Professor Charles: Rosen Gifted pianist who became as well known for his writing

His National Humanities citation noted his 'ability to join artistry to the history of ideas'

Charles Rosen was a pianist who became known as much for his insightful writing and talking about music as for making it. His encyclopedic knowledge made itself felt on and off the stage for more than five decades. His concert-hall repertory extended from Mozart to Debussy to Elliott Carter, making it so hard to pin him down that his recording label, CBS, eventually gave up on his contract.

His versatility served him well as a scholar. Having taken up writing in a kind of self-defence – "to begin with I wrote just to keep nonsense off my record sleeves," he said – he won a National Book Award for his first major book, The Classical Style (1972).

It was a thoughtful, erudite and soundly argued study of the music of the three principal composers of the Classical period, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It remains for many the definitive book on the music of that era. Filled with examples of notated music, the book was at times a demanding read for a lay audience.

The Classical Style launched a writing career that extended through several other volumes. Rosen also became a prodigious contributor to the New York Review of Books, writing about classical composers as well as other subjects including the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the cookery book writer Elizabeth David, Parisian art exhibitions and the Restoration-era playwright and poet, William Congreve.

Rosen said writing was his hobby. "At the piano, if you practise 10 hours a day, then you have no time to write," he said. "I really can't practise more than about four to five. I can play the piano for eight to 10 hours a day, but I can't practise for that long. So I have to do something with my time."

Rosen attended the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan and then studied with the pianist Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt. The connection to Liszt put Rosen in a direct line with the grand romantic tradition that was later to become the subject of one of his books.

Rosenthal was no slouch at the kind of one-line put-down that Rosen was to incorporate into his writings. He also connected his young student with the musical and intellectual life of New York. When Rosen matriculated at Princeton, he recalled, he already knew the whole music department and what it might have to teach him. Instead, he majored in French literature, earning a doctorate from Princeton in 1951. He won a Fulbright scholarship to study 15th-century musical manuscripts in Paris.

His piano career continued with high-profile performances at Town Hall in New York and the release of his first recordings. Of his rendition of Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Time wrote in 1952 that the 25-year-old pianist "swept along like a fresh breeze in a musty corridor, slamming doors on heavy-handed traditions and uncovering the fine old structure. Listeners heard more details than they believed possible, played in tones of pastel shading."

A year earlier, Rosen had created a minor sensation with the first complete recording of Debussy's Etudes, and his record label thought of him as a French specialist. The connection to France sustained him throughout his life, and he maintained residences in Paris and New York. But he defied categorisation, recording Bach, Beethoven and Pierre Boulez, who along with Elliott Carter, a friend who died last month at 103, remained one of his artistic touchstones.

Because of his allegiance to Boulez and Carter, Rosen had a reputation for playing contemporary music, but his taste was for the kind of smart modernism that these composers represent. "There is still a question about how long the modernism of the 1950s is going to last," Rosen said in 2011. "The problem is that in order to absorb any difficult style you have to hear the pieces several times. That was true of Mozart, most of whose work was considered difficult at the time ... You really have to hear them well played several times, and there are very few music lovers who've heard a piece by Boulez more than once. That's the fact of it. So will it last? I don't know. Some music doesn't."

At times, critics found that Rosen's intellect weighed too heavily on his playing. A Time reviewer found one of his early recordings to be "clean, fiery and absolutely unsentimental." There is no doubt, however, that his analytical mind formed his distinctive approach to music. And there is little argument that his reputation as a thinker, certainly in his final decades, tended to eclipse his reputation as a pianist. This was perhaps inevitable, since he was one of the pre-eminent music thinkers of his generation, while there were plenty of other pianists to share the pianistic crown.

In 1980, Rosen gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, later published The Romantic Generation (1995), which analysed the developments in European music from the death of Beethoven in 1827 to the death of Chopin in 1849; it came with a CD recording by Rosen. His other books included works on Arnold Schoenberg and Carter. In addition to his writing and music, he taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Chicago, where he was a Professor Emeritus.

In February this year President Obama presented him with a National Humanities Medal; the citation noted his "rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas. His writings – about Classical composers and the Romantic tradition – highlight how music evolves and remains a vibrant, living art." In 2011 Rosen said: "The task of the critic is to tell people the way to listen to music so that they get more pleasure out of it through enhanced understanding. Basically, there is no difference between understanding and pleasure. If you listen to a piece of music and it makes sense to you, then you generally like it. I've been so lucky to have had a life devoted to playing music and trying to make sense of it."

Charles Welles Rosen, pianist and writer: born New York 5 May 1927; died New York 9 December 2012.

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer - West Sussex - permanent - £40k - £50k

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments