Charles Rosen is one of the world's most talented pianists -- and one of music's most astute commentators. Known as a performer of Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Elliott Carter, he has also written highly acclaimed criticism for sophisticated students and professionals.
In Piano Notes, he writes for a broader audience about an old friend -- the piano itself. Drawing upon a lifetime of wisdom and the accumulated lore of many great performers of the past, Rosen shows why the instrument demands such a stark combination of mental and physical prowess. Readers will gather many little-known insights -- from how pianists vary their posture, to how splicings and microphone placements can ruin recordings, to how the history of composition was dominated by the piano for two centuries. Stories of many great musicians abound. Rosen reveals Nadia Boulanger's favorite way to avoid commenting on the performances of her friends ("You know what I think," spoken with utmost earnestness), why Glenn Gould's recordings suffer from "double-strike" touches, and how even Vladimir Horowitz became enamored of splicing multiple performances into a single recording. Rosen's explanation of the piano's physical pleasures, demands, and discontents will delight and instruct anyone who has ever sat at a keyboard, as well as everyone who loves to listen to the instrument.
In the end, he strikes a contemplative note. Western music was built around the piano from the classical era until recently, and for a good part of that time the instrument was an essential acquisition for every middle-class household. Music making was part of the fabric of social life. Yet those days have ended. Fewer people learn the instrument today. The rise of recorded music has homogenized performance styles and greatly reduced the frequency of public concerts. Music will undoubtedly survive, but will the supremely physical experience of playing the piano ever be the same?
"Music is not just sound or even significant sound.... There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard," writes Rosen, a concert pianist, music critic and National Book Award winner (for 1970's The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven). He explores those mechanics, difficulties and more in this thoughtful and wide-reaching blend of history, homage and memoir. In a slightly uptight but obviously learned manner, the author explains the various elements that the piano-playing experience entails, from a child's understanding of the fingering for a C major scale to an accomplished concert pianist's position on her stool. Rosen is mainly concerned with the physicalities of playing the instrument, and he takes readers from concert halls, discussing the order of pieces to be performed lest a pianist follow a work in E-flat major by one in D major to the recording studio, examining the facility with which one can splice piano music. Although nearly all of Rosen's examples are from the music of Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and other classical musicians which may alienate readers who play jazz or popular piano his musings are indeed modern; he ponders what will become of the "dinosaur"-like piano in the 22nd century and addresses the problems of performing in a country where piano concerts are only de rigueur in large cities. Filled with trivia and thought-provoking commentary, Rosen's book is a sometimes dense, but important, study of the physical factors involved in tickling the ivories.