Lectures/Scripts/WritingsSpeechesThe Future of the Symphony Orchestra

The Future of the Symphony Orchestra

By Leonard Bernstein

American Symphony Orchestra League, 18 June 1980

My dear friends:

I greet you warmly, but with curiously mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am very pleased to see you all, and to touch base with so large and significant a segment of our American musical life. I am also flattered to have been asked to make this so-called Keynote Address – whatever that may mean these days when keynotes become increasingly hard to come by. On the other hand, I cannot help asking the question Why me? I am somewhat puzzled that in this of all years – this special, precious 1980 which I have reserved exclusively for composing, in which I am not lifting a baton – that is this very year I should have been selected to address the problems of the Symphony Orchestra. Ladies and gentleman, you see before you a nonconductor – which I must emphatically point out does not mean a body through which no electricity can pass. On the contrary. But it does mean that my mind is not continuously occupied with the issues that concern this body. A strange thing happens when a conductor transmogrifies himself into a composer – at least, to me. There is a drastic change of persona; the public figure becomes a very private person. There are few if any public appearances – this being one of the few; there is a lot of solitude, and deep inner searching. First there is a transitional period in which one tries to clear the mind of everybody else's notes – Beethoven's, Mahler's, Stravinsky's, Druckman's – all those notes one has been studying and conducting and hearing day in, day out; then follows that period of agony and ecstasy, searching for and finding one's own notes. This is what I have been doing; I hardly ever go out, socially or professionally; I have attended very few concerts; I have become a reclusive introvert. It is, in short, a very odd time for me to be making this speech.

Now, having made all my disclaimers, I hope I can talk with you freely. In the course of this period of reflection and reading and rereading, I have come across that remarkable speech made by my esteemed friend and colleague Gunther Schuller at last year's opening exercises of the Berkshire Music Center. I am sure you are all more than familiar with that Tanglewood address, and with Mr. Schuller's follow-up piece in High Fidelity magazine; they have both caused an enormous amount of excitement and controversy in the American orchestral world, which is practically synonymous with the occupants of this room. I should say at once that I place myself firmly in his camp: with very few exceptions, every point he has made is true, and too true, as I know from long personal experience.

The early years of my musical activity actively coincided roughly with the last years of the great tyrants of the podium: Koussevitzky, Reiner, Rodzinski, Toscanini, Stokowski, Szell – those great names that forged, by supreme authority and will, the great American orchestras. I have also lived to witness the apathy and joylessness of which Schuller speaks, and which seems to inhabit so many of those same super-symphony-orchestras today. Of course, back in those Glorious Bad Old Days – or should I say Grisly Good Old Days? – life was not by any means all joyfulness in the orchestral ranks. There were moans and groans, and mutterings; there were laser beams of resentment aimed at the podium, even semiaudible wisecracks, or ill-concealed infractions of discipline, all related to prolonged rehearsal time and authoritarianism.

But none of this was the result of apathy; on the contrary, it had a vehement force behind it; there was a cause being fought for, a valid cause. It is true that in those days orchestral musicians were grossly overworked and underpaid, and had few, if any, guarantees of permanence or economic stability. But such was the dedication and charisma of those glorious tyrants of the baton that music triumphed over all. Came the performance, and the ill feelings vanished magically, to be replaced by a radiant glow of pride – pride in the knowledge that perfection was the goal, the perfect serving of the composer, not the conductor, and that they, the players, were with each new performance coming closer than ever to that goal, through bone-hard work and the consecrated guidance of their maestro.

Even as I say these words, the memories rush back to me with a new vividness. I can see my beloved master Koussevitzky, a high priest at his altar, raging through an endless rehearsal, indefatigable. I can hear him now: "I vill not stop to vork until it will not be more beautiful!" "Ve vill play again hundred times until it will not be in tune!" " Kinder, you most soffer, soffer for die musical art!" – suffer they did; but to what glorious ends! And I see Fritz Reiner, my other great teacher, with his impeccable ear and fearsome eye, suddenly stopping a rehearsal to nail the fourth desk of violas and make them play a passage by themselves – two trembling figures suddenly made to audition before their colleagues. And not infrequently such a scene culminated in that terrifying monosyllable, "Out!" And in those days, "out" could mean out for good. But what performances there were; what Mozart, Bartok, what Rosenkavaliers came out of that soffering! Everybody suffered – including Reiner himself, who, we are told, was on at least one occasion physically attacked in the stage-door alley by some of his players. What feverish days they were! When in 1943 I become Artur Rodzinski's assistant at the New York Philharmonic, I was appalled to find that his first official act in office was to proclaim twenty-five arbitrary dismissals. Those were the days. I need not prolong the tale with mention of other revered friends and mentors, such as Toscanini, who was not above hurling epithets like "Shoemaker!" at a given musician, or George Szell – but, as I say, not to prolong the tale. Suffice it to say that all that is over, ancient history. The artists who make up our present-day symphony orchestras are recognized as artists, respected and rewarded accordingly. They now have a voice in the choosing of a new maestro, in the conditions of a tour, even in the replacement of retiring colleagues. Then why the apathy, the joylessness of which Gunther Schuller speaks? The explanations have been given mostly eloquently by Gunther himself, and there is no need for me to repeat them here. But there is something to be added, a kind of historical or philosophical underpinning to this whole dilemma, which may help to clarify some of our problems – not necessarily to solve them, but perhaps to illuminate them.

Let's ask ourselves: Whence cometh this remarkable phenomenon, this monstre secre know as the Symphony Orchestra? Was it born full-blown, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter? Not at all; it grew and developed concomitantly with the growth and development of a musical form called the symphony, a tonal and dualistic conception which, along with its allied forms of concerto, symphonic poem, and the rest, traversed a fantastic arc from Mozart to Mahler. This is a piece of deterministic history, if you will, visible to us on an imaginative graph as discernibly as feudalism or the Holy Roman Empire – nascence, ascent, apogee, decline. And as the symphony grew in scope, size, and complexity through Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, et al, so did the orchestra for which it was written; each new demand by a composer evoked a complementary advance from the orchestra, eventually evolving into the orchestra of Mahler and Ravel – which to say, the standard one-hundred-piece orchestra that graced the beginning of this century. The truth is that our present-day symphony orchestra is not basically different in concept or composition from that of 1910, say, in spite of the tripling or quintupling of wind instruments, or the addition or invention of the plethora of percussion instruments which sometimes these days seem to be invading the whole stage. Theoretically, one could say that the symphony, as a form, reached its ultimate possibilities with Mahler – certainly Mahler thought so! – but in fact we know that major symphonic works of real significance continued to be written for another thirty-five years. There are those who consider these latter-day symphonies epigonic, and history may well prove them right; but one cannot simply dismiss such symphonic masterpieces as have come from Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Copland, Stravinsky, Schuman, Bartok. And there it seems to end, with an astonishing abruptness. Curious, isn't it, that the last really great symphony, in the broad classical sense of the term was Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, date 1945, exactly coincident with the end of World War Two? It is as though that apocalyptic bomb had demolished not only Hiroshima but, as a side effect, the whole tonal symphonic concept as well.

And so for the last thirty years we have had no real symphonic history. If you think that's too strong a statement, only consider those who make it seventy years, back to Mahler, or even those who are convinced that the symphony really began to decline with Schubert. All right; let's settle for thirty-five years; but in any case, where does that leave the symphony orchestra now? Obsolete? A doomed dinosaur? If the symphony orchestra grew hand-in-glove with the symphonic form itself, has it not declined correspondingly? The answer is no to all of the above. In fact, it is precisely in these last thirty-five years that symphony orchestras have had their heyday, have burgeoned and flourished as never before. How do we account for this striking paradox?

In two ways, First – and this brings up a sore point: because I have spoken to these matters frequently in the past, I have just as frequently been misquoted as saying that the symphony orchestra is dead. It infuriates me to read that misinterpretation. In fact, orchestras have never been more alive and kicking; what I have said is that they have become in part kind of museums – in part, mind you; remember I said there were two ways to account for the paradox. But yes, museums; glorious, living treasuries of art. And what, may I ask, is wrong with a museum – especially one in which we are dealing not with paintings and statues but with live bodies, great performing artists, breathing and recreating our priceless symphonic heritage, with a director who is no mere curator, but a veritable high priest in this sanctuary? Of course this symphonic gestalt is a museum, and we should be proud and grateful for it.

But that is only part one of the answer. Part two involves the very important fact that when the symphonic form disappeared thirty-five, or seventy, years ago – take your pick – it was not by any means the end of musical creativity for the orchestra; quite the contrary. The last thirty-five years have seen a creative ferment unprecedented in musical history; composers have struck out in any number of directions, producing a wealth of new works. Not symphonies, maybe, but so what? Where is it written that what we have come to call symphonies must constitute the exclusive repertoire of the symphonic orchestra? We have extraordinary new works from Carter and Berio and Crumb, Boulez, Stockhausen, Foss, Rorem, Corigliano – Schuller himself. And these works do make new demands on our standard of orchestra of seventy strings and thirty winds and a handful of percussionists. There are new ways of grouping those one-hundred-odd instruments, new divisions and dispositions, multiple small orchestras. There are new electronic instruments, and the introduction of prerecorded tapes. There are new instrumental techniques, like multiphonic wind sounds, or caressing the tam-tam. Some of these are minor variations or adornments of the standard Mahler orchestra, but others are of major significance. Most important of all, these composers are compelling orchestral musicians to hear in new ways, especially in nontonal music; to listen much more attentively to one another – for example, in aleatory music; and to be adventurous in much the same way as Beethoven compelled the Haydn orchestra to venture into new territory, or as Debussy did with the orchestra of Cesar Franck. In other words, the so-called "symphonic orchestra" has developed an added function, distinct from its identity as a museum, and that is to provide the fertile soil in which new kinds of orchestral music can be cultivated. And here is where the problems begin to come clear: this rich new area seems to demand different schedules, different approaches, even, at times, different personnel from those serving at the altar of Brahms. And the trouble begins. Can any one orchestral organization encompass both these functions and still maintain its Koussevitzkian goal of perfection, to say nothing of mere competence?

There are those who say no. Why not two museums? they argue. After all, we have our Metropolitan Museum and our Museum of Modern Art, the Met and the MOMA, different strokes for different folks. Boston and Philadelphia have their Fine Arts Museums, and also their Institutes of Contemporary Art. Why should the musical museum be different? Why not have twofold orchestras, double maestros, double subscription series? Bad ideas, all. Because an orchestral artist is a living being, a musician incorporating all the music that has preceded him, and all the music informing his daily life. He is not a painting on a wall, nor is an orchestra an exhibition – even a Picasso Exhibition. A musical artist is a consecrated part of the world he inhabits; if he is fenced off, he will stagnate. So will the orchestra. So will the public. So will art.

Then where, you ask, is the time and energy to come from that will permit all this to happen without killing our artists with overwork, or driving them mad with stylistic somersaults? Ah, that is where you come in, my friends: it is your imagination; your new inventive ideas; your flexibility, cooperation, and goodwill that can save the situation.

I realize that I am speaking to a highly diverse and composite group representing all aspects of the American symphonic worlds: conductors, managers, agents, composers, union officials, orchestral players, board members – all, I am sure, devoted music lovers, and, I assume, all gathered here at this great conference precisely to determine how to save the situation. I assume further that you are all highly educated and sophisticated in your particular disciplines – which may be the whole trouble. Socrates would say to you: Experts, learn from one another: this is the moment to begin your education – an interdisciplinary education. And you can begin right now, here in New York. Use this week as a springboard, and then go on learning and understanding one another more and more deeply. It can no longer be Us against Them; it must be only Us. There is no Them – not if music is to survive the crisis.

I, alas, am not Socrates, nor even much of an expert on the national orchestral scene. But I have had long and varied experience both here and abroad, and perhaps I can drop a hew hints to some of Us-and-Thems.

To the conductors I would say: Develop a keener understanding of your responsibility to your art, in the most universal sense; to your colleagues within the orchestra; and to your specific community. Do not neglect American music; it is the lifestream of your repertoire, the constant refresher and rejuvenator of our musical life. Don't travel so much; and if you do, take your orchestra with you. There is much you can learn from them.

To the orchestral players I would plead: Cherish your love your music; don't ever let orchestral politics cause you to forget your joyful reason for having joined an orchestra in the first place; guard your standards of excellence, which mean much more than fluency or technique. Don't say to your maestro, "Just tell us if you want it louder or softer." That way lies perdition, that fearful hell where everything becomes louder and softer and little else. And a word of warning: Don't get too involved in management unless you want to incur its financial responsibilities as well. Which I'm sure you don't. Besides, the more active a part you play in management, the more inevitably you are going to find yourselves in conflict with your very own unions. Learn from the management, as well as from your maestro.

And to management I would say many things, more than this occasion will permit. But one strong hint: Remember this American conductor. He is out there, in quantity and quality, gifted, brilliant, catholic in taste, and spoiling for action. America had developed world-class orchestras; we all know that – some of the finest on earth, each with its distinctive sound. But is that our true goal? Isn't it rather to have these same fine orchestras each capable of producing the distinctive sound not of itself, but of the composer being played? And this goal is more attainable in America than anywhere else; it can be one of the glories of our melting pot. But it is finally attainable only with an American conductor who has comprehensive and international roots, not merely roots in the Conservatoire or the Hochschule.

And a note to personal managers: You too are servants of music: serve it will all your powers, rather than seeking to derive power from it.

To union officials, only one little but loaded hint: Remember that a symphonic concert is not a gig. Enough said.

And what shall I say to trustees and board members? Again, learn. Learn from all the others to whom I've already spoken. Educate yourselves to understand them, especially us musicians. It's not easy; we musicians are a peculiar folk; but we are not irrational, and we are full of love. Get your heads together with ours, and invent: find new ways of giving concerts, of derigidifying the common practice; invent new and imaginative divisions of labor; keep chamber music always in mind, however small or large. Educate yourselves in ways to educate in turn those for whom you are responsible, especially the musical public. What ever happened to Young People's Concerts? And why have orchestral telecasts surrendered their educational components to mere glamorous camera work? You must remedy that. Of course you must also find money; but you do that very well, and need no hints from me in that department.

My friends, all of you together: Interdisciplinary education can do wonders. Understanding and flexibility can do wonders. Yes, even money can do wonders. But the energy, the energy to put all these wonders into action – where does it come from? It will come from where it has always come from: it will come from the love of music, the sheer aesthetic delight in this most mysterious and rewarding of all the arts; from the sporting sense, the instinct for continuity, and the joyful and total dedication of ourselves to the art we have sworn to serve. I ask you now to swear that oath again with me: "I vill not stop to vork until it vill be more beautiful!"

Godspeed, and thank you.

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