Charles Rosen dies at 85; pianist wrote ‘The Classical Style’

Charles Rosen, the renowned pianist and prolific writer whose award-winning book “The Classical Style” has been read by music students around the world, has died. He was 85.

The New York-born musician had been suffering from cancer and died Sunday evening at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, according to his London representative, Owen White International Artist Management.

In his long career, Rosen combined a concert pianist’s virtuosity with a well-rounded cultural erudition that made him a forceful and sometimes feared presence in New York’s intellectual circles.


His strong affinity for contemporary music brought him into close collaboration with a number of notable 20th century composers, including Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez and especially the late Elliott Carter, who died in November.

“He considered himself a pianist first and foremost,” said Henri Zerner, a friend and colleague. But Rosen became equally if not more famous for his writing, which covered the vast history of classical music.

Rosen’s many honors include the National Book Award in 1972 for “The Classical Style.” The tome, which focuses on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, is considered essential reading for classical-music scholars and has been reissued a number of times.

His writing career began in part out of a certain professional frustration. “I don’t know if he was being witty or not, but he thought the people who wrote the [cover] notes on his records were so inane that he had better write those himself,” said Zerner.

Rosen’s most recent book was “Freedom and the Arts,” a collection of essays on topics including music and literature that was published in May. An article he wrote on William Congreve is in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, for which he was a frequent contributor.

In February, Rosen received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at a White House ceremony.

Born in 1927, Rosen embarked on his music career when his parents enrolled him at the Juilliard School at age 6. He studied piano under Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt. Rosen eventually enrolled at Princeton University, earning a doctorate in French literature.

His piano career took him to major cities around the world and occasionally to Southern California. A Times review of a 1997 performance in Santa Barbara described Rosen’s playing of Chopin and Brahms as both “passionate and cerebral.”

In 2010, Rosen gave a lecture on Chopin, followed by a recital, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

“He had no notes, nothing,” recalled Dean Corey, head of the Philharmonic Society. “He talked right to you. He loved what he was talking about, and he conveyed that right away. He had a great sense of humor.”

Rosen’s many albums include the first complete recording of Debussy’s Etudes and Stravinsky’s “Movements for Piano and Orchestra.” He also recorded all of Boulez’s piano works.

He collaborated with Carter numerous times after the musicians first met in 1956. “So many composers develop a late style when they are about 50, but Elliott had to wait for his 80s to achieve his,” Rosen wrote in a 2007 essay for the New York Times.

Away from the stage, Rosen could impress others with the breadth of his cultural knowledge. “The author was better than the book. At parties, he would talk about a piece and then rush to the piano to play it,” said Fred Sherry, a cellist and longtime friend.

But Rosen could also be cutting in his assessments of others and their work. “He could pick out all of the factual errors in a book he was reviewing, which made some people scared of him,” said Sherry.

Rosen held a number of academic posts during his career, including the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetics at Harvard University and positions at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Chicago.

Rosen lived for most of his life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His colleagues said he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer about two years ago and that it had spread to his liver and other parts of his body.

He has no immediate survivors.