Pianist and scholar who always had something interesting to say

Rosen in July 2001
Rosen in July 2001
PHOTO: EAMONN MCCABE/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES

May 5, 1927 – Dec. 9, 2012

In his book Playing the Beethoven Sonatas, my classmate Robert Taub ’77 declared, “Anything that Charles Rosen has to say is always of interest.” I wanted Rosen ’48 *51 to say something about a piano I had watched Steinway & Sons build from start to finish, but as I dialed his number, I was more than a little intimidated.

Rosen was formidable, and not just as a concert pianist. He was one of those people who seemed to know everything about everything. Rosen could talk about Champagne or Schopenhauer as easily as he could talk about Chopin and Schoenberg. Both of his Princeton degrees were in modern languages and literature, specifically French, and for a year he held a Harvard professorship in poetry. Who else could tackle Flaubert, Joyce, and, according to the index of his book Piano Notes, “photography, history of”? Not only that, he had a wicked sense of humor and wielded it as a weapon when others failed to measure up, or so I had heard.

On the phone we talked about pianos and the physics of sound. We discussed what was known to some pianists of his generation as the “Teflon bushing fiasco,” when Steinway, in the 1960s, replaced the traditional felt bushings — tiny round inserts that cushion the keys when played — with Teflon, leading to clicking that Rosen said “drove everyone crazy.” One day, Rosen said, Steinway’s head tuner “said softly, no one else could hear him, ‘I’ve just taken all the Teflon out of all the concert pianos.’” All those years later, I could hear the triumphant I-told-you-so in Rosen’s voice.

Rosen had a well-deserved reputation as a scholar as well as a pianist. He wrote more than a dozen books (one, The Classical Style, won the National Book Award) and contributed to The New York Review of Books for more than 40 years. President Barack Obama recognized him with the National Humanities Medal in 2011.

As a performer, he was well-known as an interpreter of Bach and Beethoven, and also of Romantic composers like Chopin. Just as Rosen was one of the last living pupils of the virtuoso Moriz Rosenthal, Rosenthal was the last living pupil of Franz Liszt. Rosen once said that thanks to Rosenthal, he knew all the music professors at Princeton by the time he enrolled — among them the Czech composer Bohuslav Martin°u, who commuted from New York for Thursday-afternoon seminars.

Apparently Martin°u wasn’t much of a teacher. Rosen’s roommate, Michael Steinberg ’49 *51, later the music critic for The Boston Globe, described Martin°u as “inarticulate and helpless in the classroom.” All but two students stopped showing up: Rosen and Steinberg.

Week after week, they met Martin°u at the Dinky, had lunch at Lahiere’s, and spent hours listening to recordings. Steinberg said that despite wine at Lahiere’s and afternoon tea “liberally laced with bourbon,” Martin°u “didn’t much like to talk about music, I think because he was afraid one expected a ‘pronouncement.’”

Rosen probably wasn’t surprised. He already had experienced the frustration of chatting up someone and getting nowhere. “I could never find out anything about Liszt’s teaching methods from Rosenthal,” he said later, “except that it was difficult to persuade Liszt to leave the café and go back to the studio for a lesson.”

James Barron ’77 is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand (Times Books/Henry Holt).

CLICK HERE to watch a video of Charles Rosen ’48 *51