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The Romantic Generation
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on June 13, 2000
Rosen's "The Romantic Generation" is really written for people with a thorough grounding in music theory, but even with a limited understanding of harmony, counterpoint, and structure, I was able to derive much enjoyment from these essays.
Rosen's first love is obviously Chopin, and his three chapters on the Polish master are essential reading, I think, for anyone trying to master the subject. Rosen effectively explodes any lingering remnants of the charge that Chopin was incapable of handling large forms, or was an "untrained genius." He makes a convincing case for Chopin as the most assiduously trained and capable musician of his generation -- and it was not a generation of lightweights. The structural analyses of the Ballades (particularly the 4th) are excellent, but where Rosen really shines is in his examination of the Etudes and Mazurkas. In the former, he elucidates the Etudes' pivotal place in the history of concert music, and the interplay of theoretical composition and physical execution that they embody. In the latter, Rosen explores the Mazurkas as the receptacles of Chopin's most subtle, and personal, artistic accomplishments.
Other chapters are not always as convincing, but Rosen's examinations of Liszt, Mendellsohn, Berlioz, and Schumann all have their merits. After Chopin, Schumann is probably closest to Rosen's heart, and is given the most compelling treatment.
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on August 26, 1998
While I was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, it sometimes seemed that the professors chose only the most abstruse works of scholarship as their classroom texts. The worst example was a required text for a 20th Century analysis course, in which the author clearly had nothing to say, and merely strung along interminable chapters of the most irritating technical jargon. To add insult to injury, the campus bookstore stuck me for fifty or sixty dollars for this piece of academic trash. This text, and hordes of others like it, represents the poorest sort of scholarship. I often wonder what these writers hope to accomplish. I imagine their work must have some snob appeal, but education is too important, and life is far too short to waste time on this sort of foolishness. Imagine my elation than, upon discovering the work of Charles Rosen. I first read "Sonata Forms" in preparation for an analysis class I was teaching, and a little while later I read "The Classical Style," one of the very finest books ever written about music. Mr. Rosen has a lot to say, and his style has an engaging quality that would be the despair of many a young novelist. In fact he writes so well, that I frequently had difficulty in putting these books down. His points are well presented and amply supported with musical examples (a great challenge for the "inner ear" although I sometimes cheat and take them to the keyboard). I also enjoy Mr. Rosen's humor, which emerges at all the right moments. On the strength of these works, I devoured "The Romantic Generation" as soon as I could get a copy of it. This is a remarkable book. It maintains and even surpasses the depth of understanding achieved in "The Classical Style." Particularly with the inclusion of a breathtaking study of Romantic literature and painting, which does a very good job of showing the music in its context without going overboard into historical trivia. Mr. Rosen is (as always) very thorough. A special highlight of the book is its study of Chopin. Indeed, the Chopin section is so extensive that the other chapters seem a little cursory at first glance- especially the discussion of Mendelssohn. However, I'm sure this is just a reflection of my personal bias. So many great things are said, with such grace and wit about Liszt, Berlioz and Schumann, that I am reluctant to reiterate it in my own clumsy style, and can only commend to you the original. The only real criticism I have is that the enclosed CD is far too short. Mr. Rosen's performances have a clarity reminiscent of his prose, which is a real joy to hear. For all the penetrating analysis of the Chopin Ballades and the comprehensive study of the Mazurkas, it was odd to find him represented by only two Nocturnes. I was also sorry not to find more examples of the Schumann works: particularly the "Davidsbundlertanze." The Liszt examples though, were very well chosen. There was a time in my life when I felt as though there might be a book in me, I saw myself in the somewhat grandiose armor of a Crusader for Clarity in academic writing. It is a great relief for me, and fortunate for future generations, that Mr. Rosen has already accomplished this and henceforth I'll stick with playing the cello.
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This book should be called the Romantic Piano, as its expertise does not extend beyond the piano. Three chapters on Chopin and not one on Wagner or Verdi? If you want a book on romantic piano, this is a fantastic one; if you want a great text on 19th century music, check out Dahlhaus.
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