MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bernstein’s Chamber Music

Leonard Bernstein in 1944; photo by Carl van Vechten

Leonard Bernstein in 1944; photo by Carl van Vechten

The “curse” of being Leonard Bernstein — of having to cope with too many talents and corresponding passions within a 24-hour day — is usually talked about as too-muchness on the macro level: Lenny the composer, say, becoming frustrated by the energy he had to siphon off into conducting gigs, ditto for Lenny the pianist, Lenny the teacher, etc.

Sometimes what’s shuffled into the Lenny-the-composer persona is broken down into the rubrics of “classical” versus Broadway undertakings. But it’s remarkable how many subcategories can be teased out here. For instance: chamber music.

While recently working on a piece about some of the early chamber works, I realized these comprise an entire subset of their own of unfulfilled potential, since, for the most part – and for obvious practical reasons – Bernstein pretty much abandoned writing chamber music despite the incredible promise shown by some of his earliest pieces.

His Sonata for Clarinet and Piano from 1941-42, which after all he chose as his first officially published composition, has become a mainstay in that sparse repertory. And with good reason. Here’s the second movement:

There’s a lone Sonata for Violin and Piano, from 1939, the year Bernstein graduated from Harvard – though the Sonata for Clarinet has also been reworked as a violin sonata. Written for a young Raphael Hillyer (future co-founder of the Juilliard Quartet), this piece also demonstrates Bernstein’s flair for abstract chamber writing, but he also made use of some of the ideas here in the ballet score Facsimile and the Age of Anxiety Symphony.

An even earlier treasure is the Piano Trio from 1937, also a product of his undergraduate years at Harvard. Already Bernstein shows his natural gift for absorbing a multitude of influences and turning them into something fresh. Notice the intriguing inclusion of then-fashionable Neoclassicism alongside the blues touch of the middle movement (later recycled as the tune “Gabey’s Comin'” in On the Town).

“I have a suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theatre music in some way” — L. Bernstein in his prefatory note to his Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety).

Filed under: American music, Bernstein


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