Difficult music survives longer than easy listening. Discuss

Difficult music survives longer than easy listening. Discuss


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2021

A brilliant theory by the late Charles Rosen, propounded in this compelling lecture on modernism.

Sample: ‘What Beethoven takes from Mozart is chromatic saturation.’

Of course.

You will feel culturally more superior if you watch this to the end.




  • Patricia says:

    What precisely is ‘difficult’ music, when it’s at home?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I will watch this lecture when I have the time and solitude to really appreciate it.
    Charles Rosen was a brilliant musician and musical theorist.
    I once saw him at the Legion of Honor recital hall in San Francisco.
    He broke up his appearance into morning and afternoon sessions. The AM session was a riveting lecture on the last three Beethoven sonatas. Then, after a lunch break, he PLAYED the last three Beethoven sonatas. Beautifully.
    I have rarely experienced such a satisfying musical day!

  • Anon says:

    This is the answer to Philip Ewell on racism in music theory. European music has lasted for so long because it is more complex than folk music of all ages. It is more interesting to theorists because it is longer-lasting. It is also interesting because it is more complex.

    Blacks in general have not written a lot of complex music. If they do start writing more, music theorists will study it. The music of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges is quite interesting and deserves more study

    Hip-hop is more interesting to sociologists than music theorists. There are many sociological studies on hip-hop. It is not that interesting to music theorists because it is not that complex.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    Oh god he was so full of shit… It’s not even ten years after he died and all this already seems like it’s from another solar system. The real geniuses go their own way and ignore whatever any orthodox dogmatist tell them they need to do to be candidates for greatness. The music of Babbitt and Boulez are still nowhere but on award plaques while Shostakovich is more played than ever and there’s still plenty of room on concert programs for avant-garde composers like Berio and Ligeti who were less interested in cowing other musicians into towing their party line than they were in writing the damn music.

    • Hilary says:

      “The music of Babbitt and Boulez are still nowhere but on award plaques”

      This is simply not true.

      Regarding Milton Babbitt, there are some pieces which I can’t stand (“all set”), and there are others which I’m very fond of eg. the relatively late “allegro penseroso” for solo piano. This is music which “shuffles and shimmies like jazz from another planet” , to quote Alex Ross.

    • BrianB says:

      Upvote though I personally enjoy some Ligeti like Le Grand Macabre. The Boulez and Babbitt operations are sterile, dull and uninteresting, empty complexity with no expressive purpose.

  • sam says:

    “You will feel culturally more superior if you watch this to the end.”

    Isn’t that what motivates half the classical music audience? They don’t necessarily understand or like what they’re listening to, but they are proud of the fact they stayed until the end of the concert.

    • Minnesota says:

      No. You are just riffing here.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I’ve repeatedly seen plenty of people come for the soloist and proudly skip the rest. Or come only for the modern piece. Or skip the modern piece and enjoy the Brahms.

      • BRUCEB says:

        When a friend of mine went to Juilliard, she and others would go to NY Phil concerts at intermission and beg for the ticket stubs of patrons who were leaving after the concerto. Famous soloists are nice, but what she really wanted to hear was her teacher playing in the orchestra for the 2nd half.

  • BrianB says:

    It is facile to juxtapose difficult music with “easy listening.” Mozart survives, of course, Salieri remains on the fringes. But the then immensely popular “easy listening” of the symphonic Haydn also robustly survives.
    Puccini remains exponentially more popular and repeatable than his “difficult” contemporaries of the 2nd Viennese school

    • John Borstlap says:

      Music can be texturally simple but psychologically complex because of all the emotional references and unexpected changes in patterns. And complex music can be very simple because it ‘says’ the same all the time.

  • CRWang says:

    Thank you for this. Really enjoyed watching it.

  • phf655 says:

    He asks the question, states the premise as a fact, but doesn’t really give reasons. He mentions several times an aphorism by Goethe that says that difficult art requires time for its consumer to apprehend it. Along the way the extraordinary erudition of a true polymath, at the end of his life is on display. Sometimes he loses his line of thought, and many of the examples he gives, taken from literature and the visual arts, are inapposite to music, which requires performance and whose cannot cannot easily be transformed into words. Still, worth a watch and a listen. There won’t be another like him.

  • J Barcelo says:

    I have read Rosen’s books and learned a lot – The Romantic Generation is tremendously insightful. His theory on difficult music surviving longer is interesting, but begs at least one question: why is so much difficult music ignored? There’s a lot of music that I love and is very difficult and has been swept away into the dustbin. (Thank god for companies like CPO, Chandos, Naxos which thrive on recording the obscure.) There’s more to it; many factors go into deciding what lives, what doesn’t. Personally, I think the further music gets from folk song, the less likely it is to thrive. That’s why I believe that the music of Babbit, Carter, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez, Leibowitz, Constant and other avant garde composers will vanish and people like Rosen can spend their time playing it alone.

    • Hilary says:

      How on earth can you put an amateur composer like Leibovitz (a great Beethoven Symphony cycle though!) on the same list as Xenakis, or even Boulez?!
      Listen more attentively if I may be so bold to say. Music is a language,

    • Ashu says:

      [Personally, I think the further music gets from folk song, the less likely it is to thrive.]

      “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance”, said Ezra Pound.

  • Douglas says:

    “It’s strange how potent cheap music is.” Noël Coward

    • John Borstlap says:

      Only for some people. Coward’s saying is populist. The point is, that there is nothing against cheap music, as long as it does not claim to be more than that.

  • JB says:

    Some people seem easily seduced by talks like this. Rosen is an interesting writer but this idea seems suspect. He talks about Mozarts chromatic complexity, but as Aaron Copland said in a recent video post on here ( derided by Norman ) Mozart’s music can be considered less complex than Bach’s. Of course it all depends on which criteria you choose to measure complexity … and like many of us Rosen chooses those that suit him.

    • BrianB says:

      The popular Bartok, the Bartok that people are more likely to buy tickets for, are the “less difficult” (not to say less complex in their way) 3rd piano concerto, not the first two, the 2nd violin concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra. And Bartok, knowing he was dying, wished to write works that would provide for his family. Mfspc, the quartets, other earlier works are great and enduring but not as popular.
      His contemporary Kodaly, two or three works aside, is not as frequently played, as enduring, not because he isn’t “difficult enough” but because he isn’t inspired in works like Summer Evening or the Symphony in C. When he was inspired–Hary Janos, Peacock Variations, the Galanta Dances, he is as frequently performed as the “more difficult” Bartok.

  • Thomas M says:

    It’s hard to define “difficult music”. If by difficult you mean serial, or experimental avantgarde, I don’t think much of it will last. Nobody listens to Boulez, and I don’t think that many of the pieces premiered at concerts I have attended were EVER played again.

    • Hilary says:

      “Nobody listens to Boulez”

      What utter nonsense. *you* don’t have time for his music is what you really mean. Please don’t speak on behalf of other listeners.

      For myself, I could happily live without most of his output-the ‘Notations’ for piano being one exception- but i’d never be so arrogant as to assume everyone is enjoying the rest of his output under a false pretext.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But it is true: nobody listens to Boulez, because his works are not to be listened to but to be heard.

    • BrianB says:

      Indeed. No great composer ever indulged in complexity for complexity’s sake alone. Bach’s 48 or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge are also monuments of expressive power as well as structure. Carter and Boulez, Webern as well mostly produced sterile and empty formulae, impressive only to the gullible and pretentious.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It is true that Rosen never really defines what he means by difficult music, but I suspect all of us know exactly what type of music he’s talking about, even if we didn’t know of his close association with Carter. It seems to me (and to others, as I read the comments above) that time is running out on the composers of this difficult music to make the ultimate proof of the claims made for their chosen musical language: that being, to become repertoire, genuine repertoire, even if just a small and very insular corner of the repertoire. A few pieces have (Boulez’s piano sonata, some of Carter’s quartets). Vast reams have not. All the urbane talk, all the erudition, and all the brilliant writing in the world cannot take the place of performances when it comes to that test.

    Charles Rosen was a genuine intellectual, the sort of intellectual that Robert Craft so desperately wanted Igor Stravinsky to be, or become, or be made (by Craft) to resemble: one of the “New York Review of Books” intellectuals. You don’t have to agree with his thesis (or even be equipped to be able to follow it entirely) to be impressed and to give Rosen his due. He was one (and one of the very few musicians) of a certain type of American intellectual, honed to engage in and win arguments with similarly equipped minds.

    And the time-honored way for one’s conclusions to win those arguments is to control the premises. As phf655 and JB, in their own ways, note above, Rosen’s premises are stated flatly, more or less daring someone to jump on them. But you’d better come prepared if you want to join the fray. With Rosen safely dead, it is hard to think of a currently active musician with his background and intellect who could keep this argument going, much less prevail.

  • BrianB says:

    Both Rosen’s argument and the music he is championing (Boulez, Carter, Babbitt, et. al.) reminds me of H.G. Wells’ great comment about a novel of Henry James. ““It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .”
    B.H. Haggin had Rosen’s number way back in 1973 in “The Grand Manner of Charles Rosen.”

  • BRUCEB says:

    Not interested in trying to define what “difficult music” is, but in my view the music that lasts is music that:

    • is enjoyable to listen to the first time; and
    • rewards deeper scrutiny.

    If it’s not enjoyable — and I don’t just mean fun, necessarily, but that it piques your interest — the first time you hear it, then chances are you won’t bother with a second hearing.

    If it does pique your interest, then you will want to listen to it more than once, and will be listening with more attention. If your attention is not rewarded with newly discovered details — oh, I never heard that before — then you’ll probably get bored and give up on it before very long.

    Mozart is “simple” and fun to listen to, but when you listen deeper, you don’t really hit bottom — you just keep going. Same for all the great composers, or at least their great compositions. (Some people run out of patience before others, so everyone’s mileage varies.)

    Boulez, Babbitt, et al. may have plenty of complexity going for them, but they remain niche composers: their fans are passionate but relatively few. Some of the “new” composers — Muhly, Mazzioly, Bates — are still in their test phase, so to speak: will their music hold up to repeated listenings over years and years? We can’t know yet. Cherubini and Meyerbeer were immensely popular in their day, after all, and many composers beloved today were not.

    • Hilary says:

      I agree with your general gist.

      However, when I first heard Debussy’s “Jeux” and “la mer” aged about 10 I was completely baffled by it because I was steeped in Beethoven, Mozart . It
      seemed so intangible .

      However….as there wasn’t much else to do I just kept on listening to the LPs and I gained an understanding/ love.

      • BRUCEB says:

        A similar thing happened to me: even as an aspiring flute player, I couldn’t make head or tail of “L’après-midi d’un faune” for years. What finally did it for me was the Ashkenazy/Cleveland recording, from the mid-80s, which also had La Mer (same story) and the Nocturnes, which I already “got,” somehow – probably from having played them in my youth symphony (although that didn’t unlock any of Debussy’s other music for me).

        I will say, however, that although I kept banging my head on that particular wall because I had to — an aspiring flutist really has no choice when it comes to that piece — it always interested me. I could tell there was something going on, I just couldn’t figure out what.

        Ashkenazy’s recording provided a certain amount of rhythmic clarity that I’d never heard before, which helped snap the piece into focus. (The gorgeous playing of the orchestra may also have had something to do with it <3 )

        • Hilary says:

          Thanks , interesting to hear this. We sometimes forget the perseverance involved!

          For my part, I’m not going to make a special exception of Debussy as I could apply the same listening experience to Berg, Schoenberg , Xenakis (I very much disagree with Rosen on Xenakis as it happens…a much more important composer than either Boulez or Carter!) and countless other composers . In all instances the near incomprehension was matched with sufficient curiosity to keep me listening .

        • John Borstlap says:

          Debussy’s Faun Prelude is music not with well-defined phrases, but with flreely unfolding melodic lines, which float in a harmonic space that changes all the time. Saint-Saëns commented: ‘There is no single motive or theme clearly expressed in that piece and it is as much music as the palette of a painter is a painting”. He hated it and actively tried to undermine D’s reputation as a serious composer.

          Debussy transcended the orderly ‘rules’ of the ‘common practice’ while maintaining its dynamics.

  • BRUCEB says:

    Ack! I forgot to turn off the italics! It was only supposed to be the one word, “that.”

    Also, it’s Mazzioli not Mazzioly.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I stopped watching after half an hour, because Rosen simply follows Schoenberg’s mistaken idea of the ’emancipation of the dissonance’ as a process of undermining tonality and leading towards ‘acceptance’ of all 12 notes of the basic musical material. Thereby, playing examples, Rosen isolates details to show this ’emancipation’ but thereby destroys their linearity – as is obvious with the Mozart ‘dissonance quartet’ example. It shows the problem of modernism: invervening rationally into a texture and destroying its organic wholeness. It is like taking X-rays of lips and MRI scans of brains to explain a lovers’ kiss.

    If you think a dissonance is a thing that can be emancipated, you don’t know what a dissonance IS…. A dissonance is a relationship in a particular context: and such relationships have different effects in different contexts. Or said otherwise: in a particular style a dissonance can sound as a consonant or the other way around. (An example of the peculiar latter is the sudden sound of a major triad in Berg’s painfully-chromatic opera Wozzeck when a protagonist utters the word ‘money’.)

    Starting from such premises makes all that follows intellectually chimaeric. Rosen never noticed the fundamental character of the mdoernist ‘music’ par excellence: sound art, i.e. pattern making, to keep the sound objective, removing the subjective side of music which is carried by tonal relationships.

    The rest is linguistic confusion: what is meant by ‘difficult’ on which level? Music is not a rational art form, but a psychological one, and ALL rational structuring – however complex or simple – is merely a means to an aesthetic and thus, psychological end.

    There is a passage in Satie’s cantata ‘Socrate’ where, at a dramatic moment in the text, the orchestra merely repeats a succession of triads in the doric mode (d to d) many times. It is impossible to find a more ‘stupidly simplistic’ musical idea, a child of 4 could find and play it thoughtlessly. However, Satie laboured for weeks on end to find the right music for that very spot, throwing away many attempts. Till he found those crazy repetetive simple triads and knew: that is the right music. And it is: the effect is wonderfully expressive – why? Because of the context, of the work’s idea, and style, of the text, and of the particular moment in the text, and the aesthetic background of Satie’s work. Such an example completely dissolves any argument Rosen could have come-up with.