Getting Sentimental with Charles Rosen

I just finished Charles Rosen’s recent Music and Sentiment. It is a slim volume, at least compared to some of his earlier books, like The Romantic Generation.  But even though this short book may not probe as deeply as some of his others, he remains masterful. Rosen knows an awful lot about an awful lot, though not without his limitations – see below.

Here his concern is the play of affect in musical phrases. He is intrigued by the way the Viennese classics juxtapose elements expressing contrasting sentiments, something earlier and later musics avoid. A good deal of the book is therefore a celebration of a relatively elementary concept, the contrasting period. Theory I students learn that successive musical phrases can either be parallel or contrasting, and something like the opening of the Jupiter Symphony – an imperious call to attention followed by a more lyrical phrase – embodies such contrasts (although there the contrast is within the phrase, rather than the period). Rosen points out that the Romantics tended to prefer that phrases continue with the same affect, only more so, a tendency reflected in the title of his last chapter, “Obessions”. He is weakest on 20th century style, talking a bit about Debussy and Ravel, but having nothing to say about, for example, how the jump cuts in Stravinsky compare with earlier expressive juxtapositions. I wish he had commented on the modernist music that he plays – Carter in particular certainly relies on rapidly contrasting sentiments, even if not always at the level of the phrase. Rosen seems entirely too content with the fact that he knows nothing about styles after Carter and Boulez and how those styles treat affect. He simply lists a variety of journalistic labels applied to various relatively recent musics and says how the second half of the 20th century still seems “chaotic” in its array of styles. The one thing he thinks he knows is that 20th century forms of harmonic practice are inferior to classical tonality because they lack precision in their delineation of the tonal landscape. Does he really think Bartok’s harmonic structures are flabby? Would he say the same if he knew something about Perle, Harbison, or Martino; Rakowski, Currier, or Melinda Wagner?

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