There aren’t many great classical pianists who can also write great essays on topics as various as the form of classical music, the paintings of David Caspar Friedrich, the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, and the cookbooks of Elizabeth David.
Correction: there’s just one, Charles Rosen, and we lost him yesterday. He died of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 85. (New York Times obituary here.)
I still haven’t read his National Book Award-winning book on classical style, but I’ve read his book on Schoenberg, which was insightful about so much more than Schoenberg, and I was awed his book of essays (and here’s a great title) Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen.
Twice I’ve found myself needing to teach writing to teenagers who had been overexposed to the five-paragraph essay, that odd literary form found only in the laboratory and never in the wild. In both cases, I reached for Rosen’s essay on the cookbooks of Elizabeth David. It’s unlike anything most teenagers have encountered (he quotes her instructions for pulling the skin off an octopus), while demonstrating clearly how to hook the reader, introduce a startling thesis (that her cookbooks are pastorals), and defend that thesis with evidence.
And he was a marvelous pianist, as well. About twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing him perform Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. I’ve cherished his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Elliott Carter’s piano music.
Here he is performing Schumann, whom he also writes about with great insight.