Second Interview with Arnold Rosner

Arnold Rosner is one of the most unusual and fascinating American composers of his generation. Born in New York City in 1945, to a culturally unsophisticated family (his father ran a candy store in northern Harlem), he took piano lessons as a boy—as did so many Jewish boys his age—although he did not especially enjoy the routine of practicing. But he did get hooked on classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—especially juxtapositions of major and minor triads—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music—did little to encourage these efforts. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, and then New York University as a math major. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors, other than he. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence on his early creative work was readily apparent. 

Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, he then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. The following September he entered the University of Buffalo with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were essentially coerced into adopting it (although in retrospect some of these academicians have rather disingenuously attempted to pretend that this was never the case). Rosner was subjected to the tutelage of Leo Smit, Lejaren Hiller, Henri Pousseur, and Allen Sapp, who dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. In describing his educational experience at Buffalo, Rosner has written that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his fellow composition students may have caved in to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, responding as do most totalitarian academic regimes to those who refuse to conform to approved doctrine, his department rejected the work he had submitted as his dissertation: a composition for orchestra entitled Perchance to Dream, which has yet to be performed. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of work he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York. 

It was around this time—as a result of our shared interest in Hovhaness—that I met Rosner and became acquainted with his music. At this point none of it had been performed, aside from a few unrehearsed readings provided grudgingly by friends and acquaintances. But I and some of his other friends saw value in his work, and, in fact, recognized in it a unique creative voice. We attempted to draw attention to it among active professionals, and during the 1970s and 80s, little by little his music began to be heard. Reactions to his work have ranged from those who have found it derivative and simplistic, to others who find it utterly unique, profound, and spiritually exalted.

In 1991, after the first recordings of his work had been released, I interviewed Rosner for Fanfare (14:5). More than two decades have passed since that interview, many more recordings have appeared, many more listeners have become acquainted with his music, and it seems an appropriate time to revisit the careerof Arnold Rosner, now 67 years old.

Well, it’s been more than twenty years since we sat down for our previous Fanfare interview. I guess the first question is: What has happened during the past 20 years?

I continued to compose until recently, I try to get my music “out there”—through live performances, publications, and recordings in whatever the current listening medium may be. (I still compose with pen and paper—a few of us notate music that way instead of on computer. Our friends think we are insane.) Lately I have been trying to sort through stacks of papers in an attempt to create an organized archive, so that if there is interest in the music in the future, it will be there. Every composer has to go through this though we rarely talk about it. One can become obsessive about it, even having a “doomsday” feeling. For me the greatest fear is the possibility that some works may simply not exist in 100 years. Imagine a symphony being sent from Prague to Vienna before modern printing or computers, and somehow all written traces were lost in limbo. (It is said that Dvořák lost a symphony this way. When asked what he did about it he shrugged, “I wrote a new symphony.” More recently Alan Hovhaness left a new guitar concerto in a New York taxicab and it was never recovered.)

Do you feel that your music has gained any “traction,” so to speak, with the public during the past 20 years?

  It’s not as though my work hasn’t generated interest to some degree. I would say that my name is in moderate-size letters on a very crowded map. The total number of compositions is 123, and by now about half of them are on CD. Meanwhile, community college teaching has been the full-time day job.

You say you composed until recently?

I stopped at Opus 123 about two years ago. I signed nothing in blood-and-granite, and still have pen, ink, paper, and ruler in case I go back. But I feel promoting and archiving to be more important now, and think that there is something about that approximate number of pieces that more or less “makes the statement” for most composers since Beethoven. After a while one is repeating oneself, technically or spiritually, or a theme is a little too similar to something one has already written. A “macro-composer” like Wagner, Berlioz, or Mahler took fewer works to “say his thing.” As you know, I wrote my PhD dissertation on the music of Hovhaness; there is someone who didn’t know when to put the pen down and take some time off. Milhaud and Villa-Lobos just kept it coming, too. And this writing too much is not only a recent quirk. Do we need, however devout one may be, ALL the Palestrina, Lassus or Victoria masses? And this is without modern recording. So did one ever hear those contrapuntally rich pieces more than once in one’s life?

I would think that this excessive productivity is most flagrant in the cases of Baroque composers like Vivaldi, Telemann, et al.

In numbers of repetitive works you are absolutely right, but the whole late Baroque mentality virtually demanded it. I’ve heard the story—perhaps it’s a myth–that every time a young woman graduated from Vivaldi’s “cappella” school, she was expected to play the solo in a concerto written especially for her?

Have there been any significant recent performances or recordings?

There have been many and sometimes they are very lovingly played and sung, and as well received. Most recently Albany has released a two-disc set of my vocal music, featuring the extraordinary soprano Elizabeth Farnum. And I understand that MSR has just reissued Barbara Harbach’s beautiful performances of two of my works for harpsichord. The first of these, Musique de Clavecin, is a major opus of intensely tragic and even frightening tone—neo-Couperin à la Freud, perhaps. The other, Sonatine d’Amour, is a much gentler, affectionate sibling to it. Also, within the next few months Naxos will be releasing an excellent performance of “Trinity”—my Symphony No. 8. Nevertheless, these would have to be considered “medium visibility” efforts. High-end musical organizations may deserve some blame but some sympathy too—so many of them are going broke.

Have any of your pieces achieved any sort of popularity or public identity?

In concert halls, I’m afraid not. But on radio, and with “streaming audio,” it’s a strange new world. Fanfare readers may or may not realize that there are now data bases of recommended classical pieces available on CD, suggested for broadcast. These lists are selected by real flesh-and-blood folks and they include CD label, number, and also duration and mood comments. One of my works, A Gentle Musicke, is on such a list. It is played on WQXR in New York, and thus world-wide on “streaming audio,” more than once a month. At the rate it’s going it won’t be long before this piece is half as well-known as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor or Ravel’s Bolero. Friends and critics have written to remind these data sources that I have 100 more pieces, including 30-40 on CD, but thus far to little or no avail.

In our earlier interview I wrote, “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.” Would you say that your style or approach has changed in any way since then?

Let me first say that your description of my style in that older interview shows insight and wisdom, but can perhaps be clarified or “fine-tuned.” While both emotional and technical aspects of early music are represented in my music, I rather see myself as part of a 20th-century community that embraces 19th-century artistic values, while continuing to expand the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language. So I would rather be considered part of one big happy family that also includes composers like, say, Bartók, Prokofiev and Barber, as different as each may be from the other. When my current students ask how this family differs from Webern, Varèse and other such composers—and these are students with no liberal arts background—I shrug and say, “If a glaring wrong note goes by in performance and the audience doesn’t notice, that’s the other family.” 
As to my emphasis on the neo-archaic, let’s go back a few hundred years. When music in our western tradition began to employ harmony and counterpoint, sounds were combined to please the ear, of course. Some remarkably expressive successions of chords were possible—this is apparent from the literature—although the “alphabet” (or “scale”) was only seven notes. The historical period that I’m referring to might be identified as 1364-1611—250 years from Machaut’s Mass to Victoria’s death. 
After that, one can hear a jump in complexity and expression in Monteverdi and Schutz in the early 17th century, expanding the “alphabet” to twelve notes. All that music (what is called the Renaissance and early Baroque) uses remarkably little dissonance. Well, I claim that there is a grand style there that was overlooked, in that period of transition between late Renaissance and early Baroque music, and by “grand” I mean technically, emotionally, and in its colors, however you take that. My work is strongly influenced by that period, and I will admit to being “neo” of that. Remember, Stravinsky said, “If Gesualdo had been recognized when he was alive, the course of music would have been entirely different.”

But later during the 1600s, a tighter, more predictable language began to develop—what we think of as “tonality”—which helps to divide sections, point our ears toward endings, and transitions, and so forth. A piece is “in D minor,” or “in A-Flat Major.” Well, to my ears and mind, that development, most clearly represented by the music of the 18th century, is a step BACKWARDS, because the harmonic structures turned safe and “limited.” But meanwhile, the orchestra evolved, and structures like symphonies and fugues emerged and became dominant. I do not reject these developments.

This is a very unusual perspective. Let me make sure I understand what you’re getting at. You’re saying that you’re particularly interested in the period between 1364 and 1611, but even more so during the period of transition shortly after that, when a “grand” style developed, but was subsequently overlooked. Yet composers like Monteverdi and Schutz and even Gesualdo aren’t exactly esoteric today.

Monteverdi, Schutz and Gesualdo WERE pretty esoteric for long periods of time, but with the advent of recording and the discoveries of people like Nadia Boulanger, Carl Orff, and others, who said, “You know, there’s some remarkable stuff gathering dust on museum and church library shelves,” this music re-surfaced from what was something of a “dark age.” But even before this re-discovery, other composers picked up elements of this “grand” style, in one way or another. You can hear this especially in music of the late 1800s, albeit with greater freedom: more dissonant harmony used tastefully, overlapping chords, and so forth. This “tasteful dissonance” includes some pretty pungent stuff, but it is constructed fairly simply. And voila! A hybrid style begins to develop. Spanning hundreds of years, consider the dissonance that can be found in Gesualdo’s madrigals, or the end of the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, with its loud E-flat harmonies ramming against pedal D’s. But it’s not all a matter of dissonance. There can be a striking use of consonance within a more modern context that suggests or draws upon that early 17th-century freely chromatic harmony: for example, in the prelude to Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, or “Senza Mama” from Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

This is the musical lineage that I believe my music follows, and places me among the large conservative, “neo-romantic” group of composers. For such composers emotional expression is primary, while the structures and rhetoric of 19th-century music offer the potential for much further expansion. The group of composers I’m describing may find inspiration in Wagner, Debussy, traditional opera, ethnic music, or elsewhere. Your comment years back about my music points to the fact that within a generally neo-romantic aesthetic, I developed what might be call a “neo-1600” perspective, in which a significant source of inspiration is the pre-tonal music of Monteverdi and Schutz. I would object to citing it as a really predominant source, but both emotionally and technically it is a main aspect of who I am compositionally.

What I have attempted to do is to fuse structures and scoring derived from the Romantic period with melody and harmony of the Renaissance and early Baroque. And I am not the only one to do this—there’s a varied crew from Nielsen to Orbón, including examples like Harris’s Third Symphony and Sibelius’s Seventh. One might question whether such composers happened on such non-tonal harmony through their own exploration, or whether they were influenced by, or even knew, the earlier music, or were introduced to it by another individual. (I have heard that Respighi was influenced and inspired by early music as a result of his wife’s bringing it to his attention.)

Would you say that your compositional style has changed over the years?

No, I don’t think so much at all. There is something I call “stile estatico,” or ecstatic style, where I use a complex cross-rhythm or cross-color overlap in some pieces. I sometimes have sections and even whole movements that feature cross-rhythms and irregular combinations of harmony or scoring. Imagine high-register strings moving once per second, trombones once every two seconds, and harp and chimes once every five seconds. Of course, they are often “out of phase” with each other. I try for a colorful texture with high spiritual intent. I first used this technique in 1983, in Of Numbers and of Bells for two pianos. Can it work? Does it work? Those who listen to Of Numbers and of Bells (Albany TROY163) or the “Pythagoras” movement from the upcoming release of my Trinity, can form their own opinions. But still, 90% of my music from the last 20 or 30 years is stylistically much as it was before. Perhaps one might point to some shifts in emphasis on performing media—less a cappella choral music than years back, and more opera and band music of late.

At the time of our previous interview you had completed two works for wind band. I see that you now have eight. To what do you attribute this increased interest in that medium?

One tries any reasonable combination if one feels capable and perceives that there are enough musical and coloristic elements to go around, without every piece sounding the same. I have always categorically rejected electronic and computer music. But the band was something else. I rejected it too, and somewhat snidely at first: “Do real composers write for band?” But more or less simultaneously, just past my 40th birthday three different and unconnected individuals gave me evidence of the real music I had failed to recognize. They were Bob Margolis (former student and now composer and band publisher), Simeon Loring (the conductor of bands at my school), and, of course, yourself. There was no ignoring your combined advice. These works do get performed and one—Trinity, which I mentioned earlier—is about to be released on Naxos, while we are in the planning stages of an all-Rosner disc to include the other seven.

In our previous interview you spoke of having had to battle the serialists when you were in graduate school. But at the time we spoke, you felt that the minimalists had replaced the serialists, and that they were no better. Yet this “stile estatico,” as you call it, sounds a little like the sort of thing that Steve Reich did with his “phase” pieces. Have you changed your view of minimalism or of its influence over the past two decades?

I feel that such music and hard-line minimalism are an incomplete part of some potentially richer, more complete and varied music. Older Fanfare readers may recall LPs on a label called “Music Minus One,” which contained the orchestral accompaniments to concerted works, in order to facilitate the preparation of soloists learning those works. I find most minimalist “phase” music and all its cousins to be “Music Minus One” scores where the “minus” segment might be a moving chorale or perhaps a songful melody that might ride angelically over a cross-rhythmic, or cross-coloration accompaniment, thereby adding another element to the mix. That is what I try to do in my stile estatico.

But what about composers like John Adams or Jennifer Higdon or Michael Torke—composers who embrace the repetitive textures of minimalism to some extent, but integrate many other kinds of musical ideas into their work? Or that whole European group such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, and the many others who have pursued somewhat similar paths? They have embraced a kind of minimalism of tonal materials and rhythmic activity, but without the chattering repetition. These composers seem to be seeking the kind of spiritual elevation or devotional mind-states that you are striving for in your stile estatico. Do you see them as kindred spirits in any way?

I will not make any individual negative statement about any living composer, but I guess I can say that of the six names you mention some are more interesting than others, and among their works some may be more appealing than others. The stile estatico idea may be there in part, and I guess a lot depends on performance. The main voice or voices need to be heard clearly above the minimalist motoric activity.

And what about some of the most recent developments in the contemporary music scene?

I shouldn’t say it but I will: Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The climate is bad for me—but what is especially disturbing involves some pieces that looked as though they were becoming classics 50 years ago. For a while we were hearing live performances of symphonies by Joonas Kokkonen and Allan Pettersson. The British orchestras might play a symphony of Malcolm Arnold or Robert Simpson. But lately, I heard a broadcast of a live performance by an American orchestra playing Vaughan Williams’s 6th. It sounded very neutral, as if the players had never heard it. Not only that, but it was directly preceded—almost like an introduction—by the Fantasia on “Greensleeves”—an utterly incongruous juxtaposition.

So you’re saying that some of the 20th-century symphonic music that for a while seemed to be gaining a foothold in the repertoire may have fallen by the wayside. But how about within the United States today? We seem to be witnessing a rare period when there are no stylistic “requirements,” so to speak—any kind of music seems to be potentially acceptable.

On the other hand, in re-reading our previous interview, I note one unfortunate development: At that time we spoke of conductors such as Gerard Schwarz, David Amos, and Leonard Slatkin, who were specializing in the American orchestral repertoire. But most recently Schwarz and Slatkin seem to have backed away from this repertoire, and Amos doesn’t seem to do much recording any more. What do you suppose this indicates? It seems to me that Leon Botstein, with his American Symphony Orchestra and his summer program at Bard College, is doing the most intellectually stimulating and musically gratifying programming of anyone on the East Coast of this country.

Botstein certainly deserves high praise not only for his programming attitude, but also for his consistent commitment to it over a period of time. But don’t count the other maestri you mentioned out altogether. Some are in transition, looking for new ensembles, funding, multi-recording projects of one kind or another. I am aware of such plans developing but thus far they are not for open discussion. But the general “unfortunate development” of which you speak still describes the major part of the scene. It is old news and there’s no point in crying in our beer about it, so just a couple of catch phrases capture it for me: technology has replaced thought and humanism; there’s too much background music and not enough foreground music; and finances, finances, finances.

Do you see the Naxos American Classics series and Albany Records as having picked up the slack to some extent?

 Yes, praise is due Klaus. Heymann (and Peter Kermani and Susan Bush at Albany as well), and there are fine lower-profile producers too numerous to mention. 
In the film Other People’s Money, in a corporate proxy battle the Danny DeVito character points out that the surest way to go out of business is to have an INCREASING share of a DECREASING market. Well, what does that imply for both composers and champions of good new music?

That reminds me of a notorious speech given by William Schuman during the mid 1960s, when he was president of Lincoln Center, in which he stated, “Far from having any hope of making money, our task is to lose money wisely.” This attitude eventually led to his forced resignation from his position.

In high places one must be careful what one says that can be quoted out of context. I did not know of the Schuman quotation, but only a week or two ago, Klaus Heymann was interviewed on WWFM and was thus heard streaming anywhere in the world, saying “95% of our releases lose money.” I think that those two quotations–some 50 years apart—are making related—and rather important—points.

In our previous interview you spoke about your frequent use of Christian musical genres and forms despite the fact that you are Jewish. Since that time I notice that you have completed two operas—Bontsche Schweig and Spinoza—both based on Jewish themes. At the same time the piece of yours that seems to have attracted the most attention is your Symphony No. 5, which was composed in 1973, but was released on Naxos American Classics about five years ago (8.559347). That work is fashioned along the lines of a Roman Catholic Mass, but for orchestra only. Has your attitude about Christian musical forms changed in any way?

The European musical palette, from serious Church music with organacantus firmus, to canzonettasand dances, cannot be denied as the basic foundation of mainstream European music for centuries. Many other ethnicities had some delightful modal music, with captivating rhythms, going on “behind closed doors,” so to speak. Ultimately the serious Jewish composer finds himself trapped behind non-traditions. Lighter material is considered frivolous, but more serious music is condemned if it sounds Catholic, yet no other style was acceptable for it. Salamone Rossi finds a small crack to get through, but even as recently as Mendelssohn and Mahler—they both converted—the one writes St. Paul, the other Veni Creator Spiritus. Well, in my view we are all brothers and music is my religion, so I wrote chamber operas on the folk legend of Bontsche Schweig and on the historical situation involving Baruch Spinoza, and about two years ago attended a fine performance in which one Betty Devine conducted the 80-voice Houston Choral Society at a church, in a performance of my Magnificat. All that has never changed. As for the church and our lives, once upon a time all the peace and civil rights rallies were held in churches and temples, but today they are much eclipsed by the “religious right.”

The band work soon to be released by Naxos is your “Trinity.” The title suggests that this is another Christian-oriented work.

In part, but it’s really wider than any one religious viewpoint. The general emotional area is spiritual, even pantheistic. While the first movement is neo-Christian in attitude, the second is Satanic, while the third takes a Pythagorean, Music-of-the-Spheres approach.

In 2006 you wrote an essay on Sequenza 21 called, “The Bicycle Pump” (, in which you expressed your feelings about Mozart. Your brief overview of music history earlier clarifies your thoughts somewhat. I gather that the essay generated a great deal of controversy. In retrospect do you regret having written it? What are your thoughts about the controversy?

I should be so lucky as to create “a great deal of controversy.” It got a little Internet blog ripple. The only real negative consequence was that somebody who got to review my next release panned it, basically saying: If that’s what he has to say about Mozart’s music, then so much for his. What happened there was prompted by conductor David Amos who, among other things, edits a column on music for a local newspaper in San Diego. With praise galore for Mozart’s 250th birthday his provocative and novel idea was to get a less positive piece from someone whom he truly respected, who, however, thought Mozart was overrated. Whom did he call? Me. Somehow it got around, Sequenza 21, wherever else. The Internet has its quirks—post something one time, and it appears 101 times, with no control, no editing. As for my thoughts, I have nothing much to add regarding the piece or its content, but could tirade on and on about the Internet.

You mentioned the recent release of a two-CD set on Albany that features your vocal music. Does this comprise your entire solo vocal output?

There are two other vocal sets, on Volumes I and III, respectively, of my chamber music on Albany CDs (TROY163 and TROY553). One is Nightstone—Three Settings from the Song of Songs, and the other is Besos sin Cuento—6 Spanish Songs. The new release has all the rest of my work in the “art song” category.