MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

R.I.P. Barbara Cook

Filed under: American music, music news, Bernstein

Remembering Lenny

In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday — just two years away from the centenary now! — I’m reposting a link here to some thoughts from a few years ago.

Filed under: American music, anniversary, Bernstein

Remembering Lenny

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless…

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Leonard_Bernstein_1971
Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota Building; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless…

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Filed under: American music, Bernstein

What Makes an “American Composer”?

Piston
I was just researching an orchestral piece by Walter Piston and wondering why his music is hardly ever programmed nowadays. In the mid- twentieth century he was all over the place, winning TWO Pulitzers and getting prestigious commissions year after year from the Boston Symphony. Merely an adept player at musical politics?

In fact, Mr. hard-to-please Igor Stravinsky singled out Piston and Aaron Copland as exemplary American composers: “They have good musical ideas,” Stravinsky wrote in 1945. “They also have the requisite techniques. They are fine orchestrators, too.”

In the 1930s, Copland, six years younger than the New England-born and -bred Piston, listed a sort of posse of prominent American composers that (along with himself) included Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions. (Thomson apparently liked to refer to this as Copland’s “commando unit.”) Yet of this bunch (“Les Six” made such bands fashionable at the time), it’s really only Copland who gets heard with any frequency today.

But Piston’s definition of “American music” may have actually been closer to today’s multicultural sensibilities than Copland’s — in the sense, that is, that there can be no grand “master narrative,” no single identifiable American style. Howard Pollack, who wrote his dissertation on Piston and a very fine bio of Copland, quotes the following from Piston, who, like Copland, had studied at the “Boulangerie” in 1920s Paris with Nadia Boulanger:

Copland and I had a friendly war about American music. Aaron and I were very thick. We practically grew up together. He had hopes of producing an American music that was just as recognizable as French and German music. I told him that America had so many different nationalities that it would be nearly impossible, I felt that the only definition of American music was that written by an American. He had to agree, but he felt there ought to be a vernacular.

(That obviously echoes – or was echoed by – Virgil Thomson’s famous dictum that American music was ““any music written by an American” — I don’t know who said it first.)

Piston certainly left an indelible mark through the students he influenced during more than three decades teaching at Harvard: the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, etc. (not to mention his many-times-reprinted textbooks on theory and orchestration).

Piston’s stylishly neoclassical Toccata for Orchestra, a curtain raiser for Charles Munch and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française (who played it at 41 stops on their 1948 American tour), gives you a good morsel-size sample of the fine craft that musicians like Bernstein valued. Bernstein admired his former teacher’s compositions for showing “the highest standards of craftsmanship and clarity of sonic intention.”

So here is Piston, an American composer, trying to evoke what he describes as “those qualities of clarity and brilliance which are so outstanding in the playing of French musicians.”

Filed under: American music, Bernstein

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

Remembering Lenny

Leonard_Bernstein_1971
Lenny in 1971, when he was rehearsing his new work Mass to open the Kennedy Center

So today Leonard Bernstein would have turned 95 [97]. If he were Elliott Carter, he’d still have about nine [seven] years left to share his genius with us — and Lord knows the world could desperately use it. I can still feel a pang when I pass by the Dakota on Central Park West; strangely, that Sunday afternoon in October when he died there doesn’t seem so far off.

I got to meet him just once, near the end of his life, when he was touring with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting a program of Mahler Five paired with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I waited patiently afterward to get him to sign the book I happened to have on me — the first volume of Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung, which immediately prompted him to set aside his bottomless glass of Ballantine’s scotch and exclaim incredulously, “That’s my favorite book! Do you realize Bloch is the perfect book to go with Mahler?! Unbelievable!” And then he took another deep drag on his endless chain of L&M cigarettes.

Whenever I used to hear about folks who first fell in love with music thanks to the inspiration they found in Leonard Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts, their accounts simultaneously intrigued me and left me feeling a touch jealous. The heyday of the series was before my time, so I never ended up seeing any of them until years later, when they became available on DVD. I can’t help but imagine how much these would have changed my life, too, if I’d had the opportunity to discover them when I was growing up.

Actually, I do have another gift from Lenny for which I remain eternally grateful. I can vividly recall chancing upon some PBS re-broadcast of his legendary Norton Lectures, first delivered at Harvard in the early 1970s and drawing on Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of transformational grammar, just around the time music was starting to become a force in my life.

Instantly I was hooked. To judge by what I can still remember from that first viewing — even taking into account the “creative reconstruction” that’s inherent to the process of memory — this encounter was remarkably formative. It didn’t just serve as my first crash course in music history and theory, in how to listen beyond the surface and look for structures and connections, but it even imparted a whole philosophy about music and its capacity to mean, to be at least as significant as everything else I cherished — maybe even more.

“I also believe, along with Keats, that the poetry of earth is never dead,” I remember Lenny declaring in his credo, “as long as spring succeeds winter, and man is there to perceive it.” The way he imparted these observations, as if they were a confidence shared with his prized students, was a perfect example of yet another gift of this impossibly gifted, complicated, multi-layered man — Bernstein as the great teacher and rabbi. He ended with this summing-up:

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones that do not preclude additional responses that are conditioned or learned. And that all particular languages bear on one another, and combine into always new idioms perceptible to human beings, and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind. And that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that Ives’ “Unanswered Question” has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know the answer, and the answer is, “Yes.”

Lenny the polymath: here he conducts and plays solo in one of the most exquisite scores I know, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Filed under: American music, Bernstein, composers

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