Charles Rosen’s story begins like that of a typical son of Jewish immigrants. His mother and father came to the States as children, “my father from Moscow, my mother from near Odessa, a place that’s now part of Romania,” he says. He remembers that his maternal grandmother didn’t speak any English, “only Yiddish when I was around. She kept kosher and she wouldn’t eat with us except a hard-boiled egg.”
There was a piano in the house when Rosen was growing up, which is also typical of the early part of the 20th century, and he used to pick out tunes on its keys when he was 4 or 5. “That happens to a lot of children,” Rosen says.
But he is being too modest.
By the time he was 6, Rosen was a student at the Juilliard School of Music; at 11 he left Juilliard to study with Moriz Rosenthal, who had studied with Franz Liszt.
Today, at 75, Rosen is not only a renowned pianist with a remarkably variegated repertoire that ranges from Beethoven to Stockhausen. He is also a National Book Award-winning author whose “The Classical Style” is one of the great works of musical analysis and history of the past 30 years.
This weekend, Rosen’s busy schedule yields extra dividends for New York music lovers. He is appearing at the 92nd Street Y to deliver a lecture of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on Sunday morning, then performs a program of Beethoven piano works, a felicitous double-header recalling his recent book, “Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion.” And Wednesday marks the publication of Rosen’s latest volume, “Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist,” a sprightly series of ruminations on the nature of what is arguably the most demanding and rewarding instrument in Western music.
“It’s a different sort of book,” Rosen admits of his latest work, one of his rare efforts for a more popular readership. “Piano Notes” was born out of his longstanding relationship with New York Review of Books, to which he is a frequent contributor.
“They sponsored a series of lectures at the New York Public Library on the theme of the relationship between spirit and technique,” he says. “I spoke about the relation between the physical act of playing the piano and ways of interpreting music for the instrument. So the book is about the relationship between playing and the life of the music.”
Writing about music for a popular audience presents an immediate problem, Rosen admits.
“If you’re writing about poetry, you have to quote some of the lines of the poem,” he says. “That’s harder with music. It’s not that it’s hard to talk about music. Give me three minutes and I can explain tonality to anyone, if I can give examples.”
The piano has been such an integral part of his life that Rosen finds it hard to explain the instrument’s appeal for him. After all, he’s been playing for over seven decades.
“It’s like being a tightrope walker, you start as a child or you fall off,” he says. “Asking me why I play piano is like asking me why I speak English. You don’t choose it. There are things that form your character when you’re very young. It’s just something I do. But I wouldn’t live without it.”
Conversely, he finds that the aging process affects his approach to the instrument less than it might that of, say, a violinist.
“For a violinist there’s a kind of muscular control of the vibrato that might change when you get older. Pianists may decide there are certain difficult pieces they won’t play anymore, but there have been pianists who played in public past the age of 100. Of course, they may not play with the force they had at 80.”
The one constant for a pianist at any age is practice.
“It’s like a sport,” Rosen says. “Not every tennis player holds the racquet the same way. You may prepare differently from someone else. Different people have different methods of keeping themselves in shape, but you have to practice.”
And that means playing.
What does a professional pianist play for his own pleasure? For Rosen the answer is that he looks for a new challenge.
“Generally I read music I’m unfamiliar with, pieces I haven’t studied, not necessarily piano music. Sometimes I play an old piece. I don’t have anything fixed [as a routine]; I like practicing Beethoven more because the left-hand is more interesting. But I don’t like playing him more than Mozart, Debussy or Boulez.”
Still, Beethoven is indisputably an ongoing challenge to a pianist. Hence Rosen’s book, lecture and recital on the sonatas. What is the source of the inexhaustible appeal of these compositions?
Rosen explains, “There’s a certain structure to music of tonality and he knew how to exploit it better than anybody else. It’s not necessarily that Beethoven’s music is more complicated. Some aspects are simpler than anyone else’s. But he understood the power of tonality and he laid it bare.
“In his piano sonatas, he probably has a greater range than any other composer. He had dozens of ways of writing a sonata. He could write a first theme would which take seven seconds, as he does in Op. 109, or one that will take almost two minutes. There’s no way Brahms could do that.”
Rosen seeks a metaphor from tennis again. “It’s always more interesting to see a tennis player who knows how to make all the shots.”
The same may be said of a certain pianist-writer.
Charles Rosen will lecture on Beethoven’s piano sonatas at the 92nd Street Y, Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 11 a.m. He will perform an all-Beethoven program at the Y later that day at 3 p.m. “Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist” will be published on Nov. 6 by The Free Press ($25). “Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion” is published by Yale University Press ($29.95), and includes a CD with numerous musical examples played by the author on an 1879 Bechstein piano that belonged to Franz Liszt.