Bernstein and Blitzstein

David Drew

  • Leonard Bernstein by Joan Peyser
    Bantam, 430 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 593 01454 5
  • Leonard Bernstein by Michael Freedland
    Harrap, 273 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 245 54499 2
  • Leonard Bernstein by Peter Gradenwitz
    Berg, 310 pp, £15.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 85496 510 6
  • Make the music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein by Eric Gordon
    St Martin’s, 605 pp, $29.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 312 02607 2

The end might have been very different. It was so sudden that it took the outside world by surprise, and neither in the notices that must have been freshly written, nor in those which doubtless had to be drawn from the files and swiftly dusted off, were there many reminders that the business of selling newspapers has for some while been conspiring with the pleasures of iconoclasm and the ancient sport of muckraking to further the cause of demonstratively ‘candid’ obituaries.

On the contrary, it seemed that Bernstein’s polyphonic assaults on the accepted canons of respectability were not at this moment to be held against him; that his contributions to music in the past half-century were justly honoured; and that for the most part he was not gravely misunderstood. It also seemed that the entire world was, and wishes to remain, on first-name terms with the media phenomenon whose personal and material success may often have been envied or deplored in his lifetime, but is now applauded everywhere – very properly when measured against the talent and hard work invested in it, less so when it is seen as another rallying-point for the enemies of Modernism.

If in the obituaries there were warning signals of a more specific kind, they were concentrated in the area of Joan Peyser’s notorious biography, to which there have been numerous references and occasional tributes during the past weeks. Despite the opprobrium heaped on it at the time of publication by independent reviewers no less than by those who were understandably defensive of a friend and colleague, the book has seemingly acquired the kind of status that allows it to be described, even in the present context, as ‘revelatory’. It is indeed precisely that. But not in the sense the author might have wished or the obituarist clearly meant.

The books published in connection with Bernstein’s 70th birthday in 1988 were many and various, and another book could be written about their complementary and richly representative significance: representative, for instance, of the current state of the biography industry, the current standing of today’s so-called ‘serious’ music within and beyond the identifiable market for it, the positive and negative exploitation of serial rights, and, not least, the ever-increasing editorial interest in PR, ostensibly as a function of the politics and funding of the arts.

The accepted role of the anecdotal in bridging the real or imagined gap between the makers of music and their public is, in Bernstein’s case, more easily fulfilled than justified. The sum of everything musically useful that the biographers of 1987-88 contrived to ‘reveal’ by parting so many domestic and other curtains would have been almost negligible but for one episode recounted by Michael Freed-land. As an example of what he shyly calls Bernstein’s ‘other side’ the episode has a small but central place in his book; and the fact that its real significance seems to have been lost on him only adds to the verisimilitude of his account, for it is already clear that one of the two principal figures was as oblivious as he; and one can well imagine that the 90 witnesses were hardly less so.

The occasion was a lavish, indeed a very lavish, party arranged in Bernstein’s honour by Johnny Green, one of Hollywood’s leading music directors. Bernstein was in Hollywood for conducting engagements, and also to view the rough-cut of the film of West Side Story. By then, Green had finished editing the recording of the musical arrangements that he and a colleague had made for the film; and unknown to anyone apart from his wife and the technicians, he had already obtained a tape of the soundtrack, and had installed throughout his house the finest available playback equipment. His ninety guests were of like quality. After dining at the best restaurant in town, they proceeded to Green’s house for further refreshments and a bombe surprise. In due course Green signalled to his engineers, and there issued from every speaker a deafening fanfare, followed by his recorded tribute to ‘the greatest composer of American music of this or any other age’. Finally came the opening strains of the soundtrack. Bernstein was ushered to a comfortable chair.

How long he remained there is not disclosed. But all of a sudden he leapt to his feet like one berserk, and furiously demanded an immediate stop to the proceedings. There ensued a scene fit for a Buñuel film, and with that, an end to all that needs to be known.

The scandal was of a scale strictly proportionate to its maker, to the circumstances and to the causes. Reduced to a ‘normal’ human scale, it can at once be recognised for what it really was: the familiar and wholly typical reaction of a composer in extremis. Not a songwriter, not a showman, not even a conductor, but a composer. Freedland reports Green as saying that ‘Lenny hated everything he heard.’ and then gingerly offers an explanation: ‘He could not see the reasons for notes being stretched out in ways they never were in the original manuscript.’

In the enormous house Bernstein built with his talents there is less than meets the eye, and also very much more: less, that is, in the way of inconsistencies of style or direction, more in the way of bass-determined form. For the foundations of the house were laid by a born composer, and it was he alone who occupied the entire ground floor, held the key to the two wings, and stored in the long dry cellars an astonishing collection of family heirlooms from which he drew much creative strength. Nothing that went on in the first-floor reception rooms – the conducting, the teaching, the writing – makes sense without reference to what was happening, or not happening, beneath.

For Hollywood as for Broadway, West Side Story was a ‘property’: for Bernstein it was a work. Almost certainly the hapless Green was misled by the presence of four or five hit songs which had already on countless occasions been ‘stretched out in ways they never were in the original manuscript’, and then doubly misled by the fact that most of West Side Story, like the two previous musicals, was orchestrated by other hands. Irrespective of the exigencies of Broadway composition, which make such assistance almost indispensable, Bernstein’s approach to the orchestra in the case of his own compositions is typically that of a certain type of composer, but never, even remotely, like that of a conductor (for among conductors there have been many adept and imaginative orchestrators). Like the Schumann he understood so well (partly, perhaps, because of his own obsessive motivicism and thematicism), he was by no means insensitive to the orchestra, even though his first instrument was plainly the piano; the lessons learnt from Stravinsky and Copland play their part, but except for certain concertante-piano textures there is no Bernstein ‘sound’ apart from that produced by the highly individual harmonic and contrapuntal invention, and by the equally original interlocking of rhythm, metre and texture.

With all of these Johnny Green and his colleague may unwittingly have interfered. But much the most easily damaged part of the nexus that determines the success and defines the originality of Bernstein’s compositions is form as a function of tonality. To this the melodic invention owes much. In, for instance, the brief wedding scene in West Side Story, the setting of the words,

Make of our hands one hand,
Make of our hearts one heart,

derives so much of its confidence from the contrast with the tonally vagrant introduction that a listener with perfect pitch, and sensitive to key-colour, is unlikely to notice the exact parallel with the scene in Candide where the concupiscent Governor disputes Cunegonde’s faith in the eternal bonds of love and marriage, and sings:

Soon the fever’s fled
For love’s a transient blessing,
Just a week in bed
And we’ll be convalescing.

The key, for what it’s worth, is identical: but the effect is very different, and it is so because of the tonal structure as much as for any other reason.

‘It seems astonishing,’ writes Peter Gradenwitz after offering his readers a ponderous analysis of West Side Story, ‘and may even perhaps appear unnecessary to regular show-business habitués, that it is possible to dissect and analyse the music of a Broadway show in the same way as a symphonic composition.’ Be that as it may, Gradenwitz is not averse to humbler orders of exegesis:

At another private meeting later on, it was possible to experience the deep roots of creative inspiration. In my modest private apartment there was a pause while the dessert was fetched from the kitchen. Lenny looked around the dining-room, which was also the library and the music room. On one of the shelves he noticed a vocal score of a very recently published opera. As though drawn by a magnet, he rose and took the volume from the shelf, sat down at the piano, opened it, and began to play. It was the ‘Good Night’ scene from Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia ... Ten years after Lenny’s visit to our home West Side Story excited the musical world ... It is interesting to note that the instrumental introduction to the balcony scene in West Side Story is based on the same four melodically descending intervals followed by a melodic ascent and downward sequence heard in the instrumental accompaniment to Britten’s ‘Good Night’.

It would make a pretty story if there were any musical basis for it. What little the two passages have in common is common to countless others: it is the differences that are decisive. But Peyser is so eager to expose Bernstein’s; epigonism that she swallows Gradenwitz’s story whole and, without so much as a glance at the actual music, proceeds with the airy claim that Bernstein lifted West Side Story’s ‘Maria’ from the orchestral introduction to the first act of Regina, the opera which his friend Marc Blitzstein based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. She does, however, add that it was ‘unquestionably’ Bernstein who ‘put those obscure tunes by Blitzstein and Britten ... into the hearts and minds of the world’.

Ever since Stravinsky upset every historicist calculation with his own unhistorical and surreal neoclassicism, music journalism has felt obliged to administer appropriate punishment, first on him for such impertinences as inviting Handel and Verdi to dine at the same table, and then, when his position was unassailable, by proxy on a humbler level. The old game of ‘spot the burglary’ is understandably popular with the musical press, for it conjures up a sound and makes for readable copy, and the writers can preen themselves on discoveries, not least when they have missed the point and no one has found them out.

With Bernstein, whose Candide is par excellence the Rake’s Progress of operetta and whose range of allusion is quite distinct from his conducting repertoire, the opportunities for would-be sleuths are plentiful, and it is not only the Peysers who seize upon them. The year of Bernstein’s 70th anniversary was marked by a memorable example of critical hubris from the pen of Bayan Northcott, one of the outstanding musical minds currently at work in the field of daily or weekly music criticism. Whether of his own accord or by sub-editorial accident, his review of Bernstein’s own performance of his Songfest ended thus: ‘In her awful Bernstein biography last year, Joan Peyser made much of his supposed plagiarisms but she missed one of the most obvious. The Wall Whitman gay liberation number contains a bluesy cello solo that begins with a near rip-off of Handel’s setting of Dryden’s line: “What passion cannot Music raise . . !” Presumably the allusion is deliberate.’

If so, it isn’t plagiarism, and the misquotation of Dryden is snide as well as lordly. The reader is expected to know which of Handel’s Dryden settings is meant, but not that the opening line – of the Ode on St Cecilia’s Day – is in fact a rhetorical question ending with two crucial words: ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell?’ The painful and dignified ‘answer’ Whitman gives to his own opening line – ‘To what you said, passionately clasping my hand’ – is entirely about the quelling, and it is that which determines the dignity of Bernstein’s setting. To describe it as a ‘gay liberation’ number is to traduce the human and the musical sense: for it is not liberation that the poem and the marvellously assimilated blues harmony speak of, but a form of inner imprisonment – ‘the received models of the parlours.’

Because such models were not always an obvious influence on Bernstein’s outward and visible behaviour, one can readily imagine the Francophile, post-Satiean, Virgil Thomson describing the Whitman number as hokum, albeit hokum of the highest quality (Puccini might maliciously and quite wrongly have been adduced in that context): but its technical mastery is a function of the same order of feeling and the same authenticity of tone that characterise, for instance, the very different and wholly masterly Anniversary for piano which Bernstein wrote in July 1981 and dedicated to Shirley Gabis Perle.

The fact that trace elements from Peyser’s assertions are detectable in the very places where there is enough critical equipment to exclude them is a measure of their longevity and their slick contemporaneity. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the point where her opinions on sexual politics and Left politics interact. In this respect, Copland is important to her but Blitzstein is essential.

The record of Bernstein’s support of pro-Soviet causes is voluminous and contrasts strikingly with his relations with those active in support of the United States. To say this is not to suggest that Bernstein implemented his left-wing commitment with any action, such as fighting the fascists in Spain. Rather is it to emphasise that in a long and richly textured life, he always allied himself with the Left ... No one factor crystallized this commitment more than the emotional tie he made with Marc Blitzstein the day Blitzstein watched him playing piano on a bare stage in Cambridge directing a performance of The cradle will rock. In his music-theatre Bernstein followed Blitzstein’s example, greatly echoing the score of Freedom Morning ... for his On the Town of 1944. In his handling of his sexual life. Bernstein also built on Blitzstein’s model, even marrying, as Blitzstein did ... In the political arena, Bernstein also followed Blitzstein’s model, only here he never went far enough; Bernstein says Blitzstein was always prodding him to do more for the movement.

For all her routine criticisms of Senator McCarthy, Peyser remorselessly uses the ploy of guilt-by-association. A list of nine ‘leftist groups’ to which Bernstein apparently lent his name during the period 1945-47 ends with the ‘National Committee of American-Soviet Friendship’ and the comment that Bernstein ‘signed a statement by this organisation that appeared in the Communist Daily Worker’.

Recoiling from the blinding light of such ‘revelations’, Peyser assures us that ‘to list these organisations is not to suggest that, as a private citizen, he did not have the right to follow his conscience or his political impulses and do as he pleased. It is rather to emphasise that to do so and then to expect to become the music director of a major symphony orchestra reveals an important aspect of Bernstein’s personality.’ Among the names in Peyser’s list of acknowledgments is that of Eric Gordon, the author of a substantial critical biography of Blitzstein which was published last year, under the Shakespearean title Mark the music. Not surprisingly, Gordon’s view of Bernstein’s indebtedness to Blitzstein proves to be identical with her own: without argument or evidence, Gordon alleges that Bernstein had ‘transparently “borrowed” a musical theme’ from Regina ‘and transformed it into one of the music-theatre’s greatest money-makers of all time: the song “Maria” ’.

Here, and here alone, Gordon is seen arm in arm with Peyser. The reasons lie some 250 pages earlier, where he describes Blitzstein as ‘a talented composer who might have become wealthy and famous, by going the commercial route, either in Hollywood or on Broadway,’ but ‘instead commits himself to a career of relative penury in order to write works that will influence his country in a progressive direction’. In the latter objective, as in others, Blitzstein was not notably successful. Nevertheless Gordon’s devotion to his hero is at the furthest possible remove from Peyser’s tortured ambivalence. She declares: ‘Bernstein was not without talent as a composer. But because of his lack of success with his concert works, which few conductors ever programmed, he must have harboured a belief that he lacked talent.’

Where musical perceptions of such triumphant superficiality persist and seem to block further progress, irrelevances of every kind are invaluable. Bernstein’s politics, such as they were and whatever they may have been, were immeasurably less influential on his development than his overt relationship to the pandiatonic world of Copland and his covert relationship to the European tradition of Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. To the Modernism of Copland he owed essentially nothing. He could therefore begin from the very point where both Copland and Blitzstein felt obliged to confront the social realities of the New Deal era, and hence to find alternatives to Modernism. For Copland this was technically very much easier than for Blitzstein, whose early non-tonal works were more expert in matters of form-building than many of the later and more original tonal ones. But neither, perhaps, had the natural and deep-seated commitment to tonal forms that Bernstein had; and it was that fundamental conservatism, rather than any post-modernism, that sustained his composition to the very end of his life.

As the author of the most celebrated English-language version of Die Dreigroschenoper, Blitzstein has for 35 years been saddled with the burden of another composer’s success, and has paid a price for it that his music in no respect warrants. Gordon seems dimly aware that received opinion has rigged the accounts, but fails to make amends, and even concedes an influence where none in fact exists. Unlike Bernstein, whose voice-leading (to use the German-American term most appropriate to his Hindemithian and Schenkerian affiliations) is strikingly German, Blitzstein lacked the technical means to absorb Weill’s influence in a purely musical sense, or indeed to absorb many other influences. Bernstein wisely kept his distance from Weill, and made up for it by his lifelong devotion to Blitzstein.

In the introduction to his six-hundred-page book, Gordon thanks his editor for recognising ‘the scant likelihood that another full-scale biography of Marc Blitzstein will appear in this generation’ and for allowing him ‘the room to explore comfortably the content and meaning of Blitzstein’s life and work’. Peyser for her part hoped that her explorations of ‘the personal areas of Bernstein’s life’ might appreciably alter ‘the way we hear Bernstein as well as the way we assess his achievements’. Gordon, who has a message to deliver, is touchingly without guile in exploring the same areas of Blitzstein’s life, but calamitously insensitive to the human implications, and seemingly indifferent to their musical and literary relevance. The latitude allowed for his explorations produces remarkably little comfort of any sort, and the discomfort is often acute. Yet his over-exposed and often ill-assorted pictures of music, society and politics in a contused but crucial era are lovingly taken, and that at least commands respect.

As a member of the US Eighth Army Air Force stationed in England from August 1942 to June 1945. Corporal Blitzstein was commissioned by the Special Service division to compose his Airborne Symphony. It turned out to be one of his strongest pieces, and the premiere was conducted by Bernstein. The section entitled ‘Ballad of the Cities’ opens with the names Guernica, Warsaw, Coventry, Rotterdam, London, Malta, Leningrad, and towards the end the Chorus report:

Just the door to the house left standing.
Not the house, but just the door.

In Blitzstein’s house the symphony successfully propped up the walls that had been damaged by the outbreak of war and the failure of No for an answer (1937-40). But the roof began to fall in after he turned his back on the Party (but not on Marxism) in 1949, and the walls were already crumbling when the success of his Threepenny Opera adaptation allowed him to move to a suitable apartment. But now, in the naughty and negative Nineties, the house itself seems almost to have disappeared, at least to the European eye. The door is still standing, however, and the sympathetic observer who stands squarely in front of it will be rewarded by a view that even Bernstein’s finest achievements never encompassed. The composer of Fancy Free and the Serenade, of ‘Some other time’ and ‘A Simple Song’, would surely have wished his old friend to be remembered at least as kindly as himself, and now and again – because of his failures as well as in spite of them – to be invited round.