Let’s start off by talking about what you shouldn’t do. Simply put, don’t be boring! If either your word or its explanation isn’t memorable, you won’t be memorable either. For example, words like “happy” and “hope” are as generic as it gets. You might think Google is your friend here, but the “Top 10 Favorite Words” listicle you find will also be found by hundreds of other applicants.
What would a successful UVA applicant do here? Find a word that allows you to convey a story, to connect a broader narrative to the prompt. In many writing supplements, the chosen topic matters less than how you convey your answer; this is the perfect example of such a situation.
A great answer could center around your multilingualism; if your second language was English, you could pick a word you struggled pronouncing as you grew up. This would be a launchpad to write about the unique struggles and benefits of growing up in a culturally diverse household. Alternatively, if you love math, you can pick a funny or multi-faceted math term like “non-abelian” and tie it into your overarching story about this passion. Either way, the essay should focus on your personal experience with the word — it’s not necessarily an etymological study of the word itself!
Now, we should also discuss how to actually write this essay. First off, don’t wait too long to show the reader what your favorite word is. Start with a hook — a quote of the first time you heard the word, for example, or a brief anecdote to provide context. You could set the stage with an exposition for the story to follow. Try not to say “my favorite word is ____” as your first sentence; nothing screams “stale” more than that!
Then you can follow the introduction with a pivot to the specific word. Make sure you explore both aspects of its “meaning.” That is, reference the dictionary definition of the word, but also dive into its real meaning to you. If your favorite word is “begin,” you could first define it as “to start something” and then explain that it was your grandfather’s perennial advice.
A powerful conclusion will stick in the readers’ heads, so try to write one! Tie the threads together: The word and story might still be disjoint. Continuing our example from before, you might say how, whenever you have a seemingly impossible task in front of you, you can see your late grandfather telling you “begin!” Even though your grandfather is no longer with you, he is still the greatest motivator in your life. Now, you look forward to new beginnings in college and beyond.
I regularly recommend Charles Rosen’s various writings to undergraduates reading music and have often done so to history undergraduates too. They certainly seem to appreciate him, even to the extent that an essay I recently marked furnished a fabricated Rosen citation to confirm a startling thesis of Mozart having time-travelled to crib some of his sacred arias from operas by Donizetti. Books such as The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Sonata Forms and Rosen’s pregnant, slim volume on Schoenberg are staples not just of reading lists but, perhaps more importantly, of encounters by that elusive species, the educated general reader, with the fruits of musicology.
Rosen’s breadth of interest and sympathy is one factor; another is that he is a writer who can write. This collection of essays, most but not all originating in The New York Review of Books, underlines and furthers appreciation of those and other virtues. Moreover, one is reminded that Rosen is more than a musicologist. Not only is he a pianist, having recorded works from Bach to Boulez, but he also surveys with enthusiastic erudition a number of literary topics.
One might expect a musicologist to be interested in writers with close relationships to music, such as Stephane Mallarme, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and even W. H. Auden, but Rosen’s literary interests venture further. Thus we encounter Michel de Montaigne, Jean de La Fontaine, Bettina von Arnim and Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reminder of a time, and not just that of its writing, for 48 editions were published during the 19th century, when “reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time”. Rosen reminds us that Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented specifically upon its value as entertainment.
Bookishness, in the best sense, rears its head, Rosen evidently admiring Burton’s ambition “to present everything that had ever been thought or written about melancholy”. This short essay ranges from Horace and Seneca, via theologians Thomas Adams and Richard Hooker, to Alfred de Musset and Geoffrey Hill, finally pointing us to Jean Starobinski and his account of the theoretical foundations of psychosomatic medicine. It whets rather than sates the appetite as, not so incidentally, does a discussion of a new Pleiade volume devoted to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: “Lack of literary talent is largely irrelevant. I think it would be out of place to demand a stylistically engaging description of the joys of raping a small child or of pulling out all the teeth of a beautiful woman…Sade’s work proposes urgently…the delight of naked cruelty independent of any aesthetic cover or charm.”
However, it is with music, not merely “as music” but as one of the arts, that Rosen’s concerns most often lie. The distinction between text and performance lies at the heart of many essays. This may be historical, in terms of changing images of Mozart, an old-fashioned 1920s editor worrying that an article by Hermann Abert darkened the composer’s image, making him sound closer to Michelangelo than to Raphael. All the better, we Post-Expressionists might say; at any rate, a picture, or in this case an artist, is often worth a thousand analytical words. Or it may be a distinction more performative in emphasis, Rosen citing Richard Strauss’ telling admonition to Arturo Toscanini: “My music has bad notes and good notes, and when I conduct it one hears only the good notes, but when you conduct it, I hear all the notes.” That is a relationship between the book title’s “freedom and the arts” worth pondering.
We may enjoy good-humoured puncturing of many of the more absurd claims of the “historically informed performance” school. I could not help but smile knowingly at the likening of revival of interest in opera seria to “that new conservative movement that hopes to revive French nineteenth-century academic painting”, the former revival attributed to a “strange alliance of two comic figures, the antiquarian” more interested in “ancient instruments and obsolete styles of performance” than in music, and the “opera buff…more interested in sopranos”. There is a good deal more to it than that and, as ever, Rosen gravely underestimates Mozart’s almost Neo-Classical La Clemenza di Tito, yet he provokes in the best sense. Even when comparisons, intentionally defying simplistic historical categorisation, verge upon the tenuous - “Rousseau’s subordination of everything in music…to the simplest form of melody was an interesting early version of dogmatic reaction to modernist complexity displayed by recent proponents of minimalism” - they stubbornly lodge themselves in the memory. What might we do on a rainy day with Rousseau and minimalism?
It is, moreover, surely exaggerated to claim that no one ever writes for posterity, even in the strong sense Rosen outlines. Liszt, for instance, did just that, not only in declaring his intention to “hurl a lance into the boundless realms of the future” - one might conceivably, if misguidedly, argue here for hyperbole and/or ideological avant-gardism - but in actively discouraging his pupils from performing his late, sometimes well-nigh atonal, piano works, lest their careers be harmed. Past readers of Rosen will recall that he does not much care for “interesting” but “minor” late Liszt, preferring the earlier works for their expansion of the frontiers of piano technique. It is no failing, however, if one ends up arguing with an essayist; Rosen’s learning and generosity are signalled by the generally friendly nature of such argument.
Rosen’s extended 2006 review of Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music stands among others as a necessary, indeed model, supplement to Taruskin’s monumental, pugnacious, highly polemical six volumes. He expounds and criticises Taruskin’s purpose, not so that one would recoil from reading him, but so that one feels compelled to do so. Moreover, Rosen hits the nail squarely on the head when he writes, “Taruskin writes much better about music he likes than about music to which he is indifferent”, let alone, one might add, that to which he is hostile. Indeed, “you cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn”. One may, of course, wish to condemn; one may even have good reason to do so. “Taruskin’s claim neither to advocate nor to denigrate the music he discusses” remains, however, “a hollow one”. Part of his project, rightly or wrongly, is to de-centre, indeed actively to undermine European and above all Germanic tradition, whether by discerning (some might say obsessively) alleged anti-Semitism, by presenting an avowedly American “outsider” - neo-conservative? - perspective on 20th-century music, or by replacing Schoenberg with Shostakovich as an object of veneration. Rosen, not at all hostile to Beethoven, Schoenberg and European culture in general, gently furthers the innocent reader’s awareness concerning Taruskin’s ideological premises.
There are a few oddities in Harvard University Press’ production values, none more glaring than “Richard Burton” for the aforementioned Robert. The musicologist Arnold Whittall loses his final “l”; we encounter “Karl-Heinz” rather than “Karlheinz” Stockhausen. Sir Harrison Birtwistle, as so often, becomes “Birtwhistle”; England’s greatest composer since Purcell is surely the most frequently misspelled of all. If, however, I must resort to such pedantry to voice the obligatory cavil, the reader may rest assured of recommendation. If you know Rosen’s work, you will doubtless require no urging; if not, then this is a good place to start. Thereafter, and whatever your feelings, if any, concerning the composer in question, you may proceed surely to Rosen’s advocacy in Arnold Schoenberg.
Pianist and scholar Charles Rosen, whose eminence was acknowledged by President Barack Obama with a 2011 National Humanities Medal, was born in 19 in New York City. He has lived in the same apartment building (“old for New York - 1885 - with large rooms and good acoustics”) since he was six.
Neither parent was a professional musician; “my mother played piano a little. I began picking out tunes at the piano when I was four - most pianists start at that age, like tightrope walkers.” Rosen’s first teacher, Moriz Rosenthal, was a pupil of Liszt, and remains his most influential mentor. He has, however, “never had a favourite composer; my taste changes from week to week”.
About balancing a 60-year performing and recording career with posts at institutions including Harvard University and the University of Oxford, he says: “I have always had enough time in both fields. I need to practise about four hours a day, but that always left time for academic work.” He recalls it being “more difficult to make students at Oxford speak at seminars. Finally, I invited the class to dinner and made a daube and noodles and served some good wine. Then they all spoke to me.”
Rosen sees a difference between performing and lecturing. “Delivering a lecture one is always concerned to be intelligible to the listeners, not going too fast or too slowly, so one lectures differently for different venues. “For a concert, one plays the piece for the sake of the music as beautifully as one can. I would not play a Beethoven sonata any differently for a young, inexperienced audience than for professionals. You lecture to be understood, but you play for the sake of the music.”
Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature
By Charles Rosen
Harvard University Press 448pp, £21.95
Published 31 May 2012