Latest News

From the Archives: When Bernstein Saw The Future

Posted October 24, 2023

When Bernstein Saw The Future
By Anthony Tommasini

© 1998 by the New York Times. Used by permission.
(as printed in the 1999 Winter issue of Prelude, Fugue & Riffs)

Leonard Bernstein at Harvard, 1973.

It's difficult to understand the controversy that surrounded Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973 unless you were around at the time. Not literally in attendance, because the telegenic Bernstein made sure that his six talks were videotaped and broadcast. They were elaborate events, run through with musical examples ranging from simple points Bernstein made at the piano to entire compositions performed under his direction by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To his detractors it seemed as if Harvard's august series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on Poetry, previously presented by giants like T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, was being turned into the "Watch Mr. Wizard" show. But Bernstein's subject was typically immense, the great "unanswered question," in a phrase borrowed from a haunting composition by Ives: "Whither music in our time?" Meaning, Where do we go from here? What has the big ruckus of late been about? And who won? The ruckus in question was the "great split,"as Bernstein called it, the pitched battle (pun intended) between, on one side, intellectually cocksure, cutting-edge composers who advocated Serialism as the inevitable next step in the evolution of music, and on the other side, composers who clung to tonality - all those fusty, irrelevant conservatives, as the Serialists saw them. Using his prominent forum, Bernstein intended to facilitate a peace treaty.

A mini-lesson for those who could use it: Tonality refers to the system of writing music in the familiar major and minor keys, where pitches are organized in a hierarchy, the primary pitch being the tonic; 12-tone music, or Serialism, refers to the Schoenbergian system of writing music using various predetermined series, or rows, of all 12 existing pitches. Here, equality and ordering replace hierarchy as an organizational concept for pitch. That's why 12-tone music sounds "ungrounded." There's no home plate.)

Characteristically, Bernstein's analysis was overly sweeping, but many of his observations, for which he was roundly condemned in university circles, turned out to be prescient. Nowadays, a revisionist campaign is under way arguing that the "great split" was hugely overstated. The 12-tone commando squad never commanded anything during the fractious, much maligned 1960's, the line goes. True, the squad was uninterested in composers writing tonal music, but it did not condemn them, and certainly never controlled them.

Don't you believe it. I was there, studying music at Yale, and the Serialists ran the place, as well as other composition departments at major universities. They made the appointments, granted the tenure, recruited the composition students. Put in a good word for the operas of Britten over lunch, and you faced sneers from the composers. Try to suggest that Shostakovich was somebody worth bothering about, and eyes would roll. Aaron Copland? That producer of Americana corn pone? Be serious.

This was in the universities, mind you. In the big-time professional world, when it deigned to consider new music at all, composers like Samuel Barber, not Young Turk serialists, got Metropolitan Opera commissions. But the composers with intellectual prestige were in the universities, training the next generation, and it was a tense time.

Don't get me wrong. The development of 12-tone music was also tremendously exciting. We all marveled over Schoenberg and Webern. Many stimulating 12-tone works were being written. But many others were sterile and forbiddingly complex, and the accompanying dogma was stultifying.

In any event, Bernstein had grappled, as Stravinsky, and even Copland did years earlier, with the challenge of 12-tone music during a period of withdrawal as a composer in the early 1960's and had returned to his essentially tonal heritage. By 1973, he felt that musical languages with elements of grounded tonal harmony were gaining reacceptance on the campuses and among composers. He saw the Norton Lectures as a way to proclaim and endorse the shift. Bernstein was not a deeply original thinker, but he loved ideas and saw connections everywhere. He had recently been fired up by the work of linguists, especially Noam Chomsky, and he saw the linguistic search for a "genetically endowed language faculty" among all people as a metaphor for the idea of a "worldwide, inborn musical grammar."

His thesis was that, like languages, all music everywhere, from every culture throughout history, shared certain built-in traits, namely, a connection to the overtone series (the relationship of a fundamental pitch to its harmonic overtones). In other words, harmonic languages for music as different as Hindu ragas, Beethoven and the Beach Boys all relied in some way on the concept of tonal center. A certain degree of tonal anchoring was inevitable because the human ear demanded it. The "creative mystery," Bernstein said, is "inextricably rooted in the rich earth of our innate response, in those deep, conscious regions where the universals of tonality and language reside."

Caught up by his enthusiasm, Bernstein went too far. He played the last of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Piano, Opus 23, and, after admiring its tone-row intricacies, asked: "How many music lovers do you know who can say, today, in this 50th year of Opus 23, that they love to hear it, that they listen with love to it, as they might listen to Mahler or Stravinsky?" At the time, I was learning the piece, and I loved it.

Bernstein celebrated the music being written at the time that was drawing from 12-tone procedures and fashioning synthesized tonal and atonal languages, singling out Gunther Schuller as the "incarnation of a new conciliatory spirit." Summing up what had happened since the death of Schoenberg in 1951, he said, rather elegantly, "It's as though ... we have all had a vacation from tonality and returned in a "refreshed state: fit, relaxed, and with a better perspective, which enables us to make the new synthesis, the new eclecticism."

Perhaps there is something innate in our ears that craves tonal grounding. If so, then the many wondrous works written with various 12-tone procedures succeed because the music violates that craving - it titillates, discombobulates, engages the ear.

This is why the piano music of the strict Serialist Milton Babbitt is more fun to me than the ponderously tonal opers of Dominick Argento. Thus, the best 12-tone works are fun because they disrupt, in a sense, the ear's inclination for tonal bearings. And Bernstein rightly observed that all atonal music and synthesized experiments would inevitably be "embedded in a tonal universe," that is "conceived against a contextual background of tonality."

Now, the esthetic and techniques of Serialist are simply there, an option for composers to draw on. There has never been a greater diversity of options, which is exciting but creates a whole new set of challenges for composers.

Bernstein was not the first person to point this out, but he presented the idea dynamically. Some of my teachers at the time seethed at the thought of his Norton Lectures. Yet, though Bernstein craved intellectual respect almost more than popular acclaim, he went to Harvard and challenged the university musical establishment. It didn't enhance his standing that in the years to come he conducted less and less contemporary music. But it still took courage to state his case and call for a cessation of hostilities.

Anthony Tommasini was the chief classical music critic for The New York Times from 2000 to 2021 and author of a biography of Virgil Thomson.

Come On, Deliver...
the latest Leonard Bernstein news... to me!