking in Paris along the Seine', he says, 'looking at the second-hand books. It's frightening - here are all these thousands and thousands of books, almost none of which are worth reading. Part of the greatness of Walter Benjamin is that he understood how works of art can become ruins, not just buildings, but books and poems and music. There are very few works of art that survive intact down to us'.

But while recommending that students follow a course of the great books, Rosen's pedagogic views can be unconventional. 'I wrote a review of the Marquis de Sade. I even managed to shock the New York Review. I said that I can see that you wouldn't want this in elementary schools, but it should be required reading for all high school students. "All high school students!?", they said. "All high school students", I said.' He goes into a fit of laughter. 'A lot of people read the Marquis de Sade without acknowledging him, you know. Flaubert used to keep a copy in his desk. He was enormously influential.'

Rosen is disturbed by the state of cultural life today. 'All parts of culture are melting down. The literary culture is disappearing, there is no common literary culture, or it's not being made available. There is no publisher in England at the present moment that puts out series of books and makes available in sufficient representation the great works of English literature. OUP used to do it, completely gone. The universities have completely abdicated their role in making available the traditional culture for people. They used to do that, in nice little volumes that were permanent. The only thing you get now is the likes of Penguin which are really throwaway.' As he is telling me this, I think of Britain's bookshops: there are many more of them, but they seem to be distinguished from each other mainly by their location and the strength of the cappuccino they serve.

Rosen sees one of the problems in musical culture as the way it is experienced more passively and less intimately than in the past. 'Today for music to be successful [economically] you have to have an audience of thousands, whereas the kind of music Mozart wrote was intended for an audience of maybe 20 or 100 people. You got 700 into an opera house at that time: the idea of writing an opera for 3000 people never entered Mozart's mind. Nor could he have written that kind of music. The main part of Idomeneo was written for an elderly tenor who didn't have much voice left, but he still had a lot of technique. The Residenztheater in Munich, where this was first performed, seats 300. If you do Idomeneo in a hall which seats 300 people it has enormous effect. But if you do it in a hall which seats 3000 like the Met, with Pavarotti bellowing out the part, it's not exactly an aesthetic pleasure. The problem is exacerbated by recent productions. I saw Moses and Aaron at the opera, and I still can't figure out why both Moses and Aaron lay on their backs pedalling. What that has to do with the opera I don't know.'

For Rosen, however, the preservation and development of the musical culture is finally the responsibility of musicians themselves. 'If a lot of people want to play it, they will find an audience. The problem always comes when people put the audience first and ask, what does the audience want to listen to? The fact is the audience doesn't know what it wants to listen to until it gets it.'

Charles Rosen's latest book, Romantic Poets, Critics and Other Madmen, was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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