After a remarkable life of playing, thinking, and writing, the great pianist and polymath Charles Rosen passed away this week at the age of 85. Our relationship with Rosen stretches back nearly twenty years, and includes the publication just months ago of Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature. The essays and reviews Rosen chose for this last book deal largely with the tension between the freedom of interpretation and the requirements of fidelity, the need to balance the necessity of respect for the “identity” of literary and musical works against our desire to be free from coercive readings. That freedom, he wrote, “provides the basis and the guarantee of the pleasures of reading, listening, and performing that justify the existence of the arts.”
What follows is excerpted from the book’s Introduction.
We might all agree that a knowledge of the historical and biographical circumstances that saw the production of a work of literature or music or even an analytic study of them may often help us to a greater understanding and to the increase of pleasure that comes with understanding. Nevertheless, one brute fact often overlooked needs to be forced upon our consideration: most works of art are more or less intelligible and give pleasure without any kind of historical, biographical, or structural analysis. There are always some aspects of the work which do not need our critical industry or demand much interpretation. All that is necessary is just some small familiarity, acquired however involuntarily and informally by occasional experience with the stylistic language and tradition of the work.
In the end, we must affirm that no single system of interpretation will ever be able to give us an exhaustive or definitive understanding of why a work of literature or music can hold an enduring interest for us, explain its charm, account for its seduction and our admiration. A recognition of the inadequacy of any system of interpretation is essential to our being able to gain a fresh experience of the work. We need at times to acquire the talent of reading a work of literature or listening to a piece of music with innocent eye and ear, untainted or unblocked by critical studies, a state of objectivity unrealizable in all its purity, but which may be approached. Every fine work has inherent merits easily grasped across the ages and effective in alien cultures, merits that cannot always be convincingly shown to have been imposed by historical, social, or biographical pressures. At the moment of its creation, a work will have different roles to play, different functions to fulfill (some of which we ignore or deliberately set aside), and will develop still new roles and functions as it grows old and passes through history. A piece of Mozart or a poem by Pope for example, both carries and conveys a sense of the age and the society in which it was created, and yet at the same time it can speak directly to the sensibility of a modern listener who has little knowledge of the original historical context. Merely a nodding acquaintance with the style and language of the time will generally be enough, and this acquaintance may be superficial and still effective. A study of the historical conditions in which the art was created can of course deepen our understanding and make it more complex and even increase our delight, as I have remarked at the opening. But the study is rarely absolutely indispensable, the individual interpretation never exhaustive or permanent. Every critical approach is likely to obscure important aspects of a work that will enter into the experience of a naive reading, Any appreciation of the past must acknowledge that several different critical approaches are valid, and that even in the absence of any formal system of interpretation, the work may still speak to us simply through its intrinsic merit or value.
In [Freedom and the Arts], I have tried not only to benefit from a variety of different critical methods, but above all to keep in mind that listening and reading with intensity for pleasure is the one critical activity that can never be dispensed with or superseded. This will allow us to recognize the multiple possibilities of significance, and to avoid appreciating only those elements of an artistic production that are revolutionary; both Theodor Adorno and Glenn Gould, for example, were incapable of seeing that Mozart was sometimes astonishingly effective and superior to most of his contemporaries even when he was extremely conventional, not only when he was most strikingly original. And to recognize that Mallarmé, who permanently altered the nature of poetry, was nevertheless right when he claimed that he was only doing what all poets had done before him. While a study of the sources of Montaigne’s ideas will reveal his debt to the stoic, epicurean, and skeptic philosophers, only a rereading of his essays for the enjoyment of his style and his delight in contradicting himself will tell us that his conclusions are generally provisional and that the interest for the reader lies in the voyage and not in reaching the goal—or, rather, that the voyage (the demonstration of the way the mind works) was the real original goal all the time.
The freedom of interpretation is fundamental to the tradition of music and literature in the West, which continuously demanded innovation, but an innovation that would eventually—often with some difficulty and delay—be assimilated and absorbed by the tradition, which has often, indeed, more influence upon the character of the art works produced than the personal and historical circumstances at the moment of their appearance. Nevertheless, the freedom of interpretation is balanced by a requirement of fidelity—that is, that the identity of the work be preserved and remain coherent.