Thursday, February 11, 2016
Charles Rosen's The Classical Style is one of the great classics (no pun intended) of music criticism, focusing on the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven within a period of about 25 years. It's a very focused book, skipping over Haydn's sturm und drang period almost entirely, for example, as well as a lot of early Beethoven.
The Romantic Generation is a much more discursive book, partly because the Romantics he focuses on were a more diverse group, ranging from Chopin, whose music is very abstract, to Berlioz, with his program music. I'm about 1/3 of the way through the book, and so far it's a wonderful ride.
The first part deals with generalities about the Romantic period -- the fascination with fragments, the song cycles, the use of tonal spaces, and so on. His analysis of the Schubert song cycles brought me a new appreciation of links between the songs, the progression from one to the next, and Schubert's use of key areas to mark out the journey from beginning to end.
He follows this general section to specifics on a number of composers, and the only one I've really had time to dive into Chopin. Chopin gets a bit of a bad rap as a composer whose music is just miniatures, or focused more on feeling than technical composition, or who throws together melodies that just happen to sound good. As a huge Chopin fan, that's always felt a bit unfair to me, and so it was gratifying to read Rosen's vindication of Chopin. His strength in The Classical Style is the close reading of music, such as his analysis of the Chopin E-flat piano concerto or Beethoven's Hammerklavier. Here, he gives pages to the last movement of the piano sonata in B-flat minor and the Ballade in A-flat, showing how Chopin uses polyphony and heterophony to develop his themes and textures. I think Rosen hits the nail on the head when he says that the "musical shortcomings" are really more of a lack of vocabulary to describe in a short way what Chopin does, rather than actual shortcomings on his part.