Charles Rosen's 'Freedom and the Arts' Embodies a Corpus of Creativity and Achievement

by Elisabeth Woronzoff

10 July 2012

“Without pleasure, there is no understanding… You cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn [it]” (238).
cover art

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature

Charles Rosen

(Harvard University Press)
US: May 2012

Charles Rosen has endowed the field of musicology and cultural-musical history for decades with innovative analyses that restructure the understanding of the classical musical form. His prize-winning previous works have been applauded for their ability to present innovative questions that shift scholarly focus and modes of inquiry. Rosen’s work as a pianist and a scholar have demonstrated his talent for infusing cultural analysis with a well-researched, genuine, and thoughtful perspective that serve to delight and engage audiences. With superb writing and a prodigious polymathic knowledge base, Rosen’s recent book, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, is no exception.

In this new collection, Rosen details a spectrum of subject areas that challenge readers to develop new interpretations, critique insights, and disentangle philosophical puzzles such as what influences one’s taste, enjoyment, repulsion, etc. The central thesis of this text is made clear in the introduction, that art can offer “multiple possibilities of significance” (8) ultimately bringing a sense of pleasure. To accept our freedom to interpret, we must find a balance that evokes both the past and present while ensuring pleasure and the creation of knowledge. Thus Freedom and the Arts serves to enrich our appreciation, understanding, and passions of music, literature, and art.

Rosen’s chapters broach questions regarding the construction of a Western aesthetic canon, the influence of politics, the legacy of Mozart’s music and tradition, critiques of commodified art, the development of new theoretical approaches, etc. Each chapter’s subject is thoroughly developed and argued. The text is comprised of six divisions: Part 1: The Weight of Society, Part II: Mostly Mozart, Part III: Centenaries, Part IV: Long Perspectives, Part V: Classical Modernism: Past and Present, Part 6: Conclusive Essay. More so, Rosen adopts an expansive and impressive range of methodologies and modes of inquiry to fully develop his subject base. For example, he readily employs musical theory, cultural histories, biographies, and personal narrative etc. as preferred methodologies.

For fans of Rosen, the interjection of personal narrative is plentiful, but that doesn’t detract from the overall text. Rather, his anecdotes concretize his thesis because he serves as the embodiment of the pleasure and life-long passion engendered by the merits of art. As Rosen reminds readers, “music—even classical music—is intended to give pleasure. Without pleasure there is no understanding” (236) thereby echoing his legacy and his passions.

However, he over-enthusiastically includes copious asides and minor tangents that sometimes aid the thesis, but more often render it unclear. Regardless, I found that in general the shorter historical quips strengthen Rosen’s text, as they provide a fuller understanding of the historical and social contexts. Other reviewers suggest that some of Rosen’s facts are incorrect (see Alastair Macaulay’s article, “The Pleasures of Charles Rosen”, The New York Review of Books, 24 2012).  Still, Rosen’s text is imbued with a heart-fullness that clearly reflects his interest in the subject matter. What Rosen succeeds in doing is demonstrating the gratification in cultural pluralism, and the expansive diapason of art and interpretation that can ultimately grant pleasure.

Rosen’s examples are of classical Western origin, despite this, many of his concepts, such as the necessity for the fluidity of interpretation and the pleasure of art, can be applied across mediums and temporal contexts. Such adaptability is one of the strongest features of Freedom and the Arts, it allows the readers to grasp Rosen’s larger ideas and apply them across contexts. This again facilitates his desire to use art and culture as producers of pleasure and knowledge.

Indeed, Rosen argues for a polysemic analyses and critiques of art. Thus, if we accept a single interpretation, then we ourselves become single-minded, ostensibly conformed and entrapped by commonality: “a double approach to a work of the past increases not only knowledge but delight. Any work becomes richer and more interesting when we cease to restrict our vision either to the conventions of the past or to the demands of the present” (420). The acceptance of a polysemic method of analysis leads to new and refreshing possibilities in music and literature that in due course fuse the longevity of classical art. This is precisely one of Rosen’s central points. When approaching art, one must keep in mind the original work’s identity and context. thereby inculcating a quotient from the past while adapting the piece for the present.

It seems that Rosen is highly influenced by the Frankfurt School, especially the work of Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodore Adorno, and it’s no coincidence that Rosen’s essay, “Theodore Adorno: Criticism as Cultural Nostalgia” is included in this text. Just as Adorno’s “sharp intelligence led him to confront important issues in the arts and culture that other critics refuse to face – changes in reading and listening habits, the increasing difficulty of modern art, the influence of commercial interests in artistic distribution” (262), Rosen sets his text in a similar direction. Yet unlike Adorno, Rosen approaches art and culture as ingenious rather than derivative. Moreover, Rosen sees art as potentially fueling a type of freedom opposed to Adorno’s fear that culture can enslave and oppress.

The first half of the text is celebratory, demonstrating and illustrating the nuances of art and interpretation. For example, Rosen elects Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen as an individual who elucidates Mozart’s work while paying full respect to the original. As Rosen contends, “without altering the original, [Eisen] has added thousands of footnotes that correct or expand the text” (65).

Yet Freedom and the Arts takes a turn, and becomes noticeably more alarmist and pessimistic. It’s clear that Rosen is concerned with the longevity of classical art and does not believe in an artists’ ability to balance tradition with modernity. Rosen’s fear is that modernizing classical art, or restructuring it to appeal to a contemporary audience, will destroy the original integrity of the piece. He has little faith in artists’ or audiences’ abilities to recuperate the original work. As Rosen argues, “we must abandon the view that an acceptable interpretation is reachable either by a one-sided attempt to impose an ‘authentic’ view or by a rigorously ‘modern’ reconception” (420). For example Rosen lambastes attempts to update opera by suggesting “more recent publications have come up with a modern realism even more inappropriate and far more grotesque than the comic old fashioned style” (416).

I will not argue against Rosen’s exhortations that many companies are revamping classic art in order to appeal to more contemporary audience, and in many cases this is a determent. However, Rosen continues to suggest that we cannot abandon classical art, and I would return with the suggestion that no one has abandoned it. Rather, classical art is a constant contributor to contemporary culture and in many instances has maintained its originality and the voice of the artist, but it has also adopted new and imaginative manifestations. If one were to implement a deeper analysis, as Rosen calls for in the introduction, audiences can pinpoint interpretative freedoms, instances that enliven a waning interest in a classical piece, or examine moments when art, and music in particular, is “seemingly unfiltered through a system of meaning. In the opera, music does not come to us through the words: the words arrive through the music and sometimes give it greater force” (288).

Art is very much like the act of interpretation, in that it is fluid. To warn readers in this manner, Rosen adopts a strict authoritative voice that leans toward patronization and pretension, thereby contradicting his own imploration for fluidity of interpretation.

By no means is Freedom and the Arts a type of text that one sits down and reads in a single session. Rather, it’s best read in increments – a chapter or a paragraph at a time – in order to fully unpack Rosen’s intent and argument. Rosen implicitly alludes to this when he writes that a “classic may almost be defined as a book to which you wish to return from time to time even if only for a few minutes” (73). Despite its flaws, Freedom and the Arts embodies a corpus of creativity and achievement. Rosen leads readers through these pieces and eras and poignantly demonstrates the delicate features and everlasting joys we share when discussing and consuming art.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature


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