Charles Rosen, 1927-2012
A world-renowned pianist, musicologist and polymathic writer on cultural themes has died.
Charles Rosen was born in New York on 5 May 1927 and lived to the end of his life in the apartment he moved into at the age of six. He studied French up to master's level at Princeton University and then took a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the same time, however, he was developing his skills as a pianist, an instrument he began to learn at the age of four.
In 1951, Professor Rosen gave his concert debut, recorded his first album of Debussy's Études, and decided to abandon his academic post for a career as a full-time performer. He went on to produce definitive recordings of composers from Bach to Beethoven while also collaborating over many years with contemporaries such as Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter.
A decision to start writing the programme notes for his own concerts marked the first step in Professor Rosen's distinguished writing career. His books range from acclaimed historical surveys such as The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (1971) and The Romantic Generation (1995) to more personal accounts such as Piano Notes: The Hidden World of the Pianist (2002). Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, Professor Rosen always responded to music as an enthusiast rather than in the forbidding style of the specialist.
"Understanding music in the most basic sense simply means enjoying it when you hear it," he argued in the introduction to Music and Sentiment (2010). "It is rare that specialized knowledge is required for the spontaneous enjoyment that is the reason for the existence of music."
Wide-ranging in his interests, Professor Rosen also wrote on many other topics, notably as a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.
His book Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen (1998) includes a chapter on the cookery writer Elizabeth David, while Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature (2012) ranges widely across the poetry of several languages.
His writing also led to him back into the academy, with a series of appointments at the universities of Berkeley, Harvard and Oxford, although he had longer-term links with the State University of New York at Stony Brook and ended his life as emeritus professor of music and social thought at the University of Chicago.
"I need to practise about four hours a day," Professor Rosen once explained, "but that always left time for academic work."
He died of cancer on 9 December and had no close surviving relatives.