Symphony or Musical Comedy?
American composer and conductor, LEONARD BERNSTEINscored his early success at Tanglewood, where his authority and interpretation on the podium won the praise of Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1943 he made a spectacular dehut in New York when, in his twenty-sixth year, at the last moment and without rehearsal, he substituted for Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic in a superlative performance. As a composer he has had a wide choice; he has written the music for two gay and successful musical comedies, On the Town and Wonderful Town; he has composed the ballets Fancy Free and Facsimile for the Ballet Theatre; two symphonies: Jeremiah, which was performed by the Boston Symphony in 1944, and The Age of Anxiety in 1949; a short opera, Trouble in Tahiti; and a violin concerto.
by LEONARD BERNSTEIN
THE following is an exchange of documents between Leonard Bernstein (LB) and Broadway Producer (henceforth known as BP), a man who interests himself, curiously enough, in some facets of art generally unknown to his calling. A born gentleman of average producer height; chin framed by a luxurious Persian lamb collar which adorns his 50 per cent cashmere evening coat; a man with an emerald tiepin and a wise, sweaty look; a man, in short, who carries his five foot two with pride and power.
TO BP, HOTEL GORBEDUC, NEW YORK
VERY SORRY CANNOT ACCEPT KIND OFFER SHOW BASED BURTON’S ANATOMY MELANCHOLY SPLENDID IDEA WISH YOU ALL LUCK WITH IT REGRET UNABLE BUT DEEPLY INVOLVED WRITING NEW SYMPHONY OREETENGS
TO LB, STEIN WAY HALL, NEW YORK
DEAR LB: —
My associates and I were very much disappointed to receive your refusal by wire yesterday of our offer to collaborate with us, and with many other artists of outstanding merit and importance, on our new project for this season. I have long felt (and now feel corroborated by my associates in that opinion) that Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would one day serve as the basis of a great work in the musical theatre. We think that you are just the man to write the music for it, thereby enriching our stage which this season cries for such a work. Instead you tell us that you are writing a new symphony— a commendable enough enterprise. But if you will allow me to take a few minutes of your time, I should like to point out a few facts which you may not have taken into account in making your decision.
I begin with a question: Why? Why continue to write symphonies in America for a public which does not care one way or the other about them? Can you honestly name me two or three people in all America who actually care whether you or anybody else ever writes another symphony or not? Do not answer this too hastily, or too defensively. The more you consider the question, the clearer will come the answer: that nobody, with the possible exception of some other composers and some critics who live by denouncing or flattering new works, will be any the sorrier if you or any of your symphonic colleagues never writes a symphony again. There seems to me to be no historical necessity for symphonies in our time; perhaps our age does not express itself truly through the symphonic form — I really am not in a position to know. I am a simple man, and know mainly through intuition whatever it is I know. I think I have my fingers on the pulse of the people; and believe me, LB, it is not a symphonic pulse that I feel. So there you are, writing music for which there is no historical necessity, probably; for which there is no public demand, certainly; and from which, if you will pardon me, there is no economic gain. Perhaps now you can see more clearly why I asked: Why? Now let me ask: Why not? Why not give of your talents to that sector of musical art in America where there is hot, live, young blood the theatre? Here you will find the public waiting for you, and you will be complying with the demands of history. All art, in all times, I believe, has been created to meet a public or private demand, whether it be the art of building Gothic cathedrals, or of painting the portrait of a wealthy patron, or of writing a play for the Elizabethan public, or of composing a mass. Or, if you wall again pardon me, the art of writing a symphony. Haydn and Mozart and Brahms surely didn’t write their symphonies in a vacuum; their symphonies were expected of them. Nobody today really expects a symphony of anybody. Our American composers have an obligation to the theatre, which is alive and which needs them. Won’t you think seriously about it again?
Copyright 1954, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
P.S. How had you planned for this new symphony to feed, clothe, and house your charming wife and baby (to whom warmest regards)?
TO BP, HOTEL GORBEDUC, NEW YORK
DEAR BP: —
I have read and reread your most interesting letter of yesterday, and I am impressed. I say impressed rather than convinced, since I cannot honestly report a change of heart as a result. But I have rarely met a producer operating in the Broadway area who has given so much sincere and deeply felt thought to a situation which basically does not concern his immediate livelihood. I am further impressed with your legal style, which is persuasive to a point where, if I were not more closely acquainted than you with the facts of the case (which is only natural), I might yield to your arguments. But the facts stand, and I feel obliged to report them to you.
There has never in history, by statistical record, been so great an interest in the symphony and in the symphony orchestra as is at this moment manifested in the United States. There are orchestras everywhere — in every small city, in every university and high school, even in some of our most provincial areas. How can you speak of “no public demand” when the latest figures of the League of Symphony Orchestras show 26 orchestras of major proportions now operating in the United States, as against 9 orchestras of similar size in 1900? The League further reports 395 orchestras of smaller proportions now professionally active, plus 267 college orchestras. Everywhere there have arisen festivals to which the public flocks in unprecedented numbers — and they are festivals which emphasize contemporary music almost as much as the standard repertory. Summer concerts have become as great an attraction as canoeing once was; and the winter seasons of our major orchestras are enjoying a lively increase in both attendance and interest. Community concert services send out great numbers of artists to cities large and small from coast to coast, where they are heard by audiences that a decade ago would not have dreamed of attending a concert.
I am sorry to bore you with statistics this way, but these facts are a matter of record. And think of all the new works being commissioned by such agencies as the Louisville Orchestra. Then think of the prizes, fellowships, awards of various kinds, all of which encourage the writing of concert music. Think of the enormous increase in the sale of records; why, it amounts almost to a craze. No, you cannot say that the public is indifferent to concert music. As to your reference to historical necessity, I simply do not understand you. And when you speak of economic gain, you are right; but economic considerations cannot enter into this area. One is an artist by necessity, and there are other ways of making money.
As you know, I love to write for the theatre; I have done it before, and hope to do it often again. But this is a moment when other things come first. Thank you again for having asked me, and for having taken the trouble to write.
TO LB, YADDO, SARATOGA SPRINGS
DEAR LB: —
Forgive me for breaking into your privacy again, but in the week that has elapsed since I received your letter I have given a lot of thought to the subject we have been discussing, and have even done some reading to back me up. Besides, your letter was so incredibly solemn and, were it not for its obvious sincerity, so dull, if you will pardon me, that I am intrigued. I cannot believe that a young fellow like you, who has grown up in America and has the sense of fun that you have exhibited in some of your works, can possibly be such a fuddyduddy. This letter is written partly to find out, and partly to acquaint you with my more recent thoughts about the symphonic form. I have given up the idea of trying to persuade you to do our show with us, and we are now negotiating with another composer. But you have awakened in me, by your refusal and your reasons for refusing, a real interest in thiw whole subject. I now have what might almost be called a theory. I explained it yesterday to our mutual friend P., who was in town for a day, and ho found it silly. But what can you expect of a poet ? As you know, he is also up at Yaddo for a monlh, working on his new volume, Greaves of Brass, and that’s how I knew where to write you. Please avoid discussing my theory with him when you see him — his sense of historical necessity is appalling, if I can judge by the two poems from Greaves of Brass that he showed me yesterday.
Well, then, the theory. All music must begin in the theatre, historically speaking. Does that amaze you? Just think about it. The origins of music are mostly folklore, comprising songs and dances of prayer, of work, of celebration, of love. This means that music first arises attached to words and ideas. There is no folk music, to my knowledge, that is abstract. It is music for working to, or for dancing to, or for singing words to. It is always about something. Then, as it develops, music becomes more sophisticated, more complicated; but it is still attached to concepts, as it is in the theatre. The place where music really grew up was the church, wasn’t it? The greatest theatre of them all! (If ever there was theatre music in the truest and best sense, it was simple plain chant.) Then we find little operas beginning to emerge, in Italy and in Germany and in Austria. The little operas (or masques, or Singspiels, or whatever they were) become bigger operas, and we have Mozart; while in the church little motets grow into large requiems and cantatas. This is the moment when the big switch can happen, and not until this moment. Now musical idioms have become familiar; and the procedures of western music are enough alike so that the music can be separated from the words or the ideas or the concepts — that is, from the theatre — and can exist for the audience in its own right. Now that there is a Mozart opera, there can also be a Mozart symphony. (But never forget that the symphony, as my books tell me, came from the opera overture.) And now that there are Bach Passions, there can also be Bach preludes and fugues. (But remember that, the preludes and fugues were first of all reverie pieces used in the church service.) In short, the audience has grown up with the music in the theatre, and has reached the point where it can relate to the music without the theatre. Ears are ready for abstract sound: E-sharps and E-flats have become in themselves interesting and moving, without benefit of words to tell why they ought to be. But it has taken the audience a long time to reach this point.
Does all this sound like nonsense to you? I hope not — I’m banking on that solemnity of yours. But now to the meat of the theory.
The point I want to make with all my might is that America right now seems to me to be, musically, just about where Germany was around the eighteenth century. Deep in the Singspiel. (We mustn’t talk about present-day church music: that must be traditional, and has all been inherited.) But our secular music is just about where German music was fifty years before Mozart. Only our Singspiels are called Oklahoma! and Can-Can. This is a period we must pass through before we can arrive at a real American symphonic form or a real American style of whatever kind of concert music. It may not be the symphony as we have known it; we may produce something very different. But the musical language it will speak must first be created in our theatre; then one day it can be divorced from “meaning” and stand alone, abstract..
Do you see what I mean? Eor all our technical mastery and sophistication, we are not really ready yet to produce our own concert music. As a result, all the stuff that is being turned out by the mile every day for concert performance in American halls is really European, and old European at that, with perhaps some American spice added by way of cowboy tunes or blues harmonies or jazz rhythms. But the music remains essentially European, because the whole notion of the symphonic form is a German notion, and don’t let anybody tell you anything else. All the Russian symphonies are really German ones with vodka substituted for beer; and Franck’s is German with some cornets making the difference; and Liszt’s are German with nothing making the difference, and so are Elgar’s and Grieg’s and Dvořák’s. Whatever national touches have been added, it’s all German deep down, because the line of the symphony is a straight one smack from Mozart to Mahler.
Now here we are, remember, a brand-new country, comparatively speaking — a baby just a little more than a hundred and seventy-five years old. Which is not hing at all when you think of the old empires that produced that straight line I just, mentioned. Actually, we have been writing music in this count ry for only fifty years, and half of that fifty years the music has been borrowed clean out of the pockets of Brahms and Company. Of course we have the disadvantage here of having been born already grown-up, so we didn’t start with folk dances and prayers for rain. We started with the leavings of the European development, handed to us on an old cracked dish. But we have an advantage after all: we have jazz. Which is the beginning of some other straight line which will grow here as certainly as the symphonic line did for about a hundred years in Germany. Whatever jazz is, it’s our own folk music, naïve, sophisticated, and exciting. And out of it has been born something we call the musical comedy. Well, a hundred and seventy-five years isn’t, very long for that to have happened (and it really took only the last fifty years), compared with the centuries it took for the Singspiel to arrive. And here we are at the point of building that Singspiel into real opera — or, in our terms, developing Pal Joey into whatever American music is going to become. We are all ready and waiting for the Mozart to come along and just simply do it. That’s why I’m in the producing business: I want to be there when it happens, if I live that long. I’m taking bids on the new Mozart. Any comers ?
Well, there you have it. Very rough, not really thought out, but as plain as day to me. What I would love to make plain as day to you is the difference that arises out of all this between Europe and America as they relate to concert music. A new Brahms symphony to a Viennese of that period was of consuming interest to him; it caused endless speculation about what it would turn out to be, how it would differ from the last one, and all (he rest, just as we speculate now about a forthcoming Rodgers-Hammerstein show. It made table-talk the next morning; it was everybody’s concern; it was part of daily living, the air breathed, food taken. As a result, the Viennese or German of today has inherited some of that possessiveness about the Brahms music; it is almost as though he had written it himself. The same is true of the relation between Italians and Italian opera. But in America the listener cannot share these feelings, no matter how wildly he loves the music of Brahms or Verdi, and no matter how much talk he makes about music being a universal language. There will always be the element of the museum about this repertory for him — the revered classic, always slightly remote. It can never be his private property, so to speak. And since he doesn’t give a damn about whether anyone is writing new symphonies or not, there is no real vitality for him in our concert. life, except the vitality of a visit to the museum. Q.E.D.
This has been a really long one, and I hope you will forgive my going on and on. But I was excited about this when it occurred to me and I wanted you to hear it all right away, even if you are trying to write that long useless piece up there in your retreat. My best to P. — and whatever you do, don’t let him talk you into setting Greaves of Brass to music. You’re being abstract now, remember; you’re committed.
TO BP, HOTEL GORBEDUC, NEW YORK
DEAR BP: —
It is a month since I had your last long, astonishing letter, and I apologize for my lateness in answering; but I have been to Yaddo and back to New York and then here to Milan all rather quickly. I had to suspend work on my symphony to fill this conducting engagement at La Scala, and now that the rehearsals and first performance are over, I finally have a chance to answer you.
I must admit, that I see to some extent what you mean about the sense of possessiveness toward music. Here in Milan people are still spending their time and energy at. parties and luncheons arguing loudly about which is the greater opera, Rigoletto or Il Trwatore. As though it had all been written yesterday, hot off the presses. These Italians (or at least these Milanese) really own that music; and as you say, they seem to think they have written it all themselves. And you are right when you say that the wildest music-lover in the States can never relate himself that closely and familiarly to the same music. I am reminded of people at similar parties and luncheons in New York who will talk for hours about the relative merits of two hit musical shows, and even get excited or angry or hurt as they attack or defend them. All that part of your letter is, of course, perfectly true.
But I must take issue with your historical survey. It all sounds so easy and slick as you put it; and I admire you enormously for going into books and digging out all those facts and making them into ideas. Perhaps your main idea has some validity; but there are remarkable holes in your reasoning. What of the Frescobaldi ricercare and the whole seventeenth-century school of organ music? What of Froberger, Pachelbel? Oh, all right, I’m being solemn and dull again, and I won’t go into a lot of boring musicology. But you don’t say the most obvious fact: that even if America is now in a period analogous to the Singspiel period in Germany, she is at the same time equipped with the foreknowledge of the next two hundred and fifty years. What a difference that makes, after all! Don’t you see that the great development of German music was dependent on its very naïveté in its early stages? American composers can never be that naive now, writing as they are after the world has already known Mozart and Strauss and Debussy and Schoenberg. Perhaps they are condemned after all to be epigonous and to follow in the line handed them by an already overdeveloped Europe. It may not be so exciting to compose now as it must have been in 1850; perhaps this is all very sad, but perhaps it is true. And anyway, what would you have all these serious American composers do? Go en masse into the shoe business? They are writing out of some sort of inner necessity, so there must be a real validity to it, whether or not it is explainable by your new theory.
I have a matinee today, so I must leave this and run to the theatre. How is your show coming? Have you found a composer yet? I wish you luck, and hope that whoever finally writes it will turn out to be your Mozart, in spades.
TO LB, LA SCALA, MILANO
SHOE BUSINESS GOOD IDEA LETTER FOLLOWS GREETINGS
TO LB, TEATRO ALLA SCALA, ITALY
DEAR LB: —
Hooray! You are a dead duck! You have obviously been convinced of my theory, and that makes me very happy. Your letter clearly shows that you have no real, sensible rebuttal. Of course what I said was full of holes; what do you expect from a brand-new musicologist? What do I know about Pachelbel and Frescobaldi and that other guy? But what I know, I know on all twelves, and at this point I am more certain than ever that I am right. Why, I went to the Philharmonic concert the other night, just to see what is happening in your thrilling concert world. There were empty seats everywhere. People were sleeping on all sides, some noisily, and I do not exclude one or two critics. It was all as dull as it could be, and the applause was polite and seemed more like something to start people’s circulation going again after their nap than approval of the music. Dull, dull, dull! After the concert the audience shuffled out in a stupor, not talking much about it or about anything; and I shuffled to Sardi’s. It was like waking up. The theatre, the theatre, on all sides: people arguing, recalling scenes and jokes with gales of laughter, people singing snatches of tunes to each other to prove some point, everyone alive. Alive, I tell you!
Sure, there are some American composers who will have to go on writing their symphonies which may get heard twice with indifference. They may even be geniuses. I wish them all the luck in the world, and I hope they make it. But I have a sneaky feeling that they will continue to do symphonies because they can’t do music for the theatre. Don’t think it is so easy to be a theatre composer! In some ways it’s harder— there is a discipline of the stage. You’re not your own boss; it is the whole work that counts. A composer of symphonies has all the notes in the rainbow before him; he can choose as he wishes. Not the theatre composer, He really has to work! A great theatre composer is a rare thing. He must have the sense of timing of a Duse, a sense of when to go easy and when to lay it on, a preknowledge of what the audience will feel every second of the work. He must have lightness and weight, wit and sentiment, pathos and brilliance. He must know his craft and everyone else’s as well. Don’t disparage him. I listened to Tosca the other day, and what a wallop it gave me! That man knew theatre. And that man does not exactly languish in dishonor.
I tell you again: What is alive and young and throbbing with historic current in America is musical theatre. And I tell 3011 another thing: You know it as well as I do! You know in your heart that the real pieces of importance and interest to America now are not X’s Fourteenth Symphony and Y’s Flute Soliloquy, but Finians Rainbow and Carousel and maybe even Wonderful Town, though I doubt it, and South Pacific. And all your long lists of dead statistics and all your Pachelbels put together cannot make you feel otherwise.
I want to thank you for giving me the push to go out and investigate all this stuff. I have never been so glad or so proud to be a producer of musical theatre on Broadway. We are going ahead with our show at full speed, as soon as we find the right composer, and I can’t wait to begin. I want to be part of this big new line that is forming to the right in the musical history of America, and I want to watch it take its place in (he musical history of the world. I couldn’t be more sincere when I say this. Good luck at La Scala.
TO BP, HOTEL GORBEDUC, NEW YORK
PLANS CHANGED HAVE DECIDED ACCEPT YOUR SHOW STILL DISAGREE HEARTILY YOUR THEORY HOME NEXT WEEK WARMEST REGARDS