Is there a moment in history when a work receives its ideal interpretation? Or is negotiation always required to preserve the past and accommodate the present? The freedom of interpretation, Charles Rosen suggests in these sparkling explorations of music and literature, exists in a delicate balance with fidelity to the identity of the original work.
Rosen cautions us to avoid doctrinaire extremes when approaching art of the past. To understand Shakespeare only as an Elizabethan or Jacobean theatergoer would understand him, or to modernize his plays with no sense of what they bring from his age, deforms the work, making it less ambiguous and inherently less interesting. For a work to remain alive, it must change character over time while preserving a valid witness to its earliest state. When twentieth-century scholars transformed Mozart’s bland, idealized nineteenth-century image into that of a modern revolutionary expressionist, they paradoxically restored the reputation he had among his eighteenth-century contemporaries. Mozart became once again a complex innovator, challenging to perform and to understand.
Drawing on a variety of critical methods, Rosen maintains that listening or reading with intensity—for pleasure—is the one activity indispensable for full appreciation. It allows us to experience multiple possibilities in literature and music, and to avoid recognizing only the revolutionary elements of artistic production. By reviving the sense that works of art have intrinsic merits that bring pleasure, we justify their continuing existence.