At 80, pianist and polymath Charles Rosen ’48 *51 is still going strong as an interpreter of classical and modern music. In January, for example, he will perform in concerts in Turin, devoted to the music of composer Elliott Carter, whom Rosen has known a half-century.
Rosen, who enrolled at the Juilliard School at 6 and made his first recording in 1951, met Carter in the mid-1950s. He describes Carter, who turns 100 next year, as “the greatest representative of the modernist style” of music in the United States.
In Turin Rosen will play the solo piece “90+” and “Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra” with the Turin Radio Orchestra, and a duet with cellist Fred Sherry. Before Turin, Rosen will tour Europe with performances of Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart. Come spring, he’ll be in Athens and Helsinki.
Rosen has distilled his vision into 50 recordings of composers from Bach to Ravel to Bartók, winning two Grammy nominations along the way. One of the most widely respected pianists of our time, and an authority on Beethoven, Rosen gave a well-reviewed lecture and recital on his 80th birthday last May in New York.
A musicologist, Rosen has left his mark on musical criticism as well. His 1971 landmark book, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven won the 1972 National Book Award. A true Renaissance man, he has written books and articles on art and intellectual history and taught and lectured at MIT, Oxford, the University of Chicago, and Harvard.
Rosen practices as much as four hours a day on the Steinway piano in his book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When he tackles a new work, “I just practice a piece until it gets into my fingers,” he says. “When you’re my age, you don’t learn it so fast.”
Items showing Rosen’s love of knowledge and culture fill every nook and cranny of his apartment, from a 16th-century French translation of Plutarch to a Russian samovar (a metal urn to heat water for tea) that bespeaks his Russian-Jewish roots. He moves easily from recalling musicians he has known — Igor Stravinsky and Milton Babbitt *92 — to his ideas for a New York Review of Books article on a new edition of the works of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, to an impromptu performance (from Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony”).
If he weren’t a musician, what would Rosen be doing? He ponders the question, then replies, “I’ve wanted to be a pianist since I was 4. If I didn’t play the piano, I wouldn’t be me.”