Norton Lectures

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Kenneth Robinson's review of Bernstein's third Norton lecture ("Musical Semantics") appeared in "The Listener," an English publication, in January, 1976.

As I had decided to spend part of my weekend with the more cerebral programmes, I dipped into Leonard Bernstein's Harvard lecture on grammatical analogies in music. This was a superb confidence-trick, but I was soon won over and went along with it for two hours and 25 minutes. And I shall be switching on for the remaining three programmes in the series. I could not, in fact, believe a word of Bernstein's theories about the zeugma and alliteration to be found in Mozart and Brahms. But anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of music will have seen what he was up to and enjoyed it.

The best thing about this Sunday afternoon special was Mr. Bernstein's attempt to talk us out of listening to Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony as a rustic piece, full of peasant dances and bird-song. He did this by asking us to forget all the footnotes Beethoven had supplied about spring's awakening, lightning and thunder and so on, and to consider instead, the grammatical construction of the first movement. For me, this worked magnificently. It was not easy, Bernstein said, to listen to a symphony as pure music, without adding any emotional overtones, especially if you already had preconceived pictures in the mind. To show how difficult it was, he asked us to try not to think about an elephant for five seconds.

A marvelous programme. It was good to have the mind stretched, even if it slipped back into place wondering why it had bothered. And quite unable to forget that elephant.

Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures were broadcast in England in January of 1976. This detailed reaction to the lectures by Clive James appeared in the "Television" column of The London Observer Review on January 18, 1976.

...Already half over without being much talked about, Leonard Bernstein's series of six Harvard lectures under the collective title "The Unanswered Question" is undoubtedly some kind of television classic. ...A prompt rescreening...would be a service--and I am sure, a success. ...Even viewers already plugged in would benefit from a second chance, since Bernstein's line of argument, though scrupulously clear and not often elliptical, is still alarmingly concise, especially if your are one of those people --and one of those people is writing this notice--whose love of music is unaccompanied by any technical knowledge.

Which last is the precise difficulty Bernstein's new approach is designed to help overcome. Importing Chomsky's powerful theories of transformational grammar holus-bolus into his own field, Bernstein seems to intend giving anybody who cares to make the effort a possible way of thinking about music comparable in expository scope to the way Chomsky thinks about language. Whatever the validity of his analogies between the two fields—and a better logician than myself, who would not be hard to find, might condemn the whole enterprise as glib sophistry—they certainly amount to an impressive argument, and at least one layman has been sitting at Bernstein's feet in absorbed dedication.

Since somebody on television is not easy to sit at the feet of unless the set is a long way from the floor, there might be an element of mortification in this. And since Bernstein, the complete musician, is also Lenny, the ham, there are quite a few boyish histrionics to be swallowed along with the meat of his argument. But generally I have not been so interested in the unfolding of a subject since—well, since I once wandered by accident into the Old Schools at Oxford and heard Chomsky himself for the first time.

I suppose the difference lies in the fact that Chomsky was being original on a large scale, whereas Bernstein's originality mainly consists in the application he makes of Chomsky. In addition, Chomsky's discoveries, despite their immense force, don't invite (or, rather, they invite but don't reward) any easy extrapolation into the aesthetic field, whereas Bernstein's ideas spread with enchanting smoothness from analysis to judgment.

Such enchantment might eventually prove to be what's wrong with them, but for the nonce it is gripping to watch and hear the kit of analytical tools being employed, with due deference, but no real hesitation, to explain the excellence of musical masterpieces—with all of which of course, Bernstein is exhaustively familiar. From Chomsky you can learn a lot about Jack and Jill and the man who stole Harry's hat's sister, but it will be a long journey before he or anyone else can tell you exactly why, say, the last sentence of The Great Gatsby' is so endlessly resonant. With Bernstein you are amongst the great music straight away: it's a short step from the preliminary defining of terms to Mozart's Symphony No. 40, and even the most casually brief illustrations are on the level of a Chopin nocturn[e], or a theme from Stravinsky.

Careful as Bernstein is to avoid the seductive tones of sciolistic euphoria, there is still something dangerously over-explanatory about an approach which tends, by implication if not design, to equate aesthetic excellence with pattern-making. But his meticulous anatomising of the opening bars of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony fascinatingly revealed a heck of a lot going on without presuming to solve the problem of why so much going on should have the simple effect of exalting the listener.

To Bernstein's credit, he was well aware that this problem requires to stay unresolved, and largely directed his energies to the task of exposing false trails for what they are. Probably the most that the aesthetician can hope to achieve is to define the correct insoluble problem by eliminating the incorrect ones. Whether or not that is so, there are numerous benefits to be gained from this superb set of lectures, despite the superficial drawbacks of Bernstein's manner.

Conducting the Sixth, Lenny employed such, and so much, expressive body-English that one longed for the style of the crippled [Otto] Klemperer, who supervised the Brandenburg concertos with nothing but his index finger. Also he touches his face too often. But he has enormous learning and love in his own field so that he can play a few bars of, say, Cesar Franck and send you belting off to find out something about that composer. His references to literature are apposite and often chasteningly adventurous, as though he had read everything. ...
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