mu­sic The Street and the Con­cert Hall

An­drew Ford on Leonard Bern­stein

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Ford on Leonard Bern­stein

Leonard Bern­stein’s cen­te­nary

fell late last month – he was born on Au­gust 25, 1918 – and all year it has been cel­e­brated in con­cert halls around the world. But why are we cel­e­brat­ing so hard? And what, I won­der, is be­ing cel­e­brated? Be­sides be­ing the com­poser of West Side Story, Bern­stein was best known in his life­time as the most recog­nis­able con­duc­tor of his gen­er­a­tion (Her­bert von Kara­jan would have run a close sec­ond). In the United States, he was a house­hold name, largely be­cause of tele­vised con­certs in which he talked to the au­di­ence; many of these were di­rected at chil­dren. Dead con­duc­tors are hard to cel­e­brate in live con­certs, though in Lon­don the BBC Proms were “recre­at­ing” one of the pro­grams Bern­stein con­ducted there. It was a main­stream pair­ing of Mozart’s Clar­inet Con­certo and Mahler’s Sym­phony No. 5 – noth­ing about it is unique to Bern­stein – but “the world’s great­est clas­si­cal mu­sic fes­ti­val” was keen to play up its as­so­ci­a­tion with the late mae­stro, even if he only con­ducted there twice.

In the United States, as you might imag­ine, the cel­e­bra­tions are in full swing. Bern­stein’s own orches­tra, the New York Phil­har­monic, be­gan last Oc­to­ber with three weeks of events. Even in Aus­tralia, all six state or­ches­tras made Bern­stein’s mu­sic a feature of their sea­sons. Leonard Bern­stein’s story is well known. He was born in Lawrence, Mas­sachusetts, to a Ukrainian Jewish fam­ily. His fa­ther ran a hair­dress­ing and beauty sup­ply com­pany. The Bern­steins weren’t mu­si­cal, and Leonard – or Louis as he was called be­fore he changed his name at age 15 – wasn’t ex­actly a prodigy. But he was tal­ented, en­thu­si­as­tic, am­bi­tious and charis­matic. At 19, while at Har­vard, he met the con­duc­tor Dim­itri Mitropou­los, who was both im­pressed and smit­ten, ask­ing the young stu­dent for a pho­to­graph to take on a Euro­pean tour. (There are ru­mours of an af­fair.) Mitropou­los never gave Bern­stein con­duct­ing lessons, but rec­om­mended him to the Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Philadel­phia, where he en­tered the class of the great Hun­gar­ian con­duc­tor Fritz Reiner. Later, Bern­stein stud­ied with an­other Euro­pean émi­gré, Serge Kous­se­vitzky, con­duc­tor of the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra. It would have been dif­fi­cult to find three more se­ri­ous men­tors. Bern­stein worked hard, hon­ing his tal­ents as a con­duc­tor, pi­anist and com­poser (Aaron Co­p­land was an early role model and friend), and, in 1943 at the age of 25, he was ap­pointed as­sis­tant con­duc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic. Within months, he had made his de­but with the orches­tra, stand­ing in for the leg­endary Bruno Wal­ter at such short no­tice there was no op­por­tu­nity for a re­hearsal. It was a Hol­ly­wood mo­ment. The per­for­mance at Carnegie Hall was a suc­cess, the young con­duc­tor was cheered, and ev­ery­one heard about it be­cause the con­cert was broad­cast live across the na­tion and the story was on the front page of the fol­low­ing day’s New York Times. Within two years, Bern­stein had his own orches­tra – the New York City Sym­phony – and at the end of the war there were engagements across Europe. In 1958, he suc­ceeded Mitropou­los as con­duc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic and stayed un­til 1969, when he was named lau­re­ate con­duc­tor for life. If this were not enough, in 1944 (the year between Bern­stein’s con­duct­ing de­but with the Phil­har­monic and his ap­point­ment as mu­sic di­rec­tor at the Sym­phony) his other ca­reer took off. In Jan­uary he led the pre­miere of his first sym­phony with the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony Orches­tra; in April he con­ducted his score for Jerome Rob­bins’ bal­let Fancy Free at New York’s Metropoli­tan Opera House; and in De­cem­ber his mu­si­cal com­edy On the Town opened on Broad­way. Bern­stein’s ca­reer path was set: a zigzag path, or so it seemed, between high and low art that he would ne­go­ti­ate with aplomb, while of­ten af­fronted by the way in which his con­cert mu­sic was re­ceived. It was sig­nif­i­cant that 1944 in­cluded both a Broad­way show and a sym­phony. Along with con­duct­ing – par­tic­u­larly on tele­vi­sion – Bern­stein’s mu­si­cals would bring him his great­est pop­u­lar suc­cess, but it’s hard not to feel that Bern­stein wanted to be re­garded as a se­ri­ous com­poser wor­thy of his Euro­pean men­tors. There is a let­ter from Kous­se­vitzky to Bern­stein in 1946. The old man has in­vited Bern­stein to con­duct the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra, and Bern­stein has pro­posed his new bal­let score Fac­sim­ile. Kous­se­vitzky is shocked. He de­mands to know if Bern­stein con­sid­ers his mu­sic wor­thy to stand along­side Beethoven, Schu­bert and Brahms. Had he stopped there, his let­ter might not have been so con­fronting, but he goes on to list Stravin­sky, Prokofiev, Bartók and Co­p­land. Bern­stein replies, tail not quite between his legs, that of course he is “not on a level with Beethoven and Bartók”. Co­p­land isn’t men­tioned. Bern­stein needed the lime­light but he also wanted to be revered. In Humphrey Bur­ton’s bi­og­ra­phy, there’s a telling story of Bern­stein, in his Maserati con­vert­ible with per­son­alised num­ber­plates, stopped at traf­fic lights in mid­town Man­hat­tan. Teenage boys pull up next to him. “Hey, Lenny, wanna change cars?” they call out. “They wouldn’t talk to Szell like that,” Bern­stein snarls to his pas­sen­ger. Well, no, of course they wouldn’t! They’d never have heard of Ge­orge Szell, con­duc­tor of the Cleve­land Orches­tra. They were be­ing fa­mil­iar with Bern­stein be­cause, week af­ter week, he’d been on their tele­vi­sion sets, talk­ing to them in their homes. Among Bern­stein’s con­cert works are three sym­phonies. The first, com­posed dur­ing World War Two, is the Jeremiah, in which a mezzo-so­prano sings from the La­men­ta­tions of Jeremiah in the Old Tes­ta­ment. The sec­ond (its pre­miere in 1949 con­ducted by Kous­se­vitzky) is The Age of Anx­i­ety, named af­ter W.H. Au­den’s vir­tu­osic poem of the same name. The third, Kad­dish (1963), is a kind of spir­i­tual psy­chodrama in which a nar­ra­tor, ad­dress­ing God, wres­tles with be­lief, while the Jewish prayer for the dead is in­toned by a boys’ choir and a so­prano soloist. Then there’s a vi­o­lin con­certo, in­nocu­ously ti­tled Ser­e­nade though its brack­eted sub­ti­tle is “af­ter Plato’s Sym­po­sium”. It’s high-minded stuff, no doubt about it. The ti­tles alone tell us this. Bern­stein is mix­ing it with his he­roes – the com­posers that Kous­se­vitzky named in that let­ter, as well as Mahler and Shostakovich – and he ex­pects to be taken se­ri­ously. But did the wider au­di­ence care? Not those boys in the “rat­tling jalopy”. And do au­di­ences care to­day? It’s in­ter­est­ing to ex­am­ine the con­cert pro­grams put to­gether to mark Bern­stein’s cen­te­nary. In Aus­tralia, there was a per­for­mance of the Jeremiah sym­phony from the Mel­bourne Sym­phony Orches­tra and The Age of Anx­i­ety from the Queens­land Sym­phony Orches­tra. The pop­u­lar Chich­ester Psalms turned up in Perth, Bris­bane and Mel­bourne, and will be in Ade­laide in Novem­ber. The Can­berra In­ter­na­tional Mu­sic Fes­ti­val ended with a per­for­mance of Ser­e­nade. Over­whelm­ingly, though, the Broad­way hits were what our or­ches­tras fo­cused on. Is it too sim­ple to re­gard Bern­stein as a mul­ti­tal­ented dou­ble man: pur­veyor of mu­si­cal theatre on the one hand, sym­phonic pro­fun­dity on the other? Even if it

was a di­chotomy Bern­stein him­self sensed and strug­gled with, it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily real. Bern­stein pro­vided a clue to his true na­ture in an in­ter­view he gave to Bri­tish tele­vi­sion in 1986. “Mu­sic,” he in­sisted, “is one ac­tiv­ity. Writ­ing it is part of that ac­tiv­ity, play­ing it is an­other, and con­duct­ing it is an­other; and teach­ing it is an­other, and think­ing about it is an­other and talk­ing to you about it is an­other. But it’s all one thing.” He might have added that writ­ing mu­si­cals and writ­ing sym­phonies is also one thing. Be­cause, lis­ten­ing to the sym­phonic works again, I sense lit­tle dis­tinc­tion between their mu­si­cal style and that of his sup­pos­edly lighter fare. The aims might be dif­fer­ent; the ges­tures, har­monies and or­ches­tra­tion are much the same. It is not just that a sym­phony can con­tain ref­er­ences to jazz. Of course it can, and in The Age of Anx­i­ety the fourth move­ment fea­tures a solo piano play­ing some­thing like the “Wrong Note Rag” from his mu­si­cal Won­der­ful Town. But that’s a kind of quotation: street mu­sic in­vad­ing the con­cert hall. Haydn did that, so did Mahler, so did Charles Ives. Bern­stein goes fur­ther. The fi­nal move­ment of the Jeremiah sym­phony – in which that mezzo-so­prano sings, in He­brew, “Where­fore dost Thou for­get us for­ever / And for­sake us so long a time? / Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord” – con­cludes with the orches­tra play­ing soft, high, long-held chords that are prac­ti­cally in­ter­change­able with those that end “Maria” in West Side Story. The Age of Anx­i­ety con­cludes with a pas­sage of mount­ing heroic de­fi­ance that re­calls the com­poser’s only film score, for Elia Kazan’s On the Wa­ter­front. It’s all one thing. In 1973, Bern­stein was Har­vard Univer­sity’s Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Po­etry. Since 1925, the holder of this chair had been in­vited to de­liver a se­ries of lec­tures on “po­etry in the broad­est sense”. Among Bern­stein’s il­lus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sors were T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Jorge Luis Borges, Stravin­sky and Co­p­land. (It wasn’t un­til 1979 that a woman – the critic He­len Gard­ner – gave the Nor­ton Lec­tures, and only three oth­ers have done so since.) Bern­stein took the job se­ri­ously. He re­duced his con­duct­ing and com­pos­ing work­load, and spent much of the year at Har­vard, where he de­liv­ered each of his six lec­tures twice: once for the univer­sity and once for the tele­vi­sion cam­eras. The lec­tures were en­ti­tled The Unan­swered Question, af­ter Ives’s enig­matic or­ches­tral piece of 1908 in which a placidly tonal string orches­tra pro­vides a bed of un­chang­ing cer­tainty above which a trum­pet in­tones a curly mu­si­cal question and an in­creas­ingly frus­trated quar­tet of dis­so­nant flutes at­tempts to

find an answer. Bern­stein used both Ives’s ti­tle and the piece it­self as the spring­board for an ex­am­i­na­tion of tonal mu­sic in cri­sis, draw­ing heav­ily on Noam Chom­sky for a discussion of mu­si­cal syn­tax. He was ev­i­dently con­cerned by the break­down of a sys­tem of keys that had served Western mu­sic for cen­turies and that he was not ready to aban­don.

At the end of these filmed per­for­mances, we re­turn for a sum­ming up to the lec­ture room, where Bern­stein is wip­ing away a tear or stub­bing out a cig­a­rette.

I watched the lec­tures on tele­vi­sion in Eng­land dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days of 1975. It was my first va­ca­tion home from univer­sity and I was full of mu­si­cal cer­tain­ties, some of which would have been at odds with Bern­stein’s at­ti­tudes. For in­stance, I did not con­sider the break­down of tonal­ity a ter­ri­ble thing, but a his­toric in­evitabil­ity. Re­cently, I watched the lec­tures again and found my me­mory had played tricks on me. I re­called rather ac­cu­rately the style of the lec­tures, which is a lit­tle arch. There’s the great man in a range of for­mal and semi-for­mal at­tire: in one lec­ture he wears a bow tie, in an­other a loud checked sports jacket that daz­zles the cam­eras. He has a ten­dency to pos­ture and preen. Each lec­ture fin­ishes with mu­sic, a ma­jor work – or a move­ment from one – with Bern­stein con­duct­ing the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra in Mozart’s 40th sym­phony and Beethoven’s Pas­toral; the Pre­lude and Liebestod from Wag­ner’s Tris­tan und Isolde; and the fi­nale of Mahler’s Sym­phony No. 9. At the end of these filmed per­for­mances, we re­turn for a sum­ming up to the lec­ture room, where Bern­stein is wip­ing away a tear or stub­bing out a cig­a­rette. Re­view­ing Bern­stein’s Nor­ton Lec­tures in The New York Times, im­me­di­ately af­ter the last had been de­liv­ered, Michael Stein­berg re­ferred to Bern­stein’s “fa­tal gift of pro­ject­ing him­self rather than the mat­ter at hand”. My mem­o­ries of what Bern­stein dis­cussed cen­tred on his rather forced ap­pli­ca­tion of Chom­sky’s no­tion of deep and sur­face struc­ture in language to mu­sic. I find that more per­sua­sive now than I did aged 18, and am more for­giv­ing than my teenage self of Bern­stein’s lament for tonal mu­sic. I am also as­ton­ished to find how much of Bern­stein’s think­ing about tonal­ity – and how many of his ac­tual ex­am­ples – I have shame­lessly (if un­wit­tingly) filched for my own lec­tures and ar­ti­cles over the past 40 years. It seems I was an at­ten­tive stu­dent, in spite of my prej­u­dices. But what I find most strik­ing, re­vis­it­ing these lec­tures, is the ex­tent to which they sum up Bern­stein and his mu­sic. At the end, the com­poser-con­duc­tor is upbeat about mu­sic’s fu­ture. Even as his he­roes had lat­terly suc­cumbed to ex­per­i­ment­ing with Schoen­berg’s 12-tone tech­nique – Stravin­sky and Co­p­land em­brac­ing the ap­proach at the ends of their ca­reers, Ben­jamin Brit­ten and Shostakovich dip­ping their scep­ti­cal toes in its wa­ters – a younger gen­er­a­tion of com­posers re­con­sid­ered tonal­ity. Bern­stein men­tions Steve Re­ich, Karl­heinz Stock­hausen’s Stim­mung (“70 min­utes in a B-flat world”) and, above all, Luciano Be­rio’s Sin­fo­nia, com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­monic and ded­i­cated to Bern­stein. But he also talks about the mu­si­cal ver­nac­u­lar: about the Amer­i­can – nay, cow­boy – style of Co­p­land, and about the very Parisian waltz in Fran­cis Poulenc’s opera Les mamelles de Tirésias. He quotes Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, The Kinks’ “You Re­ally Got Me”, and talks about how Stravin­sky – be­fore em­brac­ing 12-tone mu­sic – had re­freshed his mu­sic and tonal­ity it­self by in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of “jazz, cafe mu­sic and sa­lon mu­sic, with all their at­ten­dant waltzes, polkas, fox­trots, tan­gos and rags”. In other words, he is cel­e­brat­ing plu­ral­ism. And, while he might not spell it out, he im­plies, in that fi­nal lec­ture, that we need a har­monic sys­tem that can ac­com­mo­date both sym­phonies and pop songs – The Age of Anx­i­ety and “I Feel Pretty”. Of course there are “atonal” mas­ter­pieces – Bern­stein doesn’t deny it – but “atonal­ity” would never be a lin­gua franca. It is this idea that Bern­stein’s own mu­sic em­bod­ies. And, in the end, it is this idea that we are cel­e­brat­ing.

Leonard Bern­stein, Fe­bru­ary 1970. © Fox Pho­tos / Hul­ton Archive / Getty Im­ages

Leonard Bern­stein, circa 1950. © Pic­to­rial Pa­rade / Archive Pho­tos / Getty Im­ages

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.