Thursday, September 29, 2005

Serendipity, synchronicity, and Bernstein

The overgrown path works! In a comment on my post about Bernstein's Mass a while back Kathy Demaree wrote movingly about her choir singing Simple Song from the Mass at a memorial service for the composer. Kathy then went on to write a wonderful piece on her blog titled Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Bernstein. Read the whole post, but I will quote from it here....

I just couldn't believe that a series of random events had sent me back down a such a familiar road. I had not been listening to as much Bernstein of late, because I had OD'd at times in the past, but I so very rarely get tired of anything of his. In addition, I've found a CD I want to buy, a new Blog to read, and I've made a new virtual acquaintance. I guess it is true that if you stay true to the things that you love good things will happen to you.

In the early days of an overgrown path I tried to explain my reasons for starting the blog in Serendipity and collabarative filtering. The response to my Mass post in general, and comments like Kathy's in particular, are very rewarding. They show that this blog is achieving the objectives I set out in that rather clumsy early manifesto.

Kathy also sends us down other interesting overgrown paths. She reminds me that the CD of Bernstein conducting his Kaddish Symphony also contains Chichester Psalms. Yes, I bought the recording for the Psalms a long time ago, and serendipity led me to the symphonies. Surely no one will disagree that the Chichester Psalms are a Bernstein masterpeice? For me, and this may generate some dissent, surpassed only by West Side Story.

The responses to my Mass post brought one thing home. The very greatest music is both moving and perfectly structured - for instance Bach's B minor Mass. But there is also music that though moving is imperfectly structured, but is still great - such as Bernstein's Mass. The masterworks by definition balance form and function perfectly. But we must beware of falling into the trap of always seeking the perfectly structured in preference to the moving. The many thoughtful advocacies of Mass show that there is also a valid role for music that puts function before form.

And the overgown path leads us on further. The kernel of Kathy's post is Bernstein's music for Peter Pan (it is nice to see another post leading down the Fairytales path). He wrote the incidental music for J.M.Barrie's play in 1949. The new production starred Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff as Peter and Captain Hook respectively, and Bernstein was commissioned to write the incidental music. As I wrote in a previous post Lennie was larger than life, and always delivered more than he was asked for. His final score for Peter Pan contains music and lyrics for five songs, as well as two choruses for the pirates. The show opened in 1954, was a critical success, and pulled in the audiences on Broadway. The score is certainly not juvenilia (he was 31 when he wrote it!), so apart from recital performances of individual songs why isn't it better known? There is a recording in the catalogue with Alexander Frey conducting the Amber Chamber Orchestra, and Daniel Narducci, Linda Eder, and Michael Shawn-Lewis taking the lead roles.

So the overgrown path is working, and has led us to the fantasy world of Peter Pan. Last night I followed a different path prompted by another perceptive comment from a reader, and listened again to Messiaen's mighty La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur J├ęsus-Christ . But that's a different path, and a different post......

Share Bernstein's Peter Pan with a friend by emailing this post, including the music link, by clicking on the envelope icon below.
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Officium- a triumph of music theatre

9 comments:

Pliable said...

The classical music blog
written by Euroresidentes is well worth a visit. It has a Spanish flavour, but there are some good posts on English composers as well.

There is a sister blog in Spanish with different content.

Pliable said...

Serendipity, synchronicity, and Bernstein continues.....

After uploading this post I put on the car radio to hear the end of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony.

The BBC Radio 3 back announcement reminded me that Turangalila was a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, and was first performed in the year I was born, 1949, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra - conducted by Leonard Bernstein!

Garth Trinkl said...

The very greatest music is both moving and perfectly structured ... But there is much music that fails to score on both counts, but is still great - such as Bernstein's Mass.

Pliable, I think this is a bit problematic. I think that music has to be a least somewhat moving -- if not perfectly structured -- to be "great". I think that there is a difference between calling the Bernstein "Mass" as "flawed masterpiece", and calling it "great". (West Side Story, on the other hand, is "great"; by the criteria of musicals and the collaborations they involve).

And what did you think of Messiaen's Turangalila after listening to his Transfiguation. The first is pretty voluptuous, while the Transfiguration is increasingly austere, I recall, over the course of its 90 to 100 minutes.

Have you heard the Saint Francis d'Assis lately? Here I think Messiaen near perfectly marries the voluptuous and the austere. (I will need to listen to it again.) Who in 1980 would have thought that Messiaen, Carter, Feldman, and Cage would have written such masterful operas?

Pliable said...

Garth, you are quite right, and I agree 100% with you. The problem is my poor use of words, rather than my poor ideas! (I hope)

What I should have said is...

The very greatest music is both moving and perfectly structured ... But there is much music that fails to score on one or other count, but is still great - such as Bernstein's Mass.

The error in my wording you identify is sufficiently serious for me to correct, and republish the post. So apologies to those who subsequently read it, and are thoroughly confused by this exchange.

As I try to sort this out (and pack!) Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites plays on Radio 3 - what a wonderful work!

Pliable said...

I've now rewritten the words, but am still not convinced I've expressed it clearly.

I've said great music can be moving, but imperfectly structured.

Now here is a question for Garth, and anyone else who wants to join in.

Can music that is perfectly structured, but not moving, also qualify as great?

The scaffold falls on the Nuns in the Carmelites as I finish writing....

Garth Trinkl said...

Even before seeing your "scaffold falls on the
Nuns in the Carmelites as I finish writing..."
the Requiem of Ockeghem came to my mind.

But no, to be a perfectly structured
work of music must imply some deep degree of musical beauty. (Are all of the Masses of Palestrina perfectly structured?)

On the other hand, there must be some lesser polyphonic Masses that follow all of the rules but are not deeply moving.

I won't even go into the case of those contemporary works -- acoustic or electronic or mixed --which their creators and their acolytes feel are perfectly structured.

*

I've said great music can be moving, but imperfectly structured.

Agree strongly.

**

Bon voyage!! Now pack (lightly!!)

Michael in S.F. said...

Personally, no, music cannot be great if it isn't moving. I suspect that a lot of composers would disagree with me on this, whereas concertgoers will probably agree. For me as a composer though, the whole point is to communicate with the audience, who will no doubt cut me some slack if the structure isn't just so.

However, to a certain extent, the ability to touch the audience is tied to the composer's technical skill, particularly in a large-scale work. In other words, all things being equal, a well-written piece (in the technical sense) is more likely to succeed in moving the audience than a sloppy one.

The Bernstein Mass is an odd case. For one thing, it's been touched upon that it needs to be evaluated as a work of theater, which is primarily what it is. I finally saw a live performance of it in Oakland in May of this year, which completely changed my perception of it. I first encountered this work when I was around 17 when my school did some excerpts from it. (Washington International School, Garth. Know it?) Since then, I've spent a lot of time studying the score, and thoroughly enjoying the recording. But, I have to admit I didn't really "get" the piece until I saw it staged, (partly because I was a little too young when I first heard it). You need to see a good actor as the Celebrant break down on the stage. You need to see the little boy approach him afterwards. For me, it wasn't enough to read the liner notes, or even the stage directions in the score.

On a more mundane note, if I remember the lore correctly, Bernstein got a late start on this piece, and it was pretty hastily thrown together in a short amount of time (again, fitting more into the theater paradigm than that of classical music). If it had been a less idiosynchratic piece, say, more of an unambiguous concert Mass, or more of an unambiguous stage work, perhaps he would have taken the time afterwards to do the necessary revisions and see it become more standard repertoire in either arena. But, since it was so undervalued and misunderstood in its time, and since he was pretty undisciplined as a composer, that never happened.

I'm glad that Mass is now being rehabilitated. I think it's a great work in spite of its flaws.

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, Michael. I am very interested that you have studied thoroughly the score to Bernstein's "Mass". As I noted earlier, in college I listened to the work repeatedly -- at times when I was supposed to be studying Schenker and Babbitt. On a few of those listening occasions I probably followed along with the score. I don't, however, remember studying the score without the LP playing.

I am still going to say the work is a "flawed masterpiece", rather than a "great work in spite of its flaws". But I respect your opinion; especially since you performed in selections of it, and recently saw Michael Morgan's Oakland/East Bay Symphony production. Maybe if I see an exceptionally strong production, my view will change; but I saw the Mass "live" about 25 years ago -- at the Kennedy Center, where the work received its world premiere. I too recall something about it receiving rush treatment. Did Pliable mention that somewhere?

Given that you live in S.F., I will mention that I played in the pit (violin) at Berkeley High School for Bernstein's "West Side Story". The conductor was the school jazz band teacher and my harmony/counterpoint/composition teacher. West Side Story was a hard piece, and the conductor was demanding. We had two beautiful singing-actors as Tony and Maria --he African American and she native American.

I actually don't know much about Washington International School
(even though I live in Cleveland Park, near it), but given it, and your creative Philadelphia college experiences, it sounds like a creative place for one interested in music and music-theater and film. My college experiences were less creative, and I tried to make up for that after college by associating with more avant-guard activities.

Hope to hear your works here in D.C., if not in S.F. Good luck.

Pliable said...

I know I'm answering my own question...

But aren't The Art of Fugue, and The Musical Offering examples of masterpieces with perfect form, and no known function?

To the airport.....