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Rosner’s Requiem

On a forgotten genius of American music

Illustration by Andrea Ventura


Rosner’s Requiem

On a forgotten genius of American music

Discussed in this essay:

Requiem, Op. 59, by Arnold Rosner. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

In the spring of 1970, I was about to enter the Manhattan School of Music to pursue the study of musicology. At the time, I was working at C. F. Peters Corporation, then the primary publisher of the music of Alan Hovhaness, a well-known American composer whose unusual style involved combining the modal polyphony of the Renaissance with Armenian, Indian, Japanese, and Korean elements, and who interested me greatly. My colleagues were aware of my enthusiasm, so when someone called Peters and said he was a graduate student writing his dissertation on Hovhaness, he was directed to me. The graduate student said his name was Arnold Rosner, and as we spoke, we discovered that we shared a long-standing fascination with Hovhaness’s music, down to our favorite piece: a work for viola and strings called Talin. We arranged to meet. I was living in the West Bronx at the time and, coincidentally, he was about to move into an apartment a few blocks away.

We soon became friends, getting together nearly every day to listen to music. Early on, he mentioned that he was also a composer, with almost fifty pieces to his credit, though aside from some informal readings by friends and student groups, none had been performed. The readings that had been recorded gave the impression of a quirky approach that I found difficult to characterize: it seemed to be a strange mixture of incongruous elements. But I was intrigued enough to ask about his ongoing projects, and he was happy to have found someone who cared. I soon learned that Rosner was absolutely enthralled with his own music, and liked nothing more than playing through sketches over and over on his Steinway upright, banging away at his favorite moments, often breaking strings in the process, which delighted him. It wasn’t until 1972, when he completed his String Quartet no. 4, and recorded an execrable sight-reading by some of his acquaintances, that it dawned on me that I was hearing something extraordinary and profound. In between the driving turbulence of its first movement and an unremittingly grim passacaglia as its final movement was an adaptation of a medieval form—the isorhythmic motet—in which searing gestures alternated with passages of ethereal tranquility.

In the meantime, my studies at the conservatory had awakened me to the fact that there was a great deal of music from the mid-twentieth century that was largely unheard and unknown, but to which I had a strong positive response. This music embraced compositional approaches that did not conform to the fashions of the time, and I found myself galvanized to pursue a crusade on its behalf: I developed a weekly radio series that lasted for several years, and began writing reviews for the bimonthly journal Fanfare, where I was a regular contributor for thirty-five years. The powerful impression engendered by Rosner’s Quartet no. 4 moved me to include him among the composers whose work I was promoting. This, however, was not an unadulterated delight. As thrilled as he was by my enthusiasm for his work, Rosner resented my interest in other composers. This complicated our relationship considerably, provoking periodic explosions of rage. I remained committed to his music, but for most of his life, we might have been described as frenemies.

Aside from a brief marriage in the late Seventies, Rosner lived alone; he had no children, few friends, and few interests beyond playing bridge, his chief diversion and one in which his prowess was recognized. (He used to complain that his name appeared in the New York Times more often for his bridge playing than for his composing.) During the Eighties, Nineties, and early Aughts he invested in a number of recordings—mostly of small-scale works—through connections I had made with record companies, conductors, and other musicians. These recordings received generally positive reviews, but had little impact on his career. Continuing to compose, he spent the last three decades of his life in utter squalor, living in a tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn while on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College. He died in 2013 on his sixty-eighth birthday, largely unknown to the music world.

Since his death, however, enthusiasm for Rosner’s work has grown, reaching a point that he could only have dreamed of. Last year, his full-length opera The Chronicle of Nine: The Tragedy of Queen Jane was premiered in Boston, and a recording will be released this summer. Praise from critics has been extravagant. His Requiem, released in 2020, has been called an “unknown masterpiece,” a Requiem setting that “deserves mention alongside those of Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Fauré, and Britten.” Reviews have said that it is not just “one of the greatest works by an American composer,” but “one of the great choral-orchestral works of the twentieth century.” All of this raises urgent questions: What sort of work of classical music from the twentieth century could elicit such a reaction? Why has it taken forty-seven years for this putative masterpiece to be heard for the first time? Who on earth was Arnold Rosner?

Arnie, as I knew him, was born in New York City in 1945. His parents owned a candy store in upper Manhattan, where Rosner and his younger sister, Irene, spent much of their time, and he would often recount how he generously handed out milkshakes to the clientele, and how he enjoyed them himself. Like many Jewish boys at the time, Rosner was given piano lessons, but he had little interest in practicing and never achieved any real facility on the instrument. Nonetheless, he developed a voracious interest in classical music, finding himself attracted to certain sounds—odd combinations that did not often appear in the standard classics—that he began to work into incipient compositions. His family, however, thought a more practical path would be best, and so he attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating at the age of fifteen, and then New York University, where he majored in mathematics. Meanwhile, he continued to compose sonatas, symphonies, concertos, and more. Yet he made little effort to promote them to the musical community, and few people were even aware of his existence.

At NYU, he encountered a music professor who gave him a few lessons in the rudiments of musical composition, but Rosner was not terribly receptive to tutelage, and as he became more familiar with the repertoire, he realized that he disliked most of the music composed between 1700 and 1850—which happens to include most of the music generally beloved of the average classical listener. What he especially loathed was the limited and predictable harmonic language that characterized the music of the eighteenth century, epitomized by Mozart and his contemporaries. He learned that before the Classical period, music had embraced a much wider harmonic range, based on a number of different scale forms, known as modes, as opposed to the standard major and minor scales. Rosner saw that what he had been toying with in his early compositional efforts involved the modes, as well as juxtaposing major and minor tonalities simultaneously. He began to study music from before 1700, as well as the late-Romantic music composed after 1850—music that employed richly colored orchestration and attempted to achieve extremes of emotional intensity. He was also excited by the few twentieth-century composers who sought to evoke feelings of spiritual rapture, among them Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alan Hovhaness, as well as those who evoked images of violent brutality, such as Dmitri Shostakovich.

After NYU, Rosner spent a year at Yeshiva University’s Belfer Graduate School of Science, studying mathematics. But music continued to call to him, and he transferred to SUNY Buffalo with a concentration in composition. His unusual interests, combined with a haughty sense of intellectual superiority, prevented him from fitting in. He developed an arrogant, argumentative manner, making no secret of his contempt for those who did not share his aesthetic values. He also developed an intense pacifism, so extreme that he claimed that the American Revolution was a moral disgrace. This, along with health-related factors, led him to become a vegetarian, although he continued to eat seafood (“because their IQs are lower”).

The world of musical composition in America between 1950 and 1975 was dominated by the notion of originality, which led composers to try to outdo one another with sounds that bore little or no connection to the music of the past, but could be justified by complex mathematical formulas. University music departments were dominated by an approach whose variants were known as atonality, twelve-tone music, and serialism. The essence of these styles was an abandonment of what is known as tonality—what might be described as musical gravity, i.e., music’s tendency to be directed toward a home base. Although atonality and its variants never drew much support from the general classical music audience, academic departments attempted to teach students that tonality had exhausted its usefulness and become anachronistic. Artistic progress, according to this view, required the elimination of tonality. This attitude hardened into dogma, and composers who viewed themselves as extending practices of the past, rather than abandoning them—some of whom had developed significant reputations—found their music no longer performed. Younger composers who resisted this doctrine, preferring evolution to revolution, did not stand a chance of gaining attention.

This was the milieu in which Arnold Rosner found himself when he entered SUNY Buffalo. He would often recount how the faculty were dismissive of his work and claimed that he “learned practically nothing” from them. Although most of his peers capitulated, Rosner refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. In response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he submitted as his dissertation. Rosner, in turn, decided instead to pursue music theory, and went on to write the first-ever dissertation on Hovhaness, as well as to become the first recipient of a doctorate in music theory from SUNY Buffalo. (Interestingly, Rosner’s archivist, Carson Cooman, has uncovered documentary evidence from those years that raises serious questions about the veracity of Rosner’s account of his treatment by the school’s faculty.)

For the rest of his life, Rosner devoted himself to writing music that embodied his personal aesthetic ideals, and I was fascinated by the way he expanded his idiosyncratic language to embrace an ever-widening expressive range. He supported himself by working in academia, spending thirty years as a professor of music at Kingsborough Community College. But while the doctrinaire emphasis on originality began to soften in the late Seventies, Rosner’s experience with the academic music world had taken a toll on his aspirations as well as on his personality, which already tended toward orneriness. He composed three a cappella settings of the Catholic Mass, as well as an entire symphony (no. 5) in the form of a Mass. This perplexed his predominantly Jewish social circle, although his positive feelings about Catholicism stemmed largely from the pacifist exhortations of the “Dona nobis pacem” section of the Mass. (A deeper understanding of Catholicism later led him to temper his sympathies.) When he was commissioned to write a work about the Holocaust, he created From the Diaries of Adam Czerniaków. Czerniaków, who was Jewish, had been assigned by the Nazis to manage the Warsaw ghetto, and although Czerniaków’s horror ultimately led to his suicide, some of Rosner’s Jewish acquaintances recoiled at his selection of a collaborator as a hero.

During his twenties and thirties, Rosner’s love of games and fondness for silly neologisms lent a degree of levity to his interactions. (He used the term “double dumpties” to describe parallel fifths—forbidden in strict counterpoint—and also to describe dates with two different women in one day.) But by the time he reached his forties his sense of humor had begun to fade, and he developed a considerable hostility toward the classical music establishment. He believed that his music was uniquely valuable and that the zeitgeist had “stacked the cards” against him, a conviction unshaken by the increased tolerance of diverse musical styles after 1980. There was some truth to his assertion that once one has missed the boat there is no recovery. Though he did not stop composing, ultimately producing three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and wind band, several large-scale choral works, and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces, he stopped trying to find performers who would champion his music. In fact, he refused to take any action that might lead to the recognition he so deeply craved. He would write his manuscripts in longhand, while his contemporaries used computer programs that created meticulous scores. He refused to enter competitions, which can often be a doorway to recognition. (He did enter and win one small competition with his Sonata for Horn and Piano. But after he cashed the $50 check, he was mugged on the way home from the bank.) With a few exceptions, he refused to submit his music to publishers. This was the source of much of the strife that complicated my relationship with Rosner. I would point out the opportunities he was ignoring because of his rigid refusal to address the professional music world on its own terms. Mentioning that other composers whom I had promoted had achieved some success only infuriated him. Eventually I did succeed in interesting some performers, conductors, and record companies in his music—efforts that he often tried to sabotage—and persuaded him to invest in producing recordings of some of his works. Yet there is no question that large-scale works draw the most attention to a new composer, and Rosner, parsimonious in the extreme, focused these recordings largely on music for voice and piano, or for small chamber combinations.

When Rosner’s papers were sorted after his death, his family and friends were surprised to learn that his estate amounted to something close to two million dollars, which his will indicated was intended for the purpose of promoting his music. In the early Aughts, he had met Carson Cooman, a brilliant young composer, organist, and archivist, who had taken an interest in Rosner’s music, and invited Cooman to create an archive of his work. After Rosner’s death, his sister, Irene Rosner David, as warm and generous a person as he was harsh and obstinate, enlisted Cooman and me to make Arnold’s intentions a reality. We developed a plan to record as many of his major works as we could. Irene insisted that we use only top-of-the-line artists: the esteemed London Philharmonic, and world-class conductors and soloists, along with engineers and equipment from the renowned Abbey Road Studios. Martin Anderson, another advocate of neglected music, had also discovered Rosner and was struck by his unique compositional voice. Anderson runs a record company in England called Toccata Classics, and he agreed to release the music we were recording. In the eight years since Rosner’s death, we have produced seven recordings. The most recent—as well as the most ambitious—is the aforementioned Requiem, op. 59, a monumental work that he composed when he was twenty-eight. The recording took place in July 2019. In addition to the London Philharmonic, the featured artists included Crouch End Festival Chorus, the soprano Kelley Hollis, and a male vocal trio, all under the direction of the American conductor Nick Palmer, who made a thorough and detailed study of the score.

The origins of Rosner’s Requiem are somewhat curious. Rosner had long been an admirer of Ingmar Bergman, and particularly of The Seventh Seal (1957), which appealed to many of his interests, from his religious ambivalence to his passion for games and numerological symbolism. In 1971, he became obsessed with the idea of composing an opera based on the film, and, though he was unable to reach Bergman for permission, began composing all the same. He even traveled to Europe, in no small part to try to meet with Bergman, but in the end was only able to reach the director by phone, and, after making his request, was refused.

Rosner was deeply disappointed, but after some months arrived at the idea of a full-length Requiem, a nonsectarian work that would variously incorporate biblical texts; secular poetry (including Gottfried Benn and the medieval French poet Francois Villon); the Tibetan Book of the Dead; and the Jewish liturgy, as well as the extant portions of his adaptation of The Seventh Seal. His goal with this piece was not just to include these diverse sources concerned with the notion of death, but to achieve a degree of emotional intensity greater than all previous Requiems. He completed the work in 1973, and when I saw the finished score I was honored to discover that he had dedicated it to me. Of course, this was still early in our relationship; our major tensions and clashes had yet to surface.

The Seventh Seal is based on a portion of the Book of Revelation, in which the Seven Seals of God are opened, followed by the playing of seven angelic trumpeters. This is reflected in the massive orchestration of Rosner’s Requiem, which is scored for a full orchestra with a remarkable seven trumpets (most symphonies use two or three), each dispersed throughout the concert space, as well as a full chorus. Two passages include a vocal trio, and two other sections feature soprano solos. The grandeur and sheer force of the piece is suited to its themes, which include, from a variety of religious and poetic perspectives, the contemplation of death and the fleeting nature of life. In spite of its highly diverse sources and styles—the way it shifts from medieval plainchant to something almost suggestive of the serialism of Anton Webern, and beyond—most of it is readily accessible, even for newcomers to classical music. Indeed, the Requiem demonstrates precisely what makes Rosner’s music worth serious attention: his ability not just to integrate earlier styles, but in doing so to develop a distinctive, individual, and identifiable musical language that could capture a vast range of feelings and moods, from spiritual rapture to explosive brutality. Even as it juxtaposes emotional extremes, the Requiem is remarkable for passages of orchestral subtlety that appear throughout the work. His setting of a Buddhist chant, for instance, combines the chorus droning on one low note with a hymnlike orchestral part above. After this is a setting of a Whitman poem for chorus a cappella in the style of a sixteenth-century madrigal, followed by a section in which a line from Dante’s Inferno is sung by a vocal trio in the style of a medieval motet. (Rosner’s accomplishment is all the more striking when one considers that at the time he composed the Requiem, he had yet to hear his music played by a professional orchestra—an essential source of feedback for a young, relatively inexperienced composer.)

By the Eighties, Rosner had become deeply embittered by what he saw as the futility of his life’s work, and he resented any suggestion that his fortunes could change, although his productivity continued unabated. His unshakable belief that his music would never gain any public acknowledgment strained our relationship considerably. I continued to advocate on behalf of his work, but we no longer saw each other socially, and I learned from mutual friends that he spoke ill of me. The last time I saw him we met for dinner, and I gave him the newly released recording of one of his symphonies, which I included on a CD along with music by another composer.

In the eight years since his death, the recordings we have released have benefited from a world-class orchestra, a recording studio with the most advanced technological resources, and an experienced engineer. Since I had always believed that Rosner’s music could generate a wide following, I was not surprised by the ecstatic reviews these recordings prompted. But as I listen to them, I am struck with a deep sadness that Rosner never got to hear any of his music performed with the stunning proficiency and depth of understanding typically accorded the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Mahler. He would have given almost anything to have experienced this.

 is a musicologist and the editor of Modern Traditionalist Classical Music, a series of books published by Rowman and Littlefield.

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