Charles Rosen's latest book achieves much more than even its author probably envisaged when he set about assembling The Romantic Generation, his description and analysis of music from the death of Beethoven to the death of Chopin.
Though in the preface he modestly confesses that "I have limited myself to those composers whose characteristic styles were defined in the late 1820s and early 1830s, a compact group in spite of widely differing musical ideals and the evident mutual hostility frequently met among them", the reader soon finds there are few limitations to Rosen's treatment of his "limited" subject.
Indeed, for the musician, there might seem almost too much depth and breadth and social and artistic context to this 700-page expansion of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures Rosen gave at Harvard University during 1980-81. An extensive tour of the artistic concepts and preoccupations of the day, such as fragments, ruins and landscape and of the influential ideas of philosophers, poets, and even scientists, is interwoven into the masterly musical analysis and comment. While the length and attention to detail of these background passages (which go so far as to quote not only the translations, but the French and German originals of writings by poets and philosophers) may at times seem a distraction to the general reader, to those with an interest in the history of artistic movements they are an illuminating added dimension.
The musician can hardly complain either, for this wide-ranging approach provides a wealth of fresh insights into the inspiration and artistic motives behind the works of Schubert, Chopin, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Liszt. Explaining the significance of the Romantic concept of the Fragment to these composers, for instance, he comments: "Just as poets and painters had attempted to recreate with words and paint the freedom and the abstract power of music, so the generation of musicians born around 1810 tried to capture the originality of form and the exotic atmosphere of the literature and art they had grown up with. The appearance of the Fragment in its most obvious form - a piece that begins in the middle or does not have a proper grammatical end - is only the simplest example of the new spirit of experiment, and the way it breaks down the established conceptions of what a work of music ought to be and relates it to the major stylistic developments of the time."
This leads Rosen directly to an exploration of the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann, and the influence on these of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Along the way, the reader is treated to an inspired analysis of Schumann's Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und Leben and the C major Fantasie, demonstrating why the cycles played a central role in the history of Romantic art. In this section, as throughout the book, the body of text is balanced by frequent musical quotations. Rosen shows in this way that he is very much a musician's musician, requiring the reader to hear his points in order to reap the full benefit of his expertise (the book comes with a CD of musical illustrations played by the author to make this exercise easier).
The extent of that expertise is evident in the enviable ease with which Rosen draws out the logic, the poetry, the structure, the harmonic significance, and the personality behind the music, picking out surprising quotations to illustrate his points while blending the whole into a clear and coherent argument. During a discussion of Schubert's use of the dissonant major-minor ending in his song Thranenregen, for example, he slips in an almost casual point: "We know that Schubert liked an ambiguity of major and minor, and played with it frequently throughout his life. Did he find a precedent in the minuet of Beethoven's Trio in E flat major, op. 70, no. 2?" (Here we are given 24 bars of the minuet, to display Beethoven's own skill in floating an harmonic progression through numerous shades of major and minor.) Rosen concludes: "This is an effect so Schubertian that one suspects some knowledge on the part of the younger composer." But then adds: "The source, however, does not matter." Has Rosen, then, made a superfluous point? In a sense yes, yet this illustration, like many throughout the book, is really part of a process of enriching the reader's understanding of the music, and of holding one's interest during detailed musical analysis which might otherwise seem rather heavygoing.
Another pleasing aspect of Rosen's approach to his subject is his use of original musical manuscripts to help the reader understand a composer's intentions and thought processes as the piece was being written. Rosen's view is that for Schumann and Chopin "almost all 20th-century editions are badly flawed".
Rosen's use of the original score is highly instructive. Demonstrating how Chopin's use of the pedal made a new sonority possible on the piano, he turns to the Ballade No. 3 in A flat major. He notes how, in the original, Chopin started to write a pedal indication and then crossed it out, placing the pedal only in the second half of the bar. "What is significant," Rosen says, "is the insistence on leaving half a bar without pedal - an idea that occurs to Chopin only as he writes, as we can see."
To the musician, such observations are of great interest. To the pianist, they are invaluable. There are many throughout the book, providing the performer with fresh material on which to build interpretation and technique. For this reason, as much as the fact that, as Rosen himself remarks, "the music of Schumann, Chopin and Liszt is still the centre of almost every pianist's activity", at the very least this book should find a place on almost every pianist's essential reading list.
Tony Tysome is a reporter on The THES with a degree in music.
The Romantic Generation
Author - Charles Rosen
ISBN - 0 00 2556 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 723