• December 7, 2021
Writing (without) music: Composers Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein | Music

Writing (with out) music: Composers Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein | Music

Just a few classical composers have been capable of shift efficiently from quarter notes and time signatures to previous participles and auxiliary verbs, writing prose that’s simply as gratifying to learn as their music is to listen to. It’s a brief checklist, although. Within the Romantic period, Hector Berlioz wins by a mile, particularly his memoirs, with Richard Wagner operating a distant second. (Wagner will get factors for historic significance however not for readability and magnificence.) Right here, we regale you with the scrumptious turns of phrase, wit, and considering of extra modern composers: Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein.

Greater than ‘empty magnificence’

Virgil Thomson was a Missouri-born Francophile whose 4 Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mom of Us All (1947) are two of this nation’s best operas. Each function music of radical simplicity that showcases Gertrude Stein’s Dadaist texts and the composer’s consummate ability in setting American speech rhythms and inflections to music. Given his ear for language, it’s no shock he was additionally a first-rate author.

In his intentionally provocative guide The State of Music (1939), Thomson pilloried what he referred to as the “music appreciation racket” and its give attention to a restricted repertory of licensed masterpieces, largely of German or Austrian origin. He was additionally one of many few who understood how the economics of the system labored. One in all his guide chapters was “How Composers Eat, or Who Does What to Whom and Who Will get Paid.”

The guide precipitated a ruckus within the music and media worlds, and the New York Herald Tribune promptly employed Thomson as its lead music critic. He crammed the publish for 14 years, producing a physique of labor extensively seen as a few of America’s greatest vital writing on any discipline. That popularity rests as a lot on his prose model, which was direct, energetic, and extremely particular person, as his in depth information. “Yesterday’s efficiency was a ripsnorter for gaiety, vigor, and basic run-around,” one started. One other led with, “Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recital final night was as stimulating as a needle bathe.”

Violinist Jascha Heifetz and his gleaming virtuosity wasn’t a lot to Thomson’s style. His critique was titled “Silk-Underwear Music” and ended with “4-starred, super-luxury resorts are a respectable commerce. The actual fact stays, nevertheless, that there’s about their machine-tooled end and empty magnificence one thing greater than only a trifle vulgar.”

In his memorable description of Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino, Thomson comically mimicked the plot’s ineffective construction within the writing model of his evaluate: “It suffers from a libretto that’s little greater than a stringing collectively of all of the Nineteenth-century Italian theater hokum that its creator had ever heard of, and meaning virtually all there was. There are murders and maledictions and tavern gaieties and transvestitism and mistaken identification and a battle and a storm and an consuming scene and a comic book monk and a paternal abbot and a male refrain dressed up as Franciscans and several other duels and on the finish a basic carnage of all of the principal individuals.”

“Wagner with out his erotico-metaphysical paraphernalia is a greater composer than with it” was Thomson’s analysis of Richard Wagner’s Die meistersinger. His celebrated three-word abstract of Tristan und Isolde? “Simply lieder, louder.”

Beneficial books: One of the best in depth assortment of Thomson’s criticism is Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles, 1940-1954 (Library of America, 2014). Virgil Thomson: A Reader (Routledge, 2002) has a consultant sampling.

‘The best explainer’

“What terrifying letters you write: match for the flames is what they’re,” fellow composer Aaron Copland wrote to Leonard Bernstein in 1940. “Lenhut,” as he usually referred to himself in letters, was an indefatigable correspondent who wrote 1000’s of humorous, poignant, earthy, bitchy, and infrequently terrifying letters earlier than his loss of life in 1990.

When The Leonard Bernstein Letters was revealed in 2013, The Economist named it one in all their books of the 12 months, saying, “With their mental brilliance, humour and fantastic eye for element, Leonard Bernstein’s letters blow all biographies out of the water.” They supply an unparalleled sense of his character and vary of pursuits; the composer’s pen friends together with Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Harpo Marx, Arthur Miller, Bette Davis, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, along with members of the family {and professional} colleagues.

An particularly wealthy choice courting from the rehearsals for West Aspect Story in 1957, consists of an Aug. 8 letter to his spouse, Felicia: “We wrote a brand new track for [the character] Tony that’s a killer, & it simply wasn’t the identical not taking part in it first for you. It’s actually going to save lots of his character — a driving 2/4 [meter] within the nice custom, however after all [expletive] up by me with 3/4s and what not — but it surely provides Tony balls, in order that he doesn’t emerge as only a euphoric dreamer.”

His missive ends with a postscript about his five-year-old daughter: “I adored Jamie’s letter, particularly the lentils.” ( Jamie Bernstein grew as much as be a author, narrator, and filmmaker; her memoir Well-known Father Lady can be a extremely really helpful learn.)

Virgil Thomson referred to Leonard Bernstein as “the best explainer of music, each classical and fashionable.” He’s greatest identified in that guise for the 14-year sequence of younger folks’s concert events on CBS tv, which received a number of Emmy Awards. Bernstein wrote all 53 episode drafts by hand on yellow authorized pads, lastly typing them as they approached last type.

His pursuits ranged far past the Eurocentrism that dominated musical thought then (and nonetheless does, in some ways), as he demonstrated in its second episode, “What’s American Music?” Bernstein answered the query by citing its range of Western Hemisphere sources: “So what our composers are lastly nourished on is a folks music that’s in all probability the richest on this planet, and all of it’s American, in spirit, whether or not it’s jazz, or square-dance tunes, or cowboy songs, or hillbilly music, or rock and roll, or Cuban mambas, or Mexican huapangos, or Missouri hymn-singing.”

Not surprisingly, Bernstein’s pursuits prolonged to writing phrases for songs, in addition to the music. He co-wrote the lyrics for West Aspect Story with Stephen Sondheim, then insisted on giving Sondheim full credit score for them in gratitude for his work on the present. Songs along with his phrases additionally appeared in On The City, Great City, and Candide.

In I Hate Music! A Cycle of 5 Child Songs, Bernstein’s lyrics adroitly captured the zig-zag manner children actually discuss: “My mom says that infants are available in bottles, however final week she mentioned they grew on particular baby-bushes. I don’t consider within the storks, both! They’re all within the zoo, busy with their very own infants! And what’s a baby-bush, anyway!? My identify is Barbara.”

And what they actually take into consideration classical music: “Music is a variety of people in an enormous darkish corridor, the place they actually don’t wish to be in any respect; with a variety of chairs and a variety of airs, and a variety of furs and diamonds! I hate music, however I wish to sing.”

Beneficial books: The Leonard Bernstein Letters (Yale College Press, 2013) and Well-known Father Lady by Jamie Bernstein (Harper Collins, 2018). Each can be found on the Santa Fe Library. The Library of Congress holds the Bernstein archives and far of the fabric is on the market on-line, together with some work-in-progress scripts for the Younger Folks’s Concert events. Go to loc.gov/collections/leonard-bernstein /about-this-collection. ◀

Supply hyperlink

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *