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Pianist, Writer Charles Rosen Delights 92nd Street Y Audience

On the morning of November 14th, 2010, at the 92nd Street Y, acclaimed pianist and music writer, Charles Rosen, spoke fascinatingly for about 90 minutes on the late works of Frederic Chopin as a prelude to his concert celebrating the bicentennial of the composer's birth. Given that he has written three chapters on Chopin in his book on Romantic music and also recently did an article on the composer for the New York Review of Books, Rosen took this opportunity to avoiding repeating what he has said elsewhere and here sought to compare the style and achievement of Chopin with that of his exact contemporary, Robert Schumann. The speaker illustrated his talk with abundant musical examples at the piano.

Rosen began by stressing the importance of counterpoint for Chopin -- and his mastery of it -- even though there is rarely any full-fledged contrapuntal writing to be found in the composer's work; he contrasted this with Schumann who never attained the same mastery of counterpoint. Chopin thought the study of music had suffered a degeneration because harmony was taught before counterpoint; he believed the latter to be the foundation of composition.

Rosen commented that Chopin was notable among composers of his generation for not being especially influenced by Beethoven even though as a youth he was an admirer of the great composer's late string quartets -- works which were not well understood at the time. The primary influences on Chopin were Bach and Mozart as well as Italian opera, particularly Bellini. He cited as an example a movement from the late B minor sonata where the Italianate mode is present both in the melody and, more unusually, in the bass line. Schumann, by contrast, believed that what contemporary music required was a successor to Beethoven.

Rosen went on to discuss the innovative use of the pedal in the two composers. He remarked that in Beethoven the pedal is primarily restricted to special effects although he noted that the composer's notations -- now largely ignored by pianists -- were more important for when not to use the pedal rather than when to use it. The speaker said that in Chopin the pedal is deployed as means to outline while Schumann's novelty lay in achieving a tremolo effect.

In commenting on Chopin's harmonic originality, Rosen noted that Franz Liszt would play Chopin for Richard Wagner -- the speaker had recourse to the Polonaise Fantasy as an apposite example.

He then went on to describe the two composers differing approaches to rhythm. He stated that Schumann "was more constrained by the four-bar phrase than anyone else" but attempted by various techniques to overcome this limitation. However, he said that Chopin was more subtle in his engagement with this same difficulty -- for example, following a three-bar phrase with a five-bar phrase. Schumann, by contrast, was in this respect more modern, deploying rhythmic effects as a means of surprise. Here Rosen cited the comment of Pierre Boulez that a ritardando in Schumann must always be sudden rather than emerge as the outcome of preparation by the performer, as in the ritardando or rubato effects in Beethoven.

Rosen will be playing Chopin's late Barcarolle, remarking that its model is Rossini but that the younger composer's achievement in this form is on a greater scale than to be found in his Italian forbear; he described the writing there as for "two sopranos" and as "a huge imitation" of an orchestral sonority.

During a brief Q & A, Rosen responded to questions about Claude Debussy and Felix Mendelssohn in relation to Chopin.

Charles Rosen
92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10128

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