Seven essays on how a pianist relates to music, instrument, and performance (through both body and soul), from National Book Award–winner and pianist Rosen (Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen, 1998, etc.).
Piano hasn’t just been the preeminent area for musical experimentation over the past 250 years, writes Rosen, the place where Beethoven developed his sonatas, Gesualdo his madrigals, Debussy his radical harmonies. It’s also an instrument that requires a major injection of the body: think of those parallel octaves, as much sport as art. Rosen witheringly deflates the stiffs who think the body is morally inferior to the ethereal mind, revealing the pianist’s “inexplicable and almost fetishistic need for physical contact with the combination of metal, wood, and ivory.” It is absurd, he says, to take the body out of the equation; one need only think of improvisation, or the process of learning difficult technical passages. Non-musician readers may not feel the full impact of Rosen’s words, and may wilt at the pages of notation, but they can feast on his tour of the piano’s architecture and his story of all that can go wrong with the instrument during a performance, or his journey through the styles of composers from Bach to Boulez. Rosen discusses the importance of public performance (“a chance to bring a work of music into something approaching its ideal objective existence,” with audience conveying the objective factor); his fear that “the music school and the piano competition tend to hinder the direct and experimental approach” by favoring routine over individual eccentricity; and a disadvantage of recorded music, namely that “the intense concentration that the art of music sometimes requires has become harder to command” when the listener can wander off to get a glass of beer.
Lively exegetical writing, particularly for laypeople, even if trying to make known the sheer physical pleasure of playing is akin to explaining the sensation of color without recourse to sight.