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Bernstein on TV

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Leonard Bernstein’s book, The Joy of Music, contained not only imaginary conversations, but also television transcripts from the show Omnibus. They covered “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” “The World of Jazz,” “The Art of Conducting,” “American Musical Comedy,” “Introduction to Modern Music,” “The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach,” and “What Makes Opera Grand?”.

One concept Bernstein returned to throughout these shows is the idea of the “inevitability” of the next musical note and phrase. Beethoven wrote and re-wrote the musical themes for his symphonies (89-91); he had to figure out what would arrive next. This makes it seem, ironically, as if what he composed was not inevitable. After all, he had many choices for each note and rhythm. So, what makes the final phrases appear as if they were the only possible musical conclusions?

As Bernstein depicts Beethoven’s drafts in The Joy of Music, he shows us notes with multiple cross-outs and re-writes. We realize that it’s only due to Beethoven’s extensive work composing that the final products seem inevitable. If Beethoven had stopped anywhere along the line, then the end products might not have sounded inevitable to listeners at all.

Bernstein contrasts Beethoven’s work with an image from an Igor Stravinsky score, which the author notes, “looks almost as beautiful as it sounds” (92). “But Beethoven’s manuscript looks like a bloody record of a tremendous inner battle” (93). Bernstein called him “a builder,” someone “always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability” (105).

Bernstein also described this quality as “rightness- that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant” (29). So, the idea that Beethoven scribbled, wrote, re-wrote his symphonies until they were “right,” makes much more sense.

Perhaps the path to “rightness” is a different one for different composers, or maybe only certain composers achieve this quality. Bernstein goes so far as to compare Beethoven almost to G-d. Although I wouldn’t go that far, I’d certainly recommend this book as a good read for anyone interested in honoring Bernstein during the current, two-year, worldwide celebration. For more information, check-out the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” web site: https://leonardbernstein.com/at100. The festival commemorates the composer, music educator and humanitarian with more than 2,500 events worldwide. G-d speed, Bernstein.

Tune in here next time for reviews of the cultural icon’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.