It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the fifth in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Some seven years before he died, too young, at the age of 72 in 1990, Leonard Bernstein was at a party in Rome. As was not infrequently the case over that last, packed decade of his life, he was inebriated and unafraid to speak his mind. At one point in the evening, he let loose on a topic that haunted him for much of his career: his compositional legacy. “You know what’s made me really distraught?” he asked. “I am only going to be remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story.”
What a fate that would have been! In the now quarter-century since his death, though, posterity has been far kinder to Bernstein the Composer than even he had probably hoped. At least two of his three symphonies are firmly entrenched in the American symphonic canon. The warm, brilliant Serenade has been performed and recorded by an impressive crop of virtuosi, including Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn. Chichester Psalms, 50 years young this past summer, shows no signs of wearing out its welcome. Even Mass, that hugely controversial, widely misunderstood grab-bag of musical styles and theological arguments, has found its champions (Stephen Schwartz’s judicious revisions of its most embarrassing hippie-era lyrics for a new production in 2008 certainly helped give it a new lease on life). And, though he flopped out of Broadway in 1976 with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bernstein’s biggest hits (and a notable failure) continue to turn up on the Great White Way: On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story have all been revived there (sometimes more than once) in just the last decade alone. Yes, though his physical presence is sorely missed, in some ways Lenny is with us now as much as he ever was.
But the concern he confessed 30-plus years ago was not misplaced. The fact is, for all of Bernstein’s extraordinary musical abilities, he offended as much as he charmed. His dynamic podium presence often thrilled audiences, but tended to draw biting rebukes from the likes of Alan Rich and Harold Schonberg, two leading critics of the day. More provocative to a wider body were Bernstein’s left-leaning politics (he was, at one point during the Red Scare in the ’50s, denied a passport by the State Department for his supposed Communist sympathies); his outspoken support of Civil Rights and opposition to the Vietnam War (pilloried memorably, if mercilessly, in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic); and his willingness to push closely held boundaries, particularly religious ones (best exemplified in Mass, at the climax of which the Celebrant hurls down the elements of Communion and suffers a spiritual breakdown). Add to this his bisexuality, which was something of an open secret in musical circles over the first half of his career, though it became more publicly known over the last 15-or-so years of his life, and it’s easy to see how Bernstein and his music might have stirred some hostility, if not open resentment.
Even that most remarkable asset of his, his uncanny ability to teach, didn’t always work to his benefit. The Norton Lectures Bernstein delivered at Harvard University in 1973, which endeavored to apply Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories to music, were derided by many as simplistic and slapdash. Allan Keiler, for one, wrote that the Lectures “cannot be considered a well-conceived or rigorous contribution to…interdisciplinary study,” and, despite their moments of deep insight, they continue to be regarded with some suspicion. Bernstein’s teaching—in classrooms, on television, in the Lectures—certainly wasn’t aided by his tendency to generalize and contradict himself. Among other things, he often spoke dismissively of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and Serial music generally, yet in his own works, he incorporated Serial techniques as adroitly and memorably as anyone. What to make of such contradictions is to get to the heart of the Bernstein conundrum. Happily, some recent scholarship—Nigel Simeone’s handsomely edited collection of Bernstein letters and Jonathan Cott’s illuminating Dinner with Lenny (the last a 12-hour interview Cott held with Bernstein just under a year before he died), among them—begins to give a clearer picture of Bernstein in all his complexity; these (and other recent works) can go some way toward bursting the myth of Bernstein as a superficial thinker and shallow intellect, but that may yet take some time.
And then there’s the music itself, which many hear as fresh and bracing, but not a few (and among this number were many leading critics of Bernstein’s day and since) find derivative and owing more to Copland and Mahler than anything or anyone else. In this last matter, both sides, perhaps, have a point. There are some cringe-worthy moments in Mass; in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (since reworked as A White House Cantata); and in A Quiet Place, Bernstein’s only full-length opera. But the more time you spend analyzing what causes these problems, the more it becomes radiantly apparent that they’ve got precious little to do with the music. Bernstein’s two biggest compositional difficulties—and, after West Side Story, they were not often overcome—were his choice of librettists and/or lyricists not working at the highest creative level and his inability to self-edit (or listen to those whose opinions in matters of drama were keener than his). A Quiet Place suffers from both tendencies; more often than not in the former, Bernstein himself was the chief culprit. Just listen to the tendentious, cliché-ridden narration that he wrote for his Kaddish Symphony (1963) to see what I mean.
Bernstein’s music, on the other hand, usually works on a higher level. In the Kaddish Symphony, the musical story is that of order being created out of chaos (the latter represented by a tone row); Bernstein’s transformation of the initial row into a soaring diatonic tune is one of the great dramatic coups in all his output. So what if that triumphant melody sounds like a distant cousin of “Tonight”? It’s written by the same composer; why shouldn’t it? Similarly, A Quiet Place is, in purely musical terms, arguably the most impressive theatrical achievement of any American composer in the 1980s. It’s done in (as it were) by an unbalanced libretto, characters who are almost uniformly repellent, and copious helpings of second-rate poetry. But the score itself, a synthesis of Serial and diatonic elements, orchestrated with bracing confidence and invention, is stunning: to my mind, it’s Bernstein’s finest, most substantial work as a composer.
The fact that Bernstein’s music can sometimes reflect the influence of Copland or Stravinsky or Gershwin takes nothing away from its expressive power and musical charm. There’s plenty of Beethoven that bears pretty obviously the imprint of Mozart and/or Haydn. Does that make a difference? To judge from how much of it is played (and how often), I’d say no. The same principle applies here. Arguing that Bernstein’s music is imitative is a charge that misses the forest for the trees: every composer’s music is, to some degree or other. Besides, nobody’s about to mistake Fancy Free for anything by Gershwin, much as it owes a big debt to An American in Paris. Similarly, the Overture to Candide could never have been penned by a Copland or a Harris or the Serenade by a Stravinsky, an Irving Fine, or a Harold Shapero, much as it may share stylistic traits with all of them.
No, the fact is that Bernstein’s work as a composer was always, at least from a technical standpoint, first-rate. Jack Gottlieb, his former assistant, argued that this was because Bernstein never felt that he received his due as a composer. I agree. If his teaching, conducting, performing, personal relationships, and political involvements were sometimes complicated and a bit sloppy, Bernstein’s composing was something completely other. His music was his singular gift and he knew it. That’s why it’s solid as anything any top-line colleague of his turned out.
This truism is brought powerfully home in Songfest, a collection of 13 poems in 12 movements, originally intended to commemorate the United States bicentennial in 1976. In the event, the score wasn’t finished in time for the celebration, but it premiered the following year in Washington with Bernstein conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.
Songfest is, in many regards, Bernstein’s most personal musical testament. Its 13 poems reflect his well-documented love for humanity, embracing all walks of life—including, notably, voices from the fringes of society—and spanning, with remarkable coherence, three centuries of American poetry: Anne Bradstreet, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Edgar Allan Poe are among those represented. Musically, it’s dazzling in its eclecticism, with its echoes of jazz, the blues, Broadway, and Serialism. It’s scored for six vocal soloists (here, perhaps, an echo of the eight called for in Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”) and a large orchestra (that, typical for Bernstein, includes a huge percussion section).
Bernstein organized Songfest as a set of six ensemble numbers interspersed with solo songs for each of the half-dozen soloists. For the sake of simplicity (and YouTube examples!), we’ll look at them all briefly in order. The work opens with the full ensemble singing Frank O’Hara’s “To the Poem,” an ironic, gently satiric send-up of a patriotic hymn. The first set of solo songs follows, beginning with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El,” which features some strict, jazzy 12-tone writing; after that comes a fiery setting of Julia de Burgos’s “A Julia de Burgos.”
The last solo in this first set is the most celebrated of Songfest’s movements: Bernstein’s setting of Whitman’s “To What You Said…,” a cryptic poem in which the poet makes known his homosexuality. Some of the music for this song comes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—Bernstein was never averse to recycling material—but, in this setting and context, it all takes on a special depth and stands as some of Bernstein’s most powerful writing. The Whitman is followed by the first of two duets, here a fascinating pairing of Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America” and Jordan’s “Okay, ‘Negroes.’” Jack Gottlieb posits that this may be the first setting, in a single song, of words by two different poets. Regardless, the combination of texts—especially the voices’ speaking and arguing past one another—has, in our “enlightened” new century, lost none of its disturbing power.
There’s one trio in Songfest, and it’s an absolute gem. Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” is the oldest poem set in the piece and it’s the most delicate, scored for soprano and two mezzos. That Bernstein set this tribute to marital bliss next to Gertrude Stein’s Storyette H. M., an ode to impossible marriages, is ironic; that he wrote both while undergoing a trial separation from his wife is perhaps an even more peculiar coincidence (they reconciled in the year of Songfest’s premiere, though, tragically, she died the following summer). All six singers come together to conclude the ensemble section with cumming’s “if you can’t eat you got to,” set here as a kind of swinging ode to the Mills Brothers.
Songfest’s second solo portion opens with Conrad Aiken’s “Music I Heard with You,” a lament for mezzo-soprano and orchestra that combines Serial and diatonic sections cheek by jowl. Gregory Corso’s “Zizi’s Lament” follows, full of sly humor and Eastern-ish melodic embellishments.
The penultimate movement of Songfest was reputed to be Bernstein’s personal favorite. It’s a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” a heartbreaking meditation on past, lost loves. Like the Whitman setting, it draws forth some of Bernstein’s deepest, most personal music, filled with anguished dissonances and aching chromaticism.
Songfest’s “closing hymn” brings all six singers together once more. The “hymn” in question is a brilliant, virtuosic setting of Poe’s “Israfel,” itself a paean to the Islamic angel of music. The scoring here is intensely polyphonic, as free and joyful as anything Bernstein wrote, and it closes this most American of song cycles on a triumphant—and slightly defiant—note.
To paraphrase Bernstein’s Norton Lectures, then, whither Songfest these last near-40 years? No doubt, its requirement for six capable solo singers in addition to a large orchestra presents something of a challenge. But even more practically, Songfest suffered from a serious handicap for most of its life: there was no critical edition of the score until Garth Edwin Sunderland finalized one in 2004. Now, at least, we have a final revised version of the score and functional parts. Still, the need for conductors and orchestras to champion this piece is very real.
Bernstein certainly didn’t make it easy on his successors: his recordings, especially of his own music, are mostly superlative. That’s true of his account of Songfest, though there have been a handful of maestros who have taken up the piece since Bernstein’s death—Leonard Slatkin, Seiji Ozawa, and Gerard Schwarz among them.
But Songfest is Exhibit A in the argument that American orchestras and conductors need to champion the music of these shores. Musical nationalism may, for good reasons, be out of vogue these days, and Songfest certainly has its patriotic touches. But Bernstein’s brand of patriotism was never the chest-thumping, big flag-waving, “U.S.A.”-chanting sort. It was always much more balanced, rooted in the realization that the story of the United States is the tale of countless individuals, many of them minorities and often coming from places of oppression. There is an unabashedly New Deal-era liberalism to it, for sure, but also a certain humility and a recognition of the fact that, while not everything is (or has been) perfect, many of our national problems are certainly perfectible, if only we work in good faith to fix them. Songfest sings to and reminds us of this type of patriotism. Coming on the heels of a decade-plus of shameful political dysfunction, social unrest, and military entanglements that, at this point, seem to have caused more harm than good both to the national image and the wider world, perhaps that’s just the kind of attitude of which we need to be reminded.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.