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.’

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