Bach’s Genius, Schumann’s Eccentricity, Chopin’s Ruthlessness, Rosen’s Gift

Edward Said

  • The Romantic Generation by Charles Rosen
    HarperCollins, 723 pp, £30.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 00 255627 8

Charles Rosen’s new book is about the group of composers who succeeded the great Viennese Classicists Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, and the aesthetic movement they represented. The Post-Classicists emerged for the most part during the period from the death of Beethoven (1827) to the death of Chopin (1849). A substantially expanded version of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard during 1980-1, The Romantic Generation, which follows in the path of its distinguished predecessor The Classical Style, is a remarkable amalgam of precise, brilliantly illuminating analysis, audacious generalisation, and not always satisfying – but always interesting – synthesis scattered over more than seven hundred pages of serviceable but occasionally patronising prose that takes Rosen through a generous amount of mainly instrumental and vocal music at very close range indeed.

What must be said immediately is how well, how enviably well, Rosen knows this music, its secrets, its astonishing harmonic and structural innovations, and the problems and pleasures of its performance: he writes not as a musicologist but as an extremely literate pianist (the book is accompanied by a CD of illustrative extracts played by Rosen) for whom a lifetime of study and public rendition has given the music its very life. Although the book does have its longueurs it is often grippingly, even excitingly, readable. Yet the reader must keep hearing the music, since all of Rosen’s interesting points relate finally to a revolution of audible effects intended by his three major examples. Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.

Running through the work is an underlying concentration (cantus firmus would be a more appropriate phrase) on the polyphonic genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the power of his genius at work in Romantic music that was supposed to be at odds with his learned rigour and fugal mastery. No, it was not, as is often said, Mendelssohn who ‘discovered’ Bach for the 19th century, but Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and before them Beethoven and Mozart, all of whom grew up on the Well-Tempered Clavier. Chopin ‘idolised’ Bach; Beethoven was inspired in his third-period works by the preludes and fugues; Liszt and Schumann returned to Bach’s work for pointers on how to redistribute piano music contrapuntally in various registers.

Rosen’s interest in Bach’s presence in Romantic music is an implicit refutation of Glenn Gould’s charge that all those composers, like Chopin and Schumann, whose work forms the core of the contemporary pianist’s repertoire (which Gould of course both avoided and excoriated), were interested only in vertical composition. In perhaps the most interesting section of his book Rosen shows that Chopin – routinely thought of as a swooning, ‘inspired’, small-scale salon composer whose music is basically ‘effeminate’ – is in fact an ingenious contrapuntalist of the most extreme sort, a musician whose affecting surfaces conceal a discipline in planning, polyphony and sheer harmonic creativity, a composer whose only real rival in the end was someone as different and as grand as Wagner. As Rosen says,

there is a paradox at the heart of Chopin’s style, in its unlikely combination of a rich chromatic web of polyphony, based on a profound experience of J.S. Bach, with a sense of melody and a way of sustaining the melodic line derived directly from Italian opera. The paradox is only apparent and is only felt as such when one hears the music. The two influences are perfectly synthesised, and they give each other a new kind of power.

According to Rosen, Bach is important in another respect. Although one can analyse the scores of such late contrapuntal masterpieces as the Art of Fugue or the Musical Offering, it is impossible to hear all the polyphonic effects, which are intended as theoretical, rather than actual, sounds. Eighteenth-century composers like Bach, Mozart and Handel conceived and annotated their music, Rosen says, to produce ‘a particular beauty that is only partially related to any imagined performance – an irreducibly inaudible beauty, so to speak’. With Beethoven, however, there is an inevitable quality to the sound, which suggests that he ‘has reached the ideal fusion of conception and realisation’. But for the Romantics, Schumann in particular, the inaudible, the unplayable, the unimaginable can be incorporated into performance: ‘it is an essentially Romantic paradox that the primacy of sound in Romantic music should be accompanied, and even announced, by a sonority that is not only unrealisable but unimaginable.’

What the core Romantics did therefore was to extend the range of musical composition so as to include not only the inaudible, but also harmonic overtones, new sonorities produced by the pedal, tone colour, timbre, register and spacing, thereby ‘permanently enlarging the role of sound in the composition of music’. At another level their conception of music itself took on new meanings and made possible the invention of distinctive forms influenced by such Romantic literary concerns as the fragment, ruins and landscape. Precisely because it was imprecise and general (as opposed to discursive language, which was both concrete and exact) music came to be considered the Romantic art par excellence. Rosen makes a number of connections between various Romantic compositions and the ideas of Schlegel, Vico, the physicist Ritter, Senancour, and the traveller and naturalist Ramond de Carbonnières, who in his descriptions of landscapes and glaciers is presented as a major (and completely unknown) anticipator of 20th-century thought.

There is, alas, a sloppy garrulousness about some of Rosen’s exposition: not in his analysis of individual musical pieces, but in his relentless paraphrasing of, and haughty quotation from, intellectual and poetic authorities. All the material will be familiar to readers, say, of M.H. Abrams and Frank Manuel, or, on particular Romantic subjects like ruins, Tom McFarland and others. Rosen rambles on and on, quoting not only translations but even the French and German originals, in displays of erudition that make one extremely impatient. Very rarely are direct inferences drawn from all this cultural background – which is itself unnervingly disconnected from social, economic and political realities such as the French Revolution, or the advent of industrialisation, or the developing interest in economics, as informatively discussed by Albert Hirschmann and Michel Foucault. It is as if, in the best of all possible worlds. Ritter had interesting notions about music and speech, as did Vico, as did Sterne, and Tieck, as finally did Schumann. It is very hard to doubt a community of interest here, but Rosen’s method is too casual, too delighted with its own capacity for ferreting out aperçus from diverse writers, for the reader to be left with more than a sense that all those ideas were in the air and somehow made their influence felt in composers’ predilections for song cycles, or for the depiction of landscape in their music, or – as Rosen brilliantly shows in the case of Schumann – for the use of fragments as compositional style, giving works like the Dichterliebe that sense of half-finished, forlorn desuetude which is uniquely theirs.

Rosen’s procedures for the analysis of a cultural period may be too little thought through, too entertained by free-wheeling analogies and ‘look-at-this’ correspondences, too scanting of the immense and very useful scholarship on the material, but they are often stunningly effective for looking at aspects of the Romantic piano and voice literature. He goes much beyond anyone else in revealing the sources of Schumann’s amazing eccentricity, which was well-anchored in a whole series of formal practices, and marvellously shows them at work in all the major compositions of the 1830s, the only truly creative decade of Schumann’s life. In particular, Rosen does a spectacular job of reading the C major Fantasie in terms of Schumann’s use of Beethoven’s An die feme Geliebte, the great song cycle that bridges his second and late-period styles. No other writer on music has his gift for walking and playing through pieces, pointing out how memory, quotation, observation are given concrete musical realisation that extends from the printed score, to the hand on the keyboard, to the pedal, and then is received by the listener’s ear.

No wonder then that Rosen can demonstrate that ‘the song cycle is the most original form created in the first half of the 19th century.’ And when he shows in detail how such episodic piano works as Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze are elaborations of ‘a musical structure experienced progressively as one moves through it: the disparity of the individual dances reveals the sense of a larger unity only little by little as the series continues’, he gets to the heart of a major aesthetic achievement:

the reappearance of the melancholy second dance is not only a return but more specifically a looking back, as the Romantic travellers delighted to look back to perceive the different appearance of what they had seen before, a meaning altered and transfigured by distance and a new perspective. In Beethoven’s instrumental works the return of an initial theme had often been transformed and radically altered by rescoring and rewriting: but in the Davidsbündlertänze the Ländler [or dance] is apparently unaltered, transformed simply by distance in time and space, by the preceding sonorities, by everything that has taken place since the opening. An age that began with the attempt to realise landscape as music was finally able, in the most radical and eccentric productions of Schumann, to experience music as landscape.

The equation of Schumann’s best work with his eccentricity is a matter returned to in the book’s final pages. The composer’s obsessive sense of detail, Rosen believes, deprived his work of great breadth but made up for it in ‘hypnotic intensity’. I would not myself be so dismissive, not even by implication, of Schumann’s symphonies, in particular the superb Second, nor would I scant Das Paradies und die Peri, but Rosen’s scheme for Schumann is quite inflexible and leaves the chamber music out almost entirely. He argues, for example, that when, after that fruitful decade, Schumann went back to his works to revise them, he always made them worse, not better. By carving out of the oeuvre its most quixotic and certainly its most incandescently eccentric moments Rosen has found a draconian way of dealing with Schumann’s peculiar inconsistency of approach and, in the years before his final insanity, the quieting down of his musical ardour. But this is just too schematic and reductive, I think, too impatient with the perceivable outlines of a more various and integrated achievement than Rosen allows.

There are no such intermittences in his account of Chopin: three large chapters on him amounting to two hundred pages are the core of The Romantic Generation. Even though there has been some crucial new work on Chopin in the last decade (which Rosen acknowledges) no one has been as disciplined, as well-informed, as discerning, as Rosen, for whom Chopin embodies the paradox of being ‘the most conservative and most radical composer of his generation’. The great thing about these Chopin chapters for a Chopin fanatic like myself is that they can inform and perhaps even change the way he is played. This is particularly true of what Rosen has to say about Chopin’s counterpoint (he ‘was the greatest master of counterpoint since Mozart’) and the way an energetic polyphonic strategy that implies three or four-part writing is at work even in mainly single-line works like the entirely unison, high-velocity last movement of the B flat minor Sonata.

Rosen then proceeds to a truly inspired reading of the Third Ballade in terms of Chopin’s adaptation of narrative forms for use in instrumental writing: this allows him to look at the other Ballades as well as the late-period Polonaise-Fantasie and to elucidate them according not only to their amazingly resourceful use of harmonic devices neglected by other composers (the alternation of major and minor modes, the use of related tonalities for coloristic purposes), but also in terms of a heterophony that is as skilful as it is ‘secret’, concealing itself in what may appear to be ‘soft’ or even ‘sugary’ music.

Chopin, Rosen argues extremely persuasively, is in reality not just superbly organised and skilled as few composers have been, but

ruthless, capable of asking the pianist to try for the unrealisable in delicacy as well as violence. The unrealisable in Chopin, however, is always perfectly imagined as sound. His structures are rarely beautiful or interesting in themselves on paper, as are those of Bach or Mozart (to name his favourite composers): they are conceived for their effect, even if the intended public was a small and very private one in some cases. That is why his long works have been underestimated: forms like the Third Ballade or the Polonaise Fantasic appear lopsided on the page. They are justified by performance, although Chopin is among the most difficult of all composers to interpret. His music, never calculated like much of Bach, for solitary meditation, works directly on the nerves of the listener, sometimes by the most delicate and fleeting suggestion, sometimes with an obsessive hammered violence

– as in the concluding pages of the B minor Scherzo.

The theme of Chopin’s ruthlessness and ‘sadism’ is developed through a marvellous consideration of the pedagogical techniques embodied (and to some degree derived from Bach) in the Etudes. Here as elsewhere Rosen delivers himself of casual observations – on the decline of writing music for the young, on the nature of virtuosity and the pianist’s need to bear pain, Chopin’s ‘irony and wit but not a trace of humour’ – that sparkle with worldly cleverness and long experience. He is just right, I think, in his account of the Romantic tendency to ‘morbid intensity’, and, in Chopin’s case, the ability to transform sentimental clichés of illness or deep, if conventional, feeling into ‘fierce concentration’ rendered more imposing, as in the Nocturnes, ‘with a profusion of ornamental and contrapuntal detail’. A final chapter on what Rosen considers Chopin’s ‘most original and eccentric works’ – the Mazurkas – consolidates the main claims for Chopin as ‘the only composer of his generation who never, after the age of 21, displayed the slightest awkwardness with longer works ‘, or for that matter with short ones. All those features of Chopin’s idiom, which include his sources in Polish dance rhythms and Italian opera, as well as his formal and harmonic genius for blurring frontiers between sections, constructing the most inventive thematic transfigurations and returns, are taken by Rosen to constitute a truly distinctive Romantic style – the greatest single realisation of which is the Barcarolle, a late composition and, in my opinion, Chopin’s most magnificent.

It would be difficult to follow the dense, inspired chapters on Chopin with the same level of detail and genuinely turbulent insight, and Rosen doesn’t manage it. Not that he isn’t full of perspicacious observations on Liszt and Mendelssohn, whom in a backhanded compliment he calls ‘the inventor of religious Kitsch’ in music. (I had always thought of Vivaldi that way!) In fact, he has a great deal to say that is interesting, but the episodic quality of his writing suggests that weariness may have set in. Besides, the categories he has invented for describing Romantic style in Schumann and Chopin seem to have been much harder to apply to others. This is a case of definitions and formulations getting the better of analysis and even taste. Thus the desultory, rather witless chapter on Berlioz, whose work is encapsulated by Rosen in the maddeningly inconsequential one-liner, ‘it is not Berlioz’s oddity but his normality, his ordinariness that makes him great,’ which produces little more than a series of reluctant admissions that Berlioz may not have been that interesting but he could manipulate chord inversions and root positions with surprising skill. It’s perhaps relevant that Berlioz was the one member of the Romantic generation who never studied or wrote for the piano; this sets him even further apart for Rosen, who is similarly patronising about music after 1850.

Except for some unconvincing animadversions on Bellini and Donizetti, both of them composers of a cloying inadequacy, plus a few sound pages on the more gifted Meyerbeer, Rosen doesn’t show much interest in Romantic opera: Weber, for instance, isn’t mentioned, neither is there much about Rossini’s historical music dramas. Early Wagner is left out entirely along with the emergence of the Romantic or chestra, not only in the work of Weber and Berlioz, but also in Mendelssohn (a fleeting reference there) and, more important, Beethoven. Rosen doesn’t have to mention everyone and everything – his book is already substantial enough – but it is at the edges and at the beginning of his story that the capaciousness, and the unreflecting closedness of his scheme, makes itself felt. Why, for example, is Beethoven not looked at in his middle and third-period works as an important source of Romanticism rather than a mere indictment of it by virtue of his oeuvre ‘s monumentality? His enabling presence is certainly to be found in Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, and of course Schubert. Only Chopin seems not to have felt his powerful example, but even that resistance highlights the fact that Beethoven was as much a part of Romanticism as in his early period he was of the Classical style.

And in his understandable reluctance to get involved with either the society of which Romanticism was a part, or with cultural theory, Rosen disallows himself insights and concepts exactly where and when in his own argument he might have benefited from them. The Romantic composer’s isolation is one of Rosen’s themes, yet he does not (at sufficient length) investigate why that isolation should have existed, and the bearing both the onset of secularism and the end of aristocratic privilege may have had on it.

Rosen is too intelligent not to notice these things (he notes, for example, that Romanticism did not produce religious music, although many composers wrote Requiems), but his rapid allusions simply shut off discussion. Take the extremely vexed question of the relationship between a composer’s life and work. He advances the thesis that ‘the most interesting composers have arranged their lives and their personalities in order to realise their projects and their conceptions most effectively and convincingly,’ then follows with the unexamined claim that ‘a purely musical experience is as powerful a sensation as anything outside music.’ But what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ here, and where do lives and personalities end and musical experiences begin? These plonking declarations aren’t much of a substitute for a conception, or indeed a theory, of such relationships.

It is hard to disagree completely with the book’s summary proposition that Romantic music developed out of an exasperation with rational systems and the Classical hierarchies of genre, but the notion has nowhere near the force contained in Rosen’s account of the consequent unpredictability of Romantic composition, of the Romantic attempt ‘to attain the sublime through the trivial’, through the carefully exploited detail, and the eccentric, personal structure. It is the lucidity and resource-fullness of Rosen’s remarkably fine analytic examples that will carry readers, not his attempt to legislate general ideas about art and life. On the other hand, the book will certainly change most minds about what Chopin’s and Schumann’s achievements really were: more important, readers will listen to and play Romantic music with a much more alert understanding than before.