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. Perhaps his two most well-known volumes on music are The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation, both which I referenced in some undergraduate essays. 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, but 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 how our bodies react to the music-making process. The two chapters he spends on this topic reminded me of what made me fall in love with the piano, and 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playing the piano is closer to the origin of music in dance than performing on the earlier keyboards that it superceded.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 which piano to perform on, as well as describing small trends in the manufacturing process that changes things 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illuminating as I have little experience with these, even though Rosen’s experience recording especially is a bit outdated.
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, as well as his 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, just enough for everyone to appreciate each style and the playing of them a little more.
Who is this for? Who would enjoy this?
Piano Notes is approachable to 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. Also, while there may not be any one highest authority on the topic, it is good for pianists to learn about the process of their craft from as many masters as possible, and Rosen is certainly an articulate one.
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Jeremy Denk, “Postscript: Charles Rosen,” December 18, 2012.