Leonard Bernstein on the history of modern music


I've been watching videos on YouTube of Bernstein’s Norton Lectures in 1973. Excursions into music theory, history, and appreciation. He makes a lot of good points in the first lecture—for example, that the reason for twelve notes in the chromatic scale is that the circle of fifths, which arises out of the harmonic series (overtones—you play C, there’s a G overtone, etc.), gives you twelve tones. (C, G, D, A, E, B, G-flat, D-flat, A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, F.) It’s fascinating that both the diachronic and the chromatic—and of course the pentatonic—scales have their source in the nature of the harmonic series. Bernstein is right that, just as humans have a Universal Grammar, so they have something like a Universal Musical Grammar, so to speak, which can be expressed in different “languages” (different types of music, types of scales, modes, harmonies). Obviously the parallel with language isn’t perfect, but it’s suggestive.


In the succeeding lectures, Bernstein takes the analogy with language too far. Goes into Chomskyan linguistics, tries to apply it to music, and things get a little silly. And it goes on with his incredibly extensive application of literary devices—metaphor, alliteration, anaphora, repetition, etc.—to music. Everywhere he sees “transformations,” as in deletions, augmentations, inversions, and so on—and those certainly do exist, indeed are of the essence of good music, but to call them “Chomskyan” transformations is a stretch. He is right, though, to place repetition at the foundation of music.


He gives a fascinating and probably true explanation of why minor modes sound sad or disturbing. You know that when you play the tonic, implicit in the note are its overtones—the fifth, the major third, etc. The minor third is also an overtone, but a distant one: the eighteenth. So when you explicitly play the minor third, thus changing the mode from major to minor, you’re introducing an “interference” (of frequencies), or a sort of nearly imperceptible dissonance, since the major third, being one of the first overtones, is strongly (implicitly) present (in the tonic) as well. You’re playing the major and minor thirds at the same time, as it were. The human brain hears this interference, this dissonance, as expressing an unsettled, unsettling mood. Major modes sound “happy” because there is no interference of frequencies; there is relative harmony. That is, the implicit first few overtones are also being explicitly played, pleasantly “reinforcing” the already present. (That last part is from me, not Bernstein.)


Bernstein also makes much of the “delights and dangers of ambiguity.” He sees ambiguity as key to expressivity. Syntactic, semantic, and phonological ambiguity. Reads from “The Leaden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem with sublime ambiguities that delights in gorgeous sounds for their own sake. E.g.: “How to keep—is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or / brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep / Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty....from vanishing away?” Etc. Syntactically and somewhat semantically ambiguous. Hence extremely expressive (although that isn’t the only reason). Music, too, he thinks can be “syntactically,” “semantically,” and “phonologically” ambiguous—and, to an extent, the more it is, the more expressive it is. Think of Chopin’s ambiguous and wonderfully expressive chromaticism, his playing around with tonality so that sometimes you don’t know what key you’re in, you’re “suspended.” Or Schumann’s rhythmic ambiguities, his syncopations and the like. Or the ambiguities of certain transitions in Beethoven, such as the transition between the third and fourth movements in the fifth symphony and that between the third and fourth movements in the Hammerklavier sonata. All intensely expressive. And the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, even more ambiguous[1] and hence expressive. So ambiguous in its chromaticism as to stretch tonality to its limits—thus making itself the “crisis work of the nineteenth century,” pointing directly to the musical crisis of the early twentieth.


After his performance of the beginning and end of Tristan, Bernstein eloquently sums up the history: “And so music can never be the same again [after Tristan und Isolde]. The gates of chromaticism have been flung open, those golden gates of the golden age, which were the outer limits of ambiguity, standing firm in diatonic majesty. But now that they’re open, now that Berlioz and Chopin and Schumann and Wagner have pushed them open, we’re in new tonal fields that are apparently limitless. We’re bounding and leaping from one ambiguity to the other—from Berlioz to Wagner to Bruckner and Mahler to Debussy and Scriabin and Stravinsky. It’s a dizzying adventure, this romantic romp, shedding one inhibition after another, indulging in newer and ever more illicit ambiguities, piling them on, stringing them out, daring them to take over for nearly a whole century. But how ambiguous can you get before the clarity of musical meaning is lost altogether? How far can music romp through these new chromatic fields without finding itself in uncharted terrain, in a wild forest of sharps and flats? Are there no further gates of containment? Perhaps not ‘golden’ ones, perhaps only dry stone walls or rude fences? Well of course there are, or rather were, until they began to crumble under the attack of the new century. These tonal fences, these walls of formality, somehow managed to contain the rampage of chromaticism even through the crises of Tristan und Isolde and of Pelléas et Mélisande and of The Rite of Spring. But ultimately a supreme crisis did arrive, a crisis that remains unresolved to this day and is over half a century old....” He leaves us guessing at this point, dallying instead in the dreamlike chromaticism of Debussy. Thoughtful analysis of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.


He’s right about how ambiguous art became in the late nineteenth century, profoundly expressive in its profound ambiguity. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, the Impressionists in painting and music, Symbolism.... So much of it became spiritual, dreamlike, extra-terrestrial. Abstract. Things tend to get abstract, you know, when a culture is approaching its demise. Think of Plato’s idealism and the even greater sophistication of Aristotle, near the end of classical Athens. In its youth, as in that of an individual, a culture is directed to the concrete and immediate, the naïve and spontaneous; as it proceeds into adulthood and old age, intellectualism sets in, symbolism sets in, the gaze turns toward the transcendent, irony and cynicism and boredom appear as the individual is made more aware of himself in opposition to others. Chromaticism can express all this wonderfully; hence its widespread use in the late nineteenth century.


Art became more ambiguous then (as I see it) because life was becoming more ambiguous. Culture, like society, was on the road to nihilism. Finally in the one came Dadaism and the like (I’d say atonalism too, which is supremely “ambiguous”), while in the other came World War I. And on into the 1920s, various literary, musical, and artistic expressions of decadence, of ennui, experimentation everywhere. Then, finally, a sort of rupture: the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II. Afterwards the mature, liberal democratic consolidation of corporate capitalism and mass consumerism, a more stable order—but still despair and alienation in much high art and philosophy, such as existentialism. New expressions of old alienated impulses, because, in effect, a semi-new society. Then a new eruption against middle-class alienation in the 1960s, a real social idealism throughout much of the world (in most countries, incidentally, not merely “middle-class” but more elemental)....but inevitable failure, and again a partial renewal of individualism, materialism, ennui (drug-taking, hedonism), and more “nihilistic” art in the 1970s and ’80s. And so it goes.


To return. Bernstein observes that Debussy’s whole-tone scale is in fact atonal, since it lacks a dominant and subdominant. No circle of fifths is possible, and no traditional modulations are possible. Thus, Debussy’s invention was “the first organized atonal material ever to appear in musical history.” It was also, perforce, the most “ambiguous.” In the Faun he followed the old masters in containing his chromaticism and ambiguity with at least some diatonicism, but it was clear by that time that the diatonic containment of ambiguity (or of chromaticism and/or near-atonality) was about ready to burst.


It did so in 1908, with Schoenberg’s Opus 11—and even more, later, with Opus 21 (or 23; I forget)—the atonality of which was no longer at all contained by any vestiges of tonality. So a divide opened up in the succeeding years and decades between composers, led by Stravinsky, who still tried to remain in the framework of tonality and others, led by Schoenberg, who abandoned it. Both camps, however, had the same motivation: to increase expressive power. Schoenberg eventually invented his serial method because, having abandoned tonality, he needed a new framework by which to structure music. Otherwise atonal compositions would simply be too free, unconstrained by anything. Certain composers seized on his new method, and it (has) lasted for many decades. —I think it’s revealing, however, that Schoenberg himself said he had continually been pulled back toward tonality, and late in life he even wrote a tonal work for orchestra. This shows the power of tonality, its greater human significance (and physical, nature-al significance) than something as formalistic, forced, “external,” “intellectual,” and “artificial” as serialism.


Bernstein observes tellingly that no matter what a composer does with music, as long as he is using the twelve notes of the chromatic scale he cannot totally escape tonality. Schoenberg himself said that—he repudiated the word “atonality” because he thought it was impossible. Tonality is implicitly present in the notes, such that even serialist composers are semi-rooted in it, despite themselves. And of course they weren’t the first to assay non-tonality; Bach sometimes did, Beethoven, even Mozart, and Liszt, and many others. They would play around the edges of tonality, bring rootlessness to bear on rootedness.


Of all the serialist composers, Alban Berg was the most successful at writing music that could appeal to people. He sometimes managed, unlike Schoenberg and the others, to reconcile or fuse the twelve-tone system with tonality (tonal intervals, regular rhythms, etc.) in such a way that his music could be emotionally compelling to at least a fraction of the public. It helped that he had a greater dramatic sense than other composers, as manifested in Wozzeck and his violin concerto.


Bernstein’s thoughts on Mahler are typically illuminating. I’ll quote only a few. “....I had hoped to reach the essence of the tonal crisis through examining [Mahler’s] non-resolution of tensions [in the 9th symphony], his reluctant attempts to let go of tonality—all of which does shed further light on the inevitable split that was to occur between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. And so I picked up the score again after some years away from it, filled with the sense of Mahler’s torture at knowing he was the end of the line, the last point in the great symphonic arc that began with Haydn and Mozart and finished with him.... But while re-studying this work, especially the final movement, I found more answers than I’d expected, as we always do when we return to the study of a great work. And the most startling answer, the most important one because it illuminates our whole century from then to now, is this—that ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet....” Great eloquence follows on the tragedy of the 20th century. And Mahler, he thinks, hypersensitive Mahler, instinctively foresaw it all.


But to return to Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky. “While Schoenberg was dedicating himself to saving music by continuing that great subjective tradition, the chromatic, romantic tradition, Stravinsky was presiding over a wholly new movement heralding a brilliant new group of composers.... What the great Igor did over that forty-some-year period was to keep tonality fresh by one means or another.” In particular, he reacted against the “almost morbid subjectivism” of German romantic music from Wagner to Schoenberg by embracing a sort of classical “objectivism,” “a cleaner, cooler, slightly refrigerated kind of expression which was the result of placing the creative self at a respectful distance from the created object, taking a more removed perspective on music.” This objective expressivity was already “in the air” when Stravinsky took up his pen, being a reaction, again, to German romanticism. Paris, not Vienna, was the central locus of this new music. For example, already in 1898 Erik Satie was “purposefully avoiding what was then known as self-expression” in his simple, detached pieces. This sort of “anti-art” attitude—“anti-sincere,” anti-subjective—was also emerging in painting (Picasso, etc.) and literature. Eventually it would culminate in Dada. But Stravinsky managed to use it to produce beautiful music. Instead of projecting his own feelings and inner conflicts into music, he imagined, for example, “the dreamworld of a pagan Russia” and recorded in The Rite of Spring what it expressed to him. This, incidentally, is why Theodor Adorno, whom Bernstein discusses briefly, detested Stravinsky—because a sincere artist, a sincere composer, “should express his emotions directly, subjectively,” like Schubert, Wagner, and Schoenberg. (Schoenberg? Atonalism?? Expressing emotions?? Maybe in some sense—but usually not effectively, since it only alienates audiences.) Stravinsky was the great artificer; hence Adorno’s aversion. But, as Bernstein says, all art involves artifice to some degree, and it isn’t necessarily insincere or inauthentic on that account. Actually, Adorno’s perspective on modern music was as absolutist and half-simpleminded as his perspectives often were. And you know he was such a crazy elitist, hating popular music, hating film, hating almost anything most people liked.


What were these artifices that Stravinsky used? How did he succeed in reinvigorating tonality? Through such means as extending triads into sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, thus producing a new sort of dissonance, and through the new concepts of bitonality and polytonality (using two or more tonalities at once). Also, extreme rhythmic ambiguities, irregular meters, rhythmic “dissonances.” He even used polyrhythms, two or more rhythms at once. And all sorts of musical vernaculars from ancient and modern cultures—all to inject “fresh air” into a “stuffy post-Victorian room.” All tools for revivifying tonality. And of course they all caught on, spreading like wildfire across the West.


But all this rampant modernist exuberance, all this vitality and humor and irony and folkloric borrowings that spread musically across continents to Milhaud and Kurt Weiss and Copland and innumerable others, was sort of chaotic. How could it be contained? How could it be structured so as not to degenerate into real musical chaos? Stravinsky’s answer: neoclassicism. There had already been a revival of interest in such classical figures as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, as manifested for instance in Busoni’s transcriptions (which were really rather romantic) and in some Strauss and Prokofiev and others. But Stravinsky tied it all together. Bernstein compares him to T.S. Eliot, the master in whom preceding (and succeeding) developments in poetry, anti-romantic, anti-“sincere” and -“subjective” developments (E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, etc.), found their culmination. The 20th century had to turn away from direct emotional expression because it was so insecure. It had to hide itself, its true feelings, because it was embarrassed by too much sincerity. It was too self-conscious and self-doubting. The new century had to speak through a mask, “a more elegant and disguising mask than any previous age has ever used. And it’s the obliquity of expression that is now semantically paramount. Aesthetic perceptions are registered at a remove; they are, so to speak, heard around a corner.” Objective expression, in short, became necessary. Neoclassicism (as in Eliot) was a “security blanket for the whole literary [and musical] world to clutch at in its sudden death-ridden distress.”


“Hiding behind the mask of once directly expressed emotion—that is the beginning and essential meaning of neoclassicism.” Emotion once directly expressed by John Donne or Mozart or Shakespeare; now we adopt their forms and make allusions to them, to their (comparatively) directly expressed emotions—we hide ourselves behind them, and indirectly express ourselves through them. Example: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, and Ulysses, and a whole galaxy of poets using classical forms. “They speak for all of us frightened children grasping for security in the past.” “But doesn’t it betoken an impoverishment of our resources,” Bernstein asks, “that we must have recourse to the past? On the contrary, it reaffirms our links with the past, our traditions and roots; only we disguise that relationship by coating it in our tough, cool vernacular. But it’s a thin veneer. And when the underlying emotion does shine through, then it hits us with double force, precisely because of our shy, frightened attempts to hide it. —Again we’re faced with the ultimate ambiguity: living and partly living, rooted and partly rooted. Remember, just as we found in the last lecture with Schoenberg [i.e., his partial rootedness in tonality]? And so it is with Stravinsky too, in his utterly different way. The one, Schoenberg, tried to control the tonal chaos of modernism through his twelve-tone method; the other, Stravinsky, through the decorum of neoclassicism, exactly like Eliot.” Decorum, yes; but also, like a lot of modern poets, incessant borrowings from the past. In Stravinsky—to simplify—“the personal statement is made via quotes from the past, by alluding to the classics, by a limitless new eclecticism. This is the essence of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. He is now the great eclectic, the thieving magpie....unashamedly borrowing and stealing from every musical museum.” Not always direct quotes, but at least stylistic references to past figures.


Throughout all this, of necessity, there is also humor. All this semi-plagiarism, it’s all funny too. But humor, of course, can “bite deep” and doesn’t have to be frivolous. All of Stravinsky’s mis-matchings and incongruities are funny, but many of them are also intensely serious and poignant. “In the most serious sense, humor in one form or another is the lifeblood of his neoclassicism.” Irony is frequently present in Stravinsky, in all his crazy incongruities.


It’s true that eclecticism is usually considered a cardinal sin in artists. But Bernstein defends Stravinsky’s use of it. Adorno “refused to acknowledge the extraordinary power of dramatic irony that could be generated by those egregiously ill-matched components [in Stravinsky, such as his setting a sublime Latin text to machine-like music].... We are grabbed by [Stravinsky’s] music, there’s no escape from it. As for Adorno, he simply failed to perceive it at all, seeing it only as cleverness, showbiz, theatrical know-how—which was also true, in a way—but not seeing the real meaning, which is the amazing proximity of comedy to tragedy in our time. He completely missed the joke!—the big existentialist joke which is at the center of most major 20th-century works of art, namely the sense of the absurd.”


Having watched these lectures, I understand Schoenberg a little better than before. And Stravinsky too, and all modern music. I still maintain, however, that extreme elitism is a flaw in art. I don’t need “prettiness,” but I do ask for something that can compel me without requiring that I first devote years of study to it just to understand it and to partially reconcile myself to it. Music in particular should....among other things, should be the “quickening” art, as Kant said, should quicken the heartbeat, quicken life, quicken the emotions and the self’s loss of itself. It’s fine for it to shock, but, after all, you have to draw the line somewhere. When does “ugliness” (etc.) in music become a flaw? Some people draw the line before aleatory music, others before serialism; I’m more of a traditionalist, attached to relatively traditional tonality, and so have more restrictive standards. It’s fine to express “absurdity” in music, or to pursue one’s personal path of self-expression at the expense of popular approbation, but that doesn’t have to be done in really ugly, boring, almost wholly intellectual ways. When it isn’t only “much of the public” but almost everyone who rejects one’s art even fifty or a hundred years after its introduction, something is wrong. (I’m referring first of all to Schoenberg and those inspired by him, but also to any artist to the extent that his work, many decades later, remains an object of general disdain or revulsion even among the intelligent, educated public.)[2]


Nor do I think it would have been terribly “inauthentic” or inexcusably plagiaristic or hopelessly naïve to write works similar--similarly appealing--to those of Beethoven or Bach or Schubert or Chopin or Tchaikovsky or even the late Mozart in the 20th century. (Somewhat modernized, of course.) Such art is timeless and can express whatever thoughts and feelings you want it to express.




[1] “Phonologically”—‘What key are we in?’—and “syntactically”—‘What’s the meter? Where’s the first beat?’ And “semantically” too, I guess. But I wouldn’t take these linguistic terms too seriously.


[2] To sum up, art should generally not be alienating. It should, to a great extent, be democratic—as should everything in life, because “democratic” means “human.” The elitism of most 20th-century classical composers was related to the elitism of modern bourgeois society, the economic, social, political, cultural, and intellectual schisms and fragmentation. “Bubbles,” such as the academic bubble, the political bubble, the Wall Street bubble....all sorts of elitist bubbles, including in cultural life. Whereas Beethoven’s music tended to be democratic due to the relative integration of his society, modern artists have tended to be elitist due to their society’s relative disintegration.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright