(DVD) Lennie Explains Music

Posted by T on March 08, 2008

The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein (1976) is a series on music appreciation that Leonard Bernstein delivered at Harvard as the Norton Lectures in 1973. It is available as a 6-DVD set that can be bought or rented.

The organizing principle is to make an analogy between linguistics and music to try to discover how music conveys “meaning.”

Lecture 1 addresses “phonemes.” Just as every spoken language on earth utilizes a subset of a finite set of basic sounds (the various vowels and consonants producible by the human vocal tract), so all the musical systems in the world, however they might sound different superficially, are based on a set of tone relationships that are universal because based on the underlying Physics of how vibrations are set up with frequencies that combine in relations of proportionality.

Lecture 2 continues the analogy with the topic of “syntax.” He discusses various ways one might try to map the elements of music to those of sentences: e.g. note ~ letter, scale ~ alphabet — and rejects each in turn until lighting on Norm Chomsky‚Äôs “transformational grammar,” which he finds to be more adequate to the task. Just as pronoun substitution and elision occurs to make language more energetic and penetrating, the same techniques (mutatis mutandis) are used by the great composers. He describes Chomsky’s view of “surface” versus “deep” structure. Music leaps to the equivalent of the poetic “super-surface” immediately in its “surface structure.”

In Lecture 3, the discussion proceeds to “semantics.” The musical analog of figures of speech is explored: metaphor, ambiguity, simile, antonym, anaphora, chiasmus, asyndeton, “this is like that.” The lessons are illustrated by an actual rendition of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Lecture 4 explores the “delights and dangers of ambiguity.” The intentional moves toward ambiguity in poetry of the late Romantic period (e.g. Gerard Manley Hopkins) is reflected in the move to chromaticism in music. Tristan and Isolde, the “pinnacle of the 19th century,” reflected this move, which culminated in Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun based on the ultimate tonal ambiguity, the tritone. Performance demonstrations of these pieces are given.

Lecture 5 moves into the 20th century. The “crisis” of the twentieth century was the sense that the stretching of tonal ambiguity had nowhere further to develop. Parallel developments of culture, including Marx, Freud, and Einstein are integrated. The 12-tone method of Schoenberg is explained, and sections of true beauty using this method are illustrated, as Berg’s Violin Concerto. “Ours is a century of death,” Bernstein explains, and this was revealed prophetically by Mahler, especially in the 9th Symphony, which is performed by way of illustration.

Lecture 6 is a tour de force survey of the twentieth century in art, literature and music. The themes of sincerity and ambiguity are emphasized. Various forms of ambiguity were used to rescue tonality, such as polytonality, whereby simultaneous chords in different keys are played, giving rise to a new sound still rooted in the old. Polyrhythm is also explored. Stravinsky was the eclectic rescuer of tonality: he was both a copy-cat and “consummately original.” T. S. Eliot and e e cummings are tied in. The principles are illustrated with a full production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. In conclusion, Bernstein declares that there is primal “poetry of the earth” that runs through music and that vindicates his thesis of a universal deep structure in music analogous to that of language.

The series can serve as a layman’s introduction to music appreciation. Though at times Bernstein annoys with ostentatious displays of erudition and name-dropping (leading besides its annoyance to occasional faux pas in the detail, for example — Berkeley didn’t believe in mind?!), I can recommend the series. There was much that was new and thought-provoking, which will lead to further study and reflection; and he did open the way for me to appreciate some modern music previously opaque to me. I would be interested to hear from someone if viewing the series opens up a previously obstructed access to classical music as such — I suppose it might. The unifying structures of a wide range of music are worthy of contemplation, even if the exact correspondence to Chomsky’s linguistic theory, or the theory itself, is ultimately overthrown.


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