Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist comes from Charles Rosen, a notable concert pianist, music critic, and overall celebrated thinker of music of the common practice period. His most well-known volumes on music are Sonata Forms, The Classical Style, and The Romantic Generation. Both of these large volumes were influential in the fields of musicology, music theory, and performance. When I found this shorter work by Rosen, I had to give it a read. It’s written memoir-style and focuses on the experience of playing the piano, nothing more.
This book is conversational in tone, easy to read, and not exploding with piano or music theory jargon. The only thing that may trip up a nonmusician is the examples drawn from actual sheet music. Even then, his descriptions in words should be enough for a nonmusician to understand.
Piano Notes follows a logical flow, probably outlining his experiences at the piano in a chronological sequence.
It starts with how we hear and experience the piano in our minds and the way our bodies react. The two chapters he spends on this topic reminded me of what made me fall in love with the piano to begin with. It was heartening to read about the human perception of the piano’s sound from someone so passionate and articulate.
The performer has to cooperate directly in every crescendo and decrescendo: playing the piano is closer to the origin of music in dance than performing on the earlier keyboards that it superceded. The danger of the piano, and its glory, is that the pianist can feel the music with his whole body without having to listen to it.
From here, Rosen goes into the mechanics of the piano. He includes stories about concert pianists picking performance pianos and describes trends in the manufacturing process. These trends change aspects, such as how the pedals function or how precisely the instrument must be calibrated.
After this, the focus shifts out from the piano itself to the world in which it resides. He covers life in the conservatory, competitions, solo concerts, and how the process of recording differs from live performance. I found all of these topics especially illuminating as I have little experience with these despite Rosen’s outdated recording experience.
Rosen closes with a chapter that sounds more like the rest of his written work: an exploration of the Common Practice Period composers and how they’re traditionally played and why. He also includes his own personal thoughts on these styles of playing.
Historical purity is not the most important goal of a performance, particularly when we consider that we can never be sure that we are getting it right.
He doesn’t go too far in depth as to leave novices behind. He discusses just enough for all readers to appreciate each style and their performances a little more.
Who is this for? Who would enjoy this?
Piano Notes is targeted at anyone interested in reading about what it’s like to be a pianist: what decisions are made, how time is spent, what life in general is like in the field. While there isn’t any single authority on the topic, it is good for pianists to learn about the process of their craft from as many masters as possible. Rosen is certainly an articulate master.
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Jeremy Denk, “Postscript: Charles Rosen,” December 18, 2012.