The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: Kultur
PERFORMER: Leonard Bernstein
CATALOGUE NO: D 1570 (distr. + l 800573 3782; www.kultur.com)

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Ever the chameleon, Leonard Bernstein — pianist, composer, conductor, Broadway hero — turned academic in 1972-3 when he took up the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton visiting chair at Harvard. His series of six public lectures which formed part of the residency took its title from Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which, to Bernstein, asked: ‘Whither music in our time?’

Drawing on Noam Chomsky’s Language and Mind(1969), arguing for an innate human competence for grammar, Bernstein set himself on a line of musico-linguistic enquiry, a path genuinely novel at the time, that embraced not only music and linguistics, but literature, aesthetics, philosophy and logic.

In the first three lectures Bernstein presents his concepts of musical phonology (units of material), syntax (structure) and semantics (meaning). He postulates bold parallels between music and language — phrase=word, motive=noun, harmony=adjective — and pursues these ideas tenaciously if ultimately unconvincingly.

The last three lectures extend the idea of meaning: the fourth focuses on harmonic ambiguity in Berlioz, Wagner and Debussy — offering fascinating insights into the Very many borrowings from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette in Wagner’s Tristan — while in the fifth and sixth Bernstein considers Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the composers set up by Adorno as representing opposing poles on the axis of modern music.

After a brilliant introduction to the 12-note system, Bernstein argues that it was condemned never to achieve true atonality — shackled as it was to the same 12 notes that carry inherent harmonic suggestion — and goes on in the last lecture to examine at length Stravinsky’s asymmetry and neo-classicism, all illuminated with numerous examples at the piano.

Supporting his theses are specially recorded performances mostly by the Boston Symphony, in which he conducts Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Wagners Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, the finale from Mahler’s Ninth Sympony and a semi-staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex— some of which receive detailed and fascinating introductory analysis from Bernstein at the piano.

From a theoretical viewpoint Bernstein presents a far from watertight thesis — though he undoubtedly contributed to opening up a new field of study, formalised by Lerdahl and Jackendoff "s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1981).

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The main value for the general listener lies in Bernstein’s fertile mind, which forms a vast network of musical and extra-musical associations, like a torchlight selectively illuminating the dark forest of musical history (Bernstein litters his own discourse with metaphor). But the series also offers an insight into Bernstein the man, revealing yet another aspect to his multi-faceted genius.