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Charles Rosen, 85; explained classical music to wide audience

Mr. Rosen considered himself a pianist first and foremost.
Mr. Rosen considered himself a pianist first and foremost.Don Hunstein

NEW YORK — Charles Rosen — the pianist, polymath, and author whose National Book Award-winning volume ‘‘The Classical Style’’ illuminated the enduring language of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — died Dec. 9 in Manhattan. He was 85.

The death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, was a result of cancer, said Henri Zerner, a friend of many years.

Published in 1971, ‘‘The Classical Style’’ examines the nature of classical music through the lens of its three most exemplary practitioners. Given that these titans were working with the same raw materials, the 12 notes of the Western musical scale, as the Baroque composers who had preceded them, just what was it, Mr. Rosen’s book asked, that gave their music its unmistakable character?


The answers, he concluded, could be gleaned from a penetrating analysis of the structure of classical compositions. It was precisely this structure that his book — through a painstaking unraveling of Haydn’s string quartets, Mozart’s comic operas, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and other seminal works — sought to make plain.

Though some critics took the book to task for its heavy reliance on musical notation (a work aimed at a general readership, they argued, should be accessible even to those who could not read music), most praised it as a masterly work of synthesis.

‘’The Classical Style’’ received the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1972.

As a renowned writer and lecturer on music who was also a concert pianist of no small reputation, Mr. Rosen was among the last exemplars of a figure more typically associated with the 19th century: the international scholar-musician.

As a writer he was known for aqueous lucidity and the vast, ecumenical sweep of his inquiry. As a pianist he tended to rate a similar description.

‘‘The granddaddy of all these writer-musicians is the American pianist and scholar Charles Rosen,’’ The Guardian wrote in 2010, going on to describe him as ‘‘a performer of the utmost distinction whose writing exactly mirrors his playing: subtle, precise, penetrating and, though by no means lacking in fun, intended to challenge.’’


Mr. Rosen the pianist was known in particular as an interpreter of Beethoven, but also of Bach, Chopin, and the 20th-century composers Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter. He appeared often in recital (in the 1950s and ’60s he was heard regularly at Town Hall in New York) and with some of the world’s leading orchestras.

Mr. Rosen was additionally known for his book ‘‘The Romantic Generation’’ (1995), which explores European music from the death of Beethoven to the death of Chopin and is accompanied by a CD of musical examples played by the author; ‘‘Piano Notes’’ (2002), a collection of essays on the craft of pianism that includes a disquisition on the right thumb; a well-received monograph on Schoenberg; and many decades’ worth of articles in The New York Review of Books. His most recent article, in the Dec. 20 issue, was on the English Restoration playwright and poet William Congreve.

Mr. Rosen was possessed of a lightning-fast, seemingly limitless discursiveness that has been ­described variously as enchanting and intimidating.

A conversation with him, associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that ­besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a doctorate in French from ­Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at ­Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows ‘‘Absolutely Fabulous,’’ “Taxi,’’ and ‘‘Cheers.’’


Charles Welles Rosen was born in Manhattan. His father, Irwin, was an architect; his mother, the former Anita Gerber, was a semiprofessional actress and amateur pianist.

Young Charles took his first piano lessons at 4 and studied at the Juilliard School from the ages of 7 to 11. At 11, he began private study with the distinguished pianist Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Liszt.

Attending Princeton, from which he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in French literature, Mr. Rosen took few classes in the music department.

‘‘I was too proud to take courses in music,’’ he told an interviewer in 2011, on being awarded the ­National Humanities Medal by President Obama. ‘‘I don’t mean to sound snotty, but it’s true: I knew more about music than most of the music graduate students.’’

Mr. Rosen earned his doctorate in 1951, a banner year for him in other respects. That year, at 24, he also made his New York recital debut, at Town Hall, and recorded his first solo album, of Debussy etudes.


The success of that record and other early recordings let him quit his academic career — he had been teaching French at the MIT — for the life of a full-time pianist.

But over time, Mr. Rosen’s writing career began competing for his attention.

Mr. Rosen’s renown as a writer led him back into teaching. He had long associations with the State University of New York at Stony Brook and later with the University of Chicago.

He leaves no immediate survivors.

In interviews, Mr. Rosen often said that he considered himself a pianist first and foremost. The scholarship, the teaching, the lecturing, and everything else were, he said, almost incidental pursuits. ‘‘Everyone needs a hobby,’’ he told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1981. ‘‘Some pianists collect ­Oriental vases. I write books.’’

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story included a photo of someone who was not Mr. Rosen. That photo has been removed, and a photo of Mr. Rosen was added.