Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist

Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist

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by Charles Rosen

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Among the world's instruments, the piano stands out as the most versatile, powerful, and misunderstood — even by those who have spent much of their lives learning to play. In Piano Notes, a finalist for a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, Charles Rosen, one of the world's most talented pianists, distills a lifetime of wisdom and lore into an


Among the world's instruments, the piano stands out as the most versatile, powerful, and misunderstood — even by those who have spent much of their lives learning to play. In Piano Notes, a finalist for a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, Charles Rosen, one of the world's most talented pianists, distills a lifetime of wisdom and lore into an unforgettable tour of the hidden world of piano playing.
You'll read about how a note is produced, why a chord can move us, why the piano — "hero and villain" of tonality — has shaped the course of Western music, and why it is growing obsolete. Rosen explains what it means that Beethoven composed in his head whereas Mozart would never dream of doing so, why there are no fortissimos in the works of Ravel, and why a piano player's acrobatics have an important dramatic effect but nothing more. Ending on a contemplative note, Piano Notes offers an elegant argument that piano music "is not just sound or even significant sound" but a mechanical, physical, and fetishistic experience that faces new challenges in an era of recorded music. Rosen ponders whether piano playing will ever again be the same, and his insights astonish.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The New York Review of Books If your shelves have room for one volume about the piano from glory to decline, Piano Notes is the book of choice.

The New York Times A fascinating analysis of a performer's relationship to his instrument.

The Economist Rosen brings all of his experience as one of the most intellectually rigorous pianists and brilliant music historians alive today to this wide-ranging and approachable book.

American Record Guide A gold mine of experience and wisdom.

The New Yorker
In A Pianist's Landscape, Carol Montparker quotes Martha Argerich as saying, "I love to play the piano, but I hate being a pianist." Alone onstage and performing from memory, a piano soloist probably has the loneliest, most nerve-racking job in music. Boris Berman's Notes From the Pianist's Bench offers an illuminating program of technical tips culminating in advice on what he calls the "technique of the soul," a method of consciously learning a series of emotional responses that reliably situate the performer inside the spirit of a piece. Drawing on Stanislavsky's theories of acting, Berman explains that "during the emotional high of an inspired performance a pianist should never cease listening to an objective inner monitor that guided him through hours of preparatory work."

One contemporary pianist famous for listening to his inner monitor is Alfred Brendel. In his recently published conversations with Martin Meyer, Me of All People, translated from the German by Richard Stokes, Brendel recalls the enviable confidence of his early career: "I went on stage, played and did not realize what fear was." The main challenge, he says, lies in balancing fidelity to the work itself with personality and spontaneity. When things go well, "one has the impression that the work is playing itself." And, according to Charles Rosen's Piano Notes, a good performance occurs not in spite of technical trials but sometimes even because of them: "There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for contact with the keyboard, a love and a need which may be connected with a love of music but are not by any means totally coincident with it."

(Leo Carey)
Publishers Weekly
"Music is not just sound or even significant sound.... There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard," writes Rosen, a concert pianist, music critic and National Book Award winner (for 1970's The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven). He explores those mechanics, difficulties and more in this thoughtful and wide-reaching blend of history, homage and memoir. In a slightly uptight but obviously learned manner, the author explains the various elements that the piano-playing experience entails, from a child's understanding of the fingering for a C major scale to an accomplished concert pianist's position on her stool. Rosen is mainly concerned with the physicalities of playing the instrument, and he takes readers from concert halls, discussing the order of pieces to be performed lest a pianist follow a work in E-flat major by one in D major to the recording studio, examining the facility with which one can splice piano music. Although nearly all of Rosen's examples are from the music of Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and other classical musicians which may alienate readers who play jazz or popular piano his musings are indeed modern; he ponders what will become of the "dinosaur"-like piano in the 22nd century and addresses the problems of performing in a country where piano concerts are only de rigueur in large cities. Filled with trivia and thought-provoking commentary, Rosen's book is a sometimes dense, but important, study of the physical factors involved in tickling the ivories. (Nov. 6) Forecast: Piano tuners, teachers and budding and professional concert pianists are the most appropriate audience for this, and they'll recognize Rosen's name. The book is most likely too serious for some casual piano players. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Seven essays on how a pianist relates to music, instrument, and performance (through both body and soul), from National Book Award-winner and pianist Rosen (Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen, 1998, etc.). Piano hasn't just been the preeminent area for musical experimentation over the past 250 years, writes Rosen, the place where Beethoven developed his sonatas, Gesualdo his madrigals, Debussy his radical harmonies. It's also an instrument that requires a major injection of the body: think of those parallel octaves, as much sport as art. Rosen witheringly deflates the stiffs who think the body is morally inferior to the ethereal mind, revealing the pianist's "inexplicable and almost fetishistic need for physical contact with the combination of metal, wood, and ivory." It is absurd, he says, to take the body out of the equation; one need only think of improvisation, or the process of learning difficult technical passages. Non-musician readers may not feel the full impact of Rosen's words, and may wilt at the pages of notation, but they can feast on his tour of the piano's architecture and his story of all that can go wrong with the instrument during a performance, or his journey through the styles of composers from Bach to Boulez. Rosen discusses the importance of public performance ("a chance to bring a work of music into something approaching its ideal objective existence," with audience conveying the objective factor); his fear that "the music school and the piano competition tend to hinder the direct and experimental approach" by favoring routine over individual eccentricity; and a disadvantage of recorded music, namely that "the intense concentration that the art of musicsometimes requires has become harder to command" when the listener can wander off to get a glass of beer. Lively exegetical writing, particularly for laypeople, even if trying to make known the sheer physical pleasure of playing is akin to explaining the sensation of color without recourse to sight.

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Free Press
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Read an Excerpt


This is a book about the experience of playing the piano. It is not an autobiography, although I have had to draw on some personal anecdotes, but it concerns the experience of playing relevant to all pianists, amateur as well as professional. What has interested me most of all is the relation of the physical act of playing to those aspects of music generally considered more intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, the different ways that body and spirit interact. I have concentrated mostly on professional experience since I know it best, and also because the amateur ideal today is largely derived from the professional standard, but I write for listeners as well as pianists. I have certainly not attempted to tell pianists how they must play. Although my own prejudices have naturally intruded, I have at least tried to keep them under control. There are many valid approaches to the instrument and to its repertoire — and if I occasionally find some approaches invalid, I am not stiff-necked about them, and not wedded permanently to my opinions. I have been most intent on conveying the variety of experience of playing, its torments and its delights.

The temptation is great to write inspirational prose in the grand style about an experience as intense as playing is for any committed pianist. I am embarrassed when I read that kind of prose, however, as the intensity of feeling is only made factitious by being diluted with words, so I have largely preferred to let that intensity be taken for granted. I adore the grand style and I am intrigued by grand synthetic theories, but I am suspicious of teachers who claim to have invented the only successful method for bringing out the best in young performers, of theorists who claim to have invented the unique approach to analysis, and of historians who wish to reduce all the developments of the musical style of the past entirely to the determinism of social conditions. Of course, the place of music in society influences the way we listen and play, but there are so many cases when a composer or pianist produces work badly fitted to the conditions of his or her own time but that turns out for some few contemporaries and then for a later period to be of great value. I have also attempted to discuss the constraints that cause pianists to play in ways to which they are not really committed, and have ventured to speculate briefly on the decisive role the instrument has played in both the history of composition and the reception of music today. Above all, I have tried to become more aware myself of the powerful and peculiar motives that drive some of us to the piano instead of to the violin, the guitar, or the record-player, and of the odd difficulties that this decision creates in our lives.

Copyright © 2002 by Charles Rosen

Meet the Author

Charles Rosen is a concert pianist and music critic. He has twice been nominated for the Grammy Award, and his landmark book, The Classical Style, won the National Book Award. He lives in New York City and Paris.

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Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
All I can say is insightful! This book combines the knowledge of a genius and the experience of a concert pianist for many years. I am planning to receive my Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance and I found the chapters on Conservatories and Competions incredibly useful and motivating. Although Rosen did not receive a degree in piano, one would never guess by the eloquence of speech and intellect revealed in the writing. This book was wonderfully instructive and challenges all pianists to further their studies of piano. This was greatly helpful to me and my budding career and it is a must-read!
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8+9 is 17