Classical Music Scholar Charles Rosen Dies At 85

Dec 11, 2012
Originally published on December 11, 2012 9:55 am
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Charles Rosen was a Renaissance man in an age of hyper-specialization: a pianist who could play Baroque and Romantic works, as well as modern pieces. He was also a National Book Award-winning author. When Charles Rosen died yesterday in New York City of cancer, he was 85 years old.

NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Charles Rosen was enrolled at the Juilliard School when he was just six. His piano teacher's teacher was Franz Liszt. But Rosen veered off the typical music prodigy course pretty early on. In 1951, he got his Ph.D. from Princeton - not in music, but in French literature. Then he dropped that for a promising career as a performer.


TSIOULCAS: He started writing about music a decade later, out of sheer necessity. It seems the liner notes to one of his recordings were so bad that he decided to write them himself. That led to a book deal. And over the years, Rosen became a prolific author and essayist for the New York Review of Books. He also taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago, and he continued performing.


TSIOULCAS: Rosen also helped shape the general public's understanding of classical music. His 1971 book, "The Classical Style," won the National Book Award for nonfiction. In a 1999 interview with NPR's PERFORMANCE TODAY, Rosen described how the piano evolved from private home entertainment to an instrument for grand concert halls.

CHARLES ROSEN: Almost all the piano-playing was done by women in the 18th and the 19th centuries. But what happened is that, as public concerts developed, people wanted a bigger sound.


ROSEN: That was 1794. People were writing music, you see, which begins to demand a much bigger sound.

TSIOULCAS: Last February, President Obama awarded Charles Rosen the National Humanities Medal. The president cited what he called Rosen's rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas. But Rosen called himself a pianist above all else.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.