An interview with Arnold Rosner - 1991


During the past decade, listeners have been encountering the music of Arnold Rosner with increasing frequency. Although it is direct and accessible, Rosner's work exhibits a strong personal profile, which may account for the favorable critical response it has engendered. Rosner was born in New York City in 1945, and received his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Buffalo, the first doctorate in music to be granted by the State University of New York. Passing through tile halls of musical academia during the height of serialist domination, Rosner emerged with his tonal, consonant, metrically straightforward language untouched by the coercive pressures of the prevailing establishment.

Despite his conservative idiom, Rosner's music shows little affinity with either the neoromanticism of the Hanson/Barber school or the neoclassicism of the Copland/Piston school. Indeed, his style reveals virtually no trace of the chromaticism of Wagner and Strauss (although there is much to suggest the chromaticism of Gesualdo), the soaring lyricism of Puccini, the expanded harmony and opulent textures of Debussy, or of the irregular rhythms and spiky pandiatonicism of Stravinsky--all major influences on the American traditionalists. Instead, Rosner embraces the sounds of medieval cadences, open fifths, ecclesiastical and middle-Eastern modality, Renaissance polyphony, Elizabethan dances, vigorous neo-Baroque counterpoint, and spacious triadic harmony in the manner of Vaughan Williams.

At the age of forty-live, Rosner has ninety works to his credit, including The Chronicle of Nine, a full-length opera based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, a large requiem, six symphonies, three a cappella masses, and numerous other orchestral and chamber works. He is currently on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and, interestingly enough, teaches and directs games at a Brooklyn bridge club. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Arnold Rusher about his early development as a composer, the difficulties he has faced trying to establish himself during a period largely unsympathetic to tile kind of music he felt impelled to write, and, also, how he conceptualizes his own artistic goals and identity.

WS: Listeners who have noted the absence of either a sense of chronological identity or a sense of national identity in your music may be somewhat surprised to learn that you were born and raised in New York City.

AR: Yes, there's certainly no sense of Americana in any music. But I had a typical New York upbringing, went to the public school, and worked in my father's candy store-nothing particularly exotic or mysterious.

WS: Were your parents musical?

AR: No.

WS: So how did you get hooked into music?

AR: Well, the first music I heard was whatever was on the classical radio stations, with milk and cookies in the afternoon--that sort of thing. I was a snob about popular music-1 wanted no part of it, or folk music either. My father liked jazz acid show music, so of course I wouldn't like that. (I've lately mellowed considerably, however.)

WS: Did you study an instrument?

AR: I took piano lessons from the age of nine. But almost immediately I tried to make up my own things, and 1 never practiced very much I had stopped lessons by the tine I was thirteen or fourteen.

WS: So you were composing pretty much from the start.

AR: It just seemed sort of natural. I remember, during the second week of piano lessons, I discovered the fantastic sound of major-minor effects (e.g., E-C-Eb-C). I showed my piano teacher and she reacted as if they were something illicit or immoral. Of course that gave me all the more reason to fool around with them, and I'm still using them in my pieces. So I used to listen to the radio a lot-mostly standard repertoire-and 1 liked what l heard. But nothing really knocked me out until--I was nine or ten--I went to the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. I wish I had met whoever it was that picked out the music: I don't remember the context, but they were using (I later learned) Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia, and that just knocked me right out. Then, soon after, I went to my first Carnegie Hall concert, to hear a performance of Vaughan Williams's Eighth. Brahms's Fourth was also on the program. The Vaughan Williams really got to me but the Brahms had me absolutely in tears.

WS: Yes, I can hear the influence of Vaughan Williams in your music--and also of Alan Hovhaness. There's a certain sense of the ancient ecclesiastical that one hears in that music as well as in yours.

AR: Yes, 1 liked Hovhaness the first time 1 ever heard anything of his--I think it was a Stokowski television performance of Mysterious Mountain. 1 was twelve at the time, and I remember it utterly knocked me out. I never liked music that didn't seem deep or intense, but I liked intense music, no matter what emotion it was being intense about. So it wasn't just the religious-sounding pieces that got me rolling---a lot of standard stuff also: the Brahms symphonies, the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth. By the way, it wasn't until years later that 1 discovered actual Renaissance music.

WS: Did you study composition in any serious way when you were a kid?

AR: Somewhere along the line nay parents got me a few lessons with someone. But that was it. I didn't take composition lessons again until graduate school. Then I had one year with Leo Smit, another year with Allan Sapp, and another with Lejaren Miller. This was at the University of Buffalo.

WS: I understand that your bachelor's degree was in mathematics.

AR: Yes, but that was a lark right from the beginning. By the time I got to college, I had written about twenty pieces already, and I knew that's what 1 really wanted to do. But 1 was doubtful that academic musical training was going to do anything for me. In the end, my suspicions were well founded: It did absolutely nothing for me-nothing that was pleasant, anyway.

WS: What was it like for you, forging your identity as a composer during the 1960s, when post-Webernian serialisrn was the "official" compositional style in university music departments? Did you come in contact with that?

AR: Oh yes, I came in contact with it. You see, somehow or other, I pretty much had my own language, with its own technical aspect and its own spiritual or expressive aspect, and that was the kind of music I was going to write. When I got to graduate school, I learned that I was expected to "progress" from what I was doing either to serialism or to some other type of experimental music. (In those days, simply to mention the name of Shostakovich would elicit snickers and sarcastic remarks.) Well, all I can say is, the scars are still there. The academic world is still full of those prejudices, even if serialism has played itself out in the concert and recording world. Remember, many of those same professors are now senior faculty members at colleges around the country. Some of them may have mellowed-if not in their own music, then in what they tolerate from others. Others not. I waited a long time for serialism to die out. And now the trend that replaces it--minimalism--is, in my opinion, a questionable improvement, and I sort of felt bypassed in the shift.
WS: So during the 1960s and 70s, you had quite a difficult time getting your work performed.

AR: Not difficult--impossible. It was partly a matter of the climate of the times, partly contacts and networking and stuff like that that one doesn't want to admit to or have to think about.

WS: Do you see yourself as having an affinity with any of today's trends in composition?

AR: Well, 1 try not to pay too much attention, although my friends make sure l keep well aware of today's trends. There seems to be something of a new tolerance for music that has actual melody and harmonic progression. Composers who write pieces like that are getting more play than I was getting in the 60s and 70s. But most of their music strikes me as simplistic. I think there are some composers in Europe--Holmboe, Kokkonen, people like that--who managed to develop what I would call an artistically sound attitude. There are always some composers out there writing the good stuff, but I don't know if this constitutes a trend. One of the problems today is that people want fast thrills: They want things--not just music--that are overtly shocking, or that digest easily. The best music doesn't do this. You know, solid, conservative music isn't as easy to understand as many people think. For instance, I don't know how many listeners--or critics--can really distinguish middle-period Tippett from middle-period Britten, or can tell the difference, say, between Harris, Barber, and early Sessions. Unless you can really differentiate their styles, you don't truly understand the music. It's a lot more than just hearing the fact that they all use standard orchestration, that sort of thing.

WS: That's certainly a point I've often made. But I think we may be getting closer to that music now, with efforts like Gerard Schwarz's project to record all the symphonies of Hanson, Diamond, and Piston.

AR: There's another three--how many listeners can tell them apart?

WS: That's what Schwartz is trying to do. I think his point is: Here are three fine, distinctive composers. Let's start learning their music.

AR: Yes, there are a few champions out there like that--Leonard Slatkin's another--but we still have a long way to go. Of course, there's David Amos, who is based in San Diego, but has conducted orchestras in Europe and in Israel. He's recorded several of my works, including one with the Philharmonia Orchestra that should be out pretty soon: Responses. Hosanna, and Fugue, for string orchestra and harp, along with pieces by Hovhaness and Dello Joio. He's also been conducting Creston, Morton Gould, and others. Then there's the harpsichordist and organist Barbara Harbach, working out of Buffalo, New York, who's recorded two of my pieces for Gasparo. I think she's as great a performer as there is in this world, and certainly as great when it comes to really understanding each composer as an individual, and bringing nuances out of the harpsichord that I didn't even know were possible.

WS: Yes, I've heard some impressive performances from her.

AR: I should also mention Max Schubel of Opus One Records, who has probably helped to put more American composers on the map than Grove's Dictionary.

WS: I guess those pieces that Schubel released--the horn sonata and the cello sonata--are what started to draw attention to your work.

AR: The horn sonata actually led to the contact with Barbara Harbach and the harpsichord pieces, and so forth. 1 always say, you know you've arrived when they're reviewing competitive versions of your piece. That hasn't happened for me yet. But you know you're starting to arrive when one of your pieces is recorded and someone totally and utterly unknown to you reads a review or hears it on the radio and flips over it and then writes to you and asks what else you have.

WS: At this point, it appears that most of the activity surrounding your music involves recordings.

AR: Well, I haven't had that many top-of-the-line professional performances, although I've had any number of performances a notch lower with regard to audience size, reputation of the players, or critical exposure. Actually, of the ninety works I've written, I've now heard sixty or so played.

WS: I wrote in a recent review that what distinguishes your music from a great deal of other music that involves latter-day reworkings of ancient styles is that while for most of those pieces--like the Respighi Ancient Dances and Airs--the stylistic juxtaposition is the whole point of the music, for you, this hybrid language is a given, a point of departure, from which you build a rich and varied expressive range.

AR: I read your reviews and I much appreciated your point of view. However, my slant on it is a little different: In the first place, the ancient music character can be a little bit overemphasized; some pieces have a lot of it, others have only a little, and some have none at all. Furthermore, what I'm really using from early music is an attitude of seriousness and perhaps spirituality, a reliance on consonant rather than dissonant harmony most of the time, and an avoidance of the conventions of tonality, in the eighteenth-century sense. These features exist apart from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century practice; in my opinion; they're simply one way to write good music. Hardly ever am I trying to write antique pictures even though some of the pieces may come close.  Some critics have described me as an anachronism, or my music as anachronistic, and I take some umbrage at that.  Is there something anachronistic about using ternary form, which goes back thousands of years? Is there something anachronistic about using a notational system that goes back a thousand years? Or in using variation forms? The difference is that Renaissance-style modal harmony--consonant harmony without tonal connections--went into eclipse for a while. Standard notation, ternary form, standard orchestration, and so forth never went into eclipse. It's been in continuous use, so it's never been considered obsolete. But some of the model style got to be considered obsolete; therefore somebody who tries to use it again is considered an antiquarian. If you want the Rosner version of music history, eighteenth-century tonality would have been an alternative way to write music, as it was for, say, Schuetz and Purcell or Frescobaldi. But once it became the way to write music, we took a step backward, with regard to elegance of harmony and counterpoint and expressive range. All I'm using is a vocabulary that was eclipsed when the exaggerated and somewhat misguided tonal system took over.

WS: You have written a number of works based in the Christian religious tradition--masses, a Magnificat, and so forth. But you are Jewish, are you not?

AR: That's true. But I think there's no denying that the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions contributed richly to the secular classical music mainstream in a way that, for various reasons, the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions did not, though they did create fascinating ethnic traditions. I am by birth Jewish and by identity a believer and I have written Jewish liturgical pieces--the "Kaddish" from my Requiem, a Sacred Service, not to mention non-liturgical Jewish pieces like the short piano piece, And He Sent Forth a Dove, and From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow, a piece for narrator and orchestra about the Warsaw ghetto. But there just hasn't been a secular Jewish tradition in classical music upon which to build. And from a personal standpoint, for whatever reason, I have gotten much more resistance to my Jewish pieces from Jews than I have from Christians regarding my Christian pieces. Anyway, what I am really interested in is a spiritual attitude, and I have turned to several religious traditions in order to evoke a sense of spirituality. I guess what I am trying to do is to reach out from one human being to another and express as many emotions as I can as intensely as I can, in a vocabulary that I think works and is listenable.

Walter Simmons
(c) Fanfare, 1991