Leonard Bernstein Somethings Coming Essays

Had Mahler lived beyond 50, and had the Central Powers won World War I, he would have enjoyed a broad acclaim that he first tasted at the triumphant premiere of the Eighth Symphony in 1910 in Munich. The war brought a shift in reputation, especially in a newly Francophile America. Critics who had once described Mahler as a Straussian progressive (when Strauss seemed the measure of musical progress) now accused his music of ''dry Teutonic intricacies'' and the like. By the end of the war, both Mahler and Strauss were relegated to the status of obsolete late Romantics by critics and composers who saw Paris as the center of modernism.

Mahler's postwar reputation in Europe was more mixed, but on the whole, the 1920's were the first Mahler decade. Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and, especially, Willem Mengelberg promoted Mahler's legacy, and Mahler's style had a profound, if quite divergent, influence on the two leading composers of theatrical music, Alban Berg and Kurt Weill. Opposition came from the anti-Semitic right, which had derided Mahler's music for its ''Yiddish accent'' ever since it had appeared and which portrayed Mahler as the second coming of Meyerbeer, the archvillain of Wagner's hate-filled essay ''Judaism and Music.''

But you did not have to be a rabid anti-Semite to ignore Mahler. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, each for his own reasons, never performed a Mahler symphony. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany and, later, Austria and occupied Europe were systematically made Mahler-free. Mahler's well-established place in the Germanic repertory was given to the pure Aryan Hans Pfitzner (speaking of catastrophes).

Though Bernstein liked to give the impression that he had single-handedly rescued Mahler from oblivion, he had stood on the shoulders of eminent Mahlerians since the early 1940's. He first heard a Mahler symphony when Artur Rodzinski conducted the Second with the New York Philharmonic in 1943; Bernstein conducted that work in New York and Israel in 1948, and it became his signature piece; he led it at his 1,000th concert with the New York Philharmonic and at the orchestra's 10,000th concert. Fritz Reiner and Mitropoulos, two of Bernstein's mentors, were steeped in Mahler, as was Renée Longy, who taught Bernstein at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and played through the symphonies with him at the piano.

Bernstein was especially close to one of America's few Mahler defenders, Aaron Copland. In his book ''Our New Music'' of 1941, Copland wrote about Mahler in words that prefigured Bernstein's view of the composer, with less hyperbole: ''He was by nature a profoundly childlike artist, yet heir to all the problematic complexities of the modern world.'' Copland had heard Mahler's symphonies, including the rarely performed Seventh, in Berlin in the 1920's. You can hear the Mahler influence not only in the stormy rhetoric of his ''Symphonic Ode'' but also in the bucolic scenery of ''Appalachian Spring,'' which, even though it has become emblematically American, leans heavily on the finale of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Bernstein's growing sense of Mahler's historical importance gestated until the centenary in 1960, and even then, I suspect, Bernstein only gradually understood the true magnitude of the Mahler revival. Over the decade, he came to see that the universal triumph of the Fab Four made obvious a vast failure in the world of concert music. The orchestral repertory seemed to end with the works of Strauss, Debussy and Ravel. The public had little use for the Second Viennese School despite its intellectual prestige, but the bloom had also faded from the Great American Symphonies of the 1930's and 40's, which now seemed provincial and primitive. And Shostakovich was still under the cloud of the cold war.

Where was the concert music that told stories as compelling and contemporary as ''Eleanor Rigby'' or ''She's Leaving Home''? What concert music made an emotional appeal as strong as ''All You Need Is Love''? It must have seemed that Mahler's Third Symphony, which moves from protest and doubt to affirmation, had been composed to answer and silence all these questions.

Bernstein transformed Mahler -- repackaged him, we might say -- from a vestige of the past to the essence of the present. Though he died in 1911, Mahler had foreseen the century to come and composed music that conveyed all of its hopes and horrors. The Mahler who appears in Bernstein's essay ''Mahler: His Time Has Come,'' reprinted in the new boxed set (Sony SX12K 89499; 12 CD's; $70), is half Franz Kafka, half biblical prophet. Like Jan Kott's Shakespeare, he is our contemporary, and Bernstein compiled a long catalog of horrors and atrocities as proof of Mahler's prescience.

Bernstein's first Mahler recordings (with the New York Philharmonic except for Symphony No. 8, with the London Symphony) at once gain and suffer from the heavy burden of novelty, prophecy and contemporary relevance that the maestro placed on them. Yet for the most part, these readings, though less polished than the later Deutsche Grammophon recordings, stand up well, even at their most idiosyncratic, because Bernstein took every indication in the scores seriously -- perhaps too seriously.

Mahler notated his scores with fanatical precision. Sometimes it looks like notational overkill. He could have marked the glorious slow movement that ends the Third Symphony simply ''adagio.'' But no, he marks it, in German, ''slow, peaceful, deeply felt, very legato, very expressively sung,'' throwing in an Italian ''molto espressivo'' for good measure, and all this in a passage where the strings are also asked to play pianissimo.

A conductor can pursue these instructions in opposite directions. Perhaps Mahler just wanted to make sure that the music had expressive warmth even at the soft dynamic level. He might deliberately have overindicated for the same reason Verdi often wrote an extravagant quintuple piano in a quiet passage: if you ask for five, you can be pretty sure you will get one. Then again, perhaps Mahler's excessive indications show that he wanted not just an ordinary adagio but a very special and unusual effect. In that case, the conductor must take every indication completely seriously, even if it seems redundant and excessive. This was Bernstein's approach in his earlier readings, and it is what still makes them sound vital and contemporary if, at times, crazed.

Here is a tiny but typical example of Bernstein's reverence for Mahler's notational eccentricities. The second movement of the Second Symphony is a mild-mannered minuet, usually played as a calm interlude between the drama of the huge opening movement and the grotesque comedy of the following scherzo: a little island of normal music. Mahler would seem to invite this approach with the markings ''andante moderato, very comfortable, never hurried'' and ''grazioso,'' but he begins the movement with a short note followed by a rest. Bernstein emphasizes that rest, turns the first note into a hiccup, discomforts everything that comes afterward. Instead of a nostalgic minuet, we hear a wobbly, tilted dance, constantly trying to get its balance: the present looking for the past without success.

Bernstein's magnification of details may not suit everyone's idea of Mahler, but Mahler, like his predecessors Beethoven and Wagner, was an epic artist who contradicted himself often and contained multitudes. There are Mahler cool (Pierre Boulez) and Mahler hot (Benjamin Zander). There are Mahler sweet (Bruno Walter) and Mahler sour (Otto Klemperer or Michael Gielen). And there are Mahler smooth and Mahler chunky: George Szell's creamy reading of the Fourth Symphony contrasts sharply with Bernstein's unsteady gait. A lot of this Bernstein set is superchunky yet never really perverse. To make Mahler contemporary, Bernstein could not let the music sound complacently Classical, simply nostalgic or even sentimentally Viennese.

By the time of the Harvard lectures, he had placed Mahler securely in the repertory, where his music has remained ever since. But now Bernstein used Mahler to make his own prophetic claims. In a verbal aria that sounded more like a High Holy Days sermon than an academic lecture, Bernstein described Mahler's despair itself as a source of hope for rebirth, for the re-emergence of tonality and ''musical poetry.'' Like many accurate prophets, Bernstein was already right. By 1973, George Crumb's music was reviving Mahler's gestures, and the early works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass had given tonality a new lease on life.

Yet the very solidity of Mahler's place in our musical world, our clinging to this century-old music as contemporary utterance, perhaps shows that Bernstein's optimism about new music was misplaced. Or perhaps it just indicates that we still do not have the full measure of Mahler's greatness.

My favorite explanation of the resistance to Mahler might have more relevance to our present-day understanding than do Bernstein's jeremiads. Donald Francis Tovey put it in perfect Edwardian terms: ''What we composers find so disconcerting about Mahler is that every aspect of his work shows all the advantages of an unchecked facility and none of the disadvantages. He has us beaten at every point and leaves us no resource but to sit upright in our dignity as men of taste and say, 'This will never do.' ''

Perhaps something similar explains the lingering resistance to Bernstein as well.

Correction: November 18, 2001, Sunday An article on Nov. 4 about Leonard Bernstein's Columbia recordings of Mahler symphonies referred incorrectly to Wilhelm Furtwängler's relationship with the works. Although Furtwängler did not record any of the symphonies, he indeed performed several, early in his career. Because of an editing error, the article also misidentified the conductor of the New York Philharmonic's 10,000th concert, which included Mahler's Second. The conductor was Zubin Mehta, not Bernstein.

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Bernstein’s music reflects the style of his age – bebop jazz and the blues. From bebop, we can see Bernstein’s use of dissonances and fast driving rhythms, and from the blues, the use of syncopation and blue notes. West side story combines these two elements as well as several Latin American dance rhythms.

The idea for West Side Story cam from the American choreographer, Jerome Robbins. His idea was to create a musical based on Shakespeare’s tragic drama Romeo and Juliet. The romantic world of Renaissance Italy was to be transformed into the run-down , violent world of the West Side of New York. The appealed to Bernstein, who wanted to write hard-hitting, jazz-inspired music about real human conflict and tensions in a harsh inner-city environment. For more information on Musical Theatre in America, click here.

The Music of the solo song ‘Something’s Coming’
In both the instrumental prologue and the ‘Jet Song’ before ‘Something’s Coming’, Bernstein has already stated the key musical elements that I will highlight in this song:

  • Dissonant notes (not nice sound).
  • Blues notes.
  • Syncopated rhythms permeating the music, including the ‘push’ rhythm anticipating the beat.
  • The tritone (none as ‘diabolus in musica’ or ‘devil in music’) – the tritone in ‘Something’s Coming’ involves a G#, A and D. 
  • Extensive use of short riffs.
  • Cross rhythms.
  • Combination of snappy short phrases and long sustained notes.
  • Layered textures of independent parts – listen to the orchestration!
  • Structure in verse/chorus.
  • Homophonic texture.
  • Use of a 3 note ostinato (repeats) with staccato achieves excitement.
  • It’s a jazz-inspired harmony.
  • The introduction provides a mood of excitement.
  • Range of dynamics from pp to f.

Overall, the main features you should point out of this solo song is that:

  • It is designed for a musical in 1950s.
  • Homophonic texture.
  • Follows structure of verse/chorus.
  • Uses ostinato.
  • Uses tritone to represent something bad is going to happen.
  • Syncopated rhythms.


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