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Collection Leonard Bernstein

Section 4

Bernstein's six Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard University in 1973, were televised three years later and are now available on video cassette. The collective title, borrowed from Charles Ives, is "The Unanswered Question"—which to Bernstein means: "Whither music in our time?" His answer incorporates an overview of music history from Mozart to Schoenberg and Stravinsky. A second component of the lectures is an exercise in "musico-linguistics," applying Chomskyan language theory to the phonology, syntax, and semantics of symphonies and tone poems. And, thirdly, there are big chunks of music in performance, with Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony and (in one instance) the Berlin Philharmonic. Otherwise, the setting is intimate: a piano, a desk, a roomful of Harvard students and faculty types.

Never before or after did Bernstein appear so uncomfortable on screen. It is only partly because the lectures were prepared helter-skelter, from one meeting to the next. Bernstein struggles visibly toward his accustomed aplomb: repeatedly, he scratches his ear, musses his hair, pinches his nose. A new style of address, laced with fancy phrases ("the diatonic containment of chromaticism"), sits awkwardly beside a more colloquial, more "American" mode. Affirming belief in "mind, heart, and spirit," Bernstein feels the need to apologize for such "old-fashioned words." "Why am I doing this?" becomes a recurrent refrain—another unanswered question. "What's the relevance of all this musico-linguistics?" begins lecture two. "Isn't it a flagrant case of [intellectual] elitism?" Bernstein here argues that the analogy to language potentially furnishes "a way of speaking about music with intelligent but nonprofessional music lovers who don't know a stretto from a diminished fifth." On other occasions, he contends that structural linguistics illuminates music in new ways for professional and nonprofessional alike.

In previous public incarnations, Bernstein seemed fortified by his versatility and eclecticism, secure in his identity as an American classical musician-cum-Broadway composer. His new uncertainty is a distraction, not a charming self-effacement: he strains for intellectual credibility as an original thinker. Chomsky is his Harvard calling card. The terminology of structural linguistics spreads a scholarly patina. And Chomsky's belief in a universal and innate linguistic grammar leads in a direction Bernstein wants to go—toward a universal and innate musical grammar grounded in tonality, whose gravitational pull he considers irreplaceable. 5

Bernstein plunges in courageously. A note, he suggests, can be equated with a phoneme, a motive with a morpheme, a musical phrase with a word, a musical section with a clause, a musical movement with a sentence. But he stumbles when, in music, "words" overlap as they cannot in speech. Another attempt: a musical motive (Bernstein uses "Fate" from Wagner's Ring) is a noun phrase whose notes are like letters, and whose chordal and rhythmic modifiers resemble adjectives and verbs. On further consideration, however, language possesses both communicative and aesthetic functions, whereas music is only aesthetic. Ordinary sentences, therefore, lack musical equivalents, the linguistic parallel to music being poetry. This inference, patiently pursued, yields results so complicated they parody Bernstein's intention to explain music to nonprofessionals. That the first melodic downbeat of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony falls on a "weak" bar, a professional insight the Bernstein of Omnibus might have imparted with sleight of hand, in the heavy hands of Professor Bernstein becomes an observation of numbing complexity, requiring charts with pyramids and terms like "deep structure" and "syntactic truth."

As the lectures progress, Bernstein in fact jettisons Chomsky. The less he strives for originality, the more authentic he becomes. He observes that, after Mozart, the increasingly chromatic language of Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, and Debussy creates heightened possibilities for a delightful or menacing ambiguity. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde keeps the listener guessing—is it tonal or atonal, anchored or unmoored? The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is—like the Mallarmé—a "last ditch stand" of tonal and syntactic containment. Bernstein's instructive analyses of these pieces, of the controlled ambiguities arising from a dialectic of chromatic deviation and diatonic repose, are purely musical, with Chomsky laid on afterward as intellectual icing.

The strongest of the six Norton Lectures is the fifth, "The Twentieth Century Crisis." Here Bernstein is most in his element and furthest from Harvard. To solve the crisis of fading tonality, Schoenberg logically proceeded to atonality, which he systematized by employing twelve-tone rows. But this was an "artificial language." In fact, Schoenberg constantly reverted to an explicit or implied tonality; he "loved music with such passion" he could not overthrow its necessary foundation. A "nostalgic yearning for the deep structures" of diatonic music, Bernstein claims, haunts such works as the Opus 23 Piano Pieces and Third String Quartet, with their melodic fourths and fifths and covert tonic/dominant harmonic gestures—qualities that crucially contribute to making this music "beautiful and moving." It could actually be said that all music "is ultimately and basically tonal, even when it's nontonal."

Even so, Schoenberg's implicit "tonal" practice embodies ambiguities that exceed our intuitive grasp. The truly emblematic twentieth-century composer is Mahler, whose attempts to relinquish tonality are reluctant and incomplete, and whose nostalgia for past practice is overt and tragic. Mahler's Ninth Symphony, his "last will and testament," shows "that ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet." That is the "real reason" Mahler's music suffered posthumous neglect—it was, Bernstein says, "telling something too dreadful to hear." The Ninth Symphony embodies three kinds of death—Mahler's own, which he knew was imminent; the death of tonality, "which for him meant the death of music itself"; and "the death of society, of our Faustian culture." And yet this music, like all great art, paradoxically reanimates us.

Bernstein's final Norton Lecture considers Stravinsky, whom he admires for his sustained (if ultimately abrogated) allegiance to tonality, for his eclecticism, and for the nourishment he drew from vernacular sources, including jazz. For Bernstein, Stravinsky's embarrassed response to direct emotional expression achieves a paradoxical Romantic poignance, "speaking for all us frightened children."

While Bernstein concludes by prophesying a more wholesome musical future, a "new eclecticism" grounded in tonality, his once boyish optimism seems freighted with Old World gravitas and gloom. Even without the strained appeal to Chomsky, his sanguine rhetoric is strained, and so are its interpretive props. His readings of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, both of whom are shown to gain power from an inadvertent Romanticism, are impossibly tendentious: he exaggerates the place of poignance—of poignant tonal yearnings, of poignant reticence—in their emotional worlds. And the Mahler-equals-Bernstein equation this time fails to convince: we know at a glance that the Twentieth-Century Crisis of the fifth lecture is also Bernstein's crisis, with an offstage American history of its own.

In 1964-1965, on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein had experimented with serialism, and, by his own account, wrote "a lot of music, twelve-tone music and avant-garde music of various kinds," only to discard it. As a theater composer, he never repeated the success of West Side Story. The early Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion remained his most successful concert work. Writing in the New York Times in 1965, he mulled "the ancient cliché that the certainty of one's knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience," pondered "the present crisis in composition," asked if tonality were forever dead, and worried that orchestras would "become museums of the past." A 1967 television interview in conjunction with the Philharmonic's 125th birthday revealed a spent and disillusioned Bernstein; he had recently announced that he would relinquish his music directorship as of 1969. Thirteen years later, addressing the American Symphony Orchestra League, Bernstein complained of the "apathy and joylessness" of orchestral musicians.

Bernstein's mentor Koussevitzky had forecast: "The next Beethoven vill from Colorado come." But neither Bernstein nor anyone else wrote the Great American Symphony. Meanwhile, the Broadway that Bernstein had exuberantly praised, whose stellar practitioners he had compared to Puccini in Milan and Brahms in Vienna, had not proved the boulevard to greatness he had predicted. American popular music—not only jazz, but sixties and seventies rock, which he loved for its vitality and inventiveness—had in his opinion also lost its way. A new popular culture, with which he could not identify, erased the high-culture berths once reserved for classical music on commercial television. "Mediocrity and art-mongering increasingly uglify our lives," he complained in the Norton Lectures. Outside music, the demise of the Kennedy White House, in which he had been a frequent guest, tarnished his dreams for America. His famous 1970 fund-raising party for the Black Panther defense fund, savagely ridiculed by Tom Wolfe as "radical chic," again caught him out of step.

On Omnibus, in his Young People's Concerts, Bernstein had excitedly chronicled the growing up of American classical music and musical theater. "All we need is our Mozart to come along." It could "happen any second." It never did.


  1. In the Young People's Concerts Bernstein described tonality to laymen. "You feel a key-note, a center, or home plate, where the music belongs, starts out from, and gets back to. That center is called the tonic and the tonic note is the first note of the scale…and the tonic chord is the chord you build on to that note…A tonic is like a magnet; you can pull away from it, going on to other chords, other keys, or tonal centers, but in the end the tonic always pulls you back irresistibly." [Return to text]

(Article reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books External. Copyright © 1993 NYREV, Inc.)