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Old 10-29-2017, 11:03 PM   #1
gprengel
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shocking statements from L.Bernstein on Beethoven

Today I came across some shocking statements from L.Bernstein on Beethoven's quality of writing music (regarding orchestration, melodies, harmony,...). I always considered Bernstein to be among my favourite 3 conductors, but his statements on Beethoven presented and criticised here are just rediculous. What has driven him here?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjct5M8JzL4
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Old 10-29-2017, 11:31 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by gprengel View Post
Today I came across some shocking statements from L.Bernstein on Beethoven's quality of writing music (regarding orchestration, melodies, harmony,...). I always considered Bernstein to be among my favourite 3 conductors, but his statements on Beethoven presented and criticised here are just rediculous. What has driven him here?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjct5M8JzL4
By sheer coincidence I watched this video no more than two weeks ago. Much as I admire Bernstein, I too think him off the mark here.
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Old 10-30-2017, 03:27 PM   #3
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Once again, Bernstein’s intentions in this “diatribe” have been misunderstood – and the fault is partly his own. It originally appeared in a book called “The Joy of Music” which was first published in 1960. Most of it was based on his televised music education programmes.

Over the years, the ironic intent of the chapter has become totally distorted. I first read it over 40 years ago and I nearly threw the book away until I got to the end and realised what Bernstein was really trying to do in his own flamboyant theatrical way.

The chapter was called “Why Beethoven” and it took the form of an imaginary conversation between Bernstein and two other people, one of whom was described as a “Poet”. The latter starts to wax lyrical about Beethoven, calling him the greatest composer of all time, and then Bernstein pretends to argue about this and begins to demolish Beethoven’s achievements in melody, rhythm, orchestration, etc.

The Poet is almost reduced to tears until Bernstein continues with a final section which has been overlooked down the years since the article first appeared. I am transcribing directly from the book here and it may be a bit long-winded but bear with it if you want to put this argument to bed!

Bernstein: But it is only through this kind of analysis that we can arrive at the truth. You see, I have agreed with you from the beginning, but I have been thinking aloud with you. I am no different from the others who worship that name, those sonatas and quartets, that gold bust (ie Beethoven). But I suddenly sensed the blindness of that worship when you brought it to bear on these hills.

And in challenging you, I was challenging myself to produce Exhibit A – the evidence. And now, if you’re recovered, I am sure you can name the musical element we have omitted in our blow-by-blow survey.

Poet: Melody, harm- of course. Form. How stupid of me to let you omit it from the list. Form – the very essence of Beethoven, the life of those magnificent opening allegros, those perfect scherzos, those cumulative…

Bernstein: Careful. You’re igniting again. No, that’s not quite what I mean by form. Let me put it this way. Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust – nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard. When he really did it – as in the Funeral March of the Eroica – he produced an entity that always seems to me to have been previously written in Heaven, and then merely dictated to him. Not that the dictation was easily achieved. We know with what agonies he paid for listening to the divine orders. But the reward is great. There is a special space carved out in the cosmos into which this movement just fits, predetermined and perfect.

Poet:Now you’re igniting.

Bernstein: (Deaf to everything but his own voice): Form is only an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability; a composer can write a string of perfectly moulded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form. Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness – that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms – leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

Poet: (Quietly): But that is almost a definition of God.

Bernstein: I meant it to be.


Bernstein re-hashed this piece of sophistry throughout his career but his actual intentions have been misunderstood. Anyone who has read Humphrey Burton’s biography of the conductor will have no doubts about Bernstein’s opinion of Beethoven.
But, being Lenny, he went a bit over the top in proving his point and the result is that he has been grossly misunderstood.




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Last edited by Michael; 10-30-2017 at 03:47 PM.
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Old 10-30-2017, 04:47 PM   #4
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Once again, Bernstein’s intentions in this “diatribe” have been misunderstood – . . .

.
well, Michael, if I listen to the original interview as a whole I cannot see any misunderstandings:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuYY1gV8jhU (from about 5:00 ....)

He seems to be pretty serious in what he was saying ...
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Old 10-30-2017, 04:53 PM   #5
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IIRC, there was a YouTube clip that dissected every part of what Mr. Bernstein (who's music, conducting and playing I admire so much) said. I can't look for it right now.
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Old 10-30-2017, 05:31 PM   #6
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I agree with Michael that this is just Bernstein's roundabout way of praising Beethoven. What he says is off the mark, and I don't even think he truly believes what he says- I'd say it's more well intentioned intellectual posturing.

Last edited by hal9000; 10-30-2017 at 05:35 PM.
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Old 10-30-2017, 06:14 PM   #7
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well, Michael, if I listen to the original interview as a whole I cannot see any misunderstandings.

He seems to be pretty serious in what he was saying ...
That's the sad thing about this interview. Bernstein seems a little under the weather and he trotted out his original 1960 piece almost by rote - but don't ignore the final sentence where he stresses the "inevitability" of Beethoven's music.

Unfortunately, it comes too late in this particular interview and consequently Bernstein has been maligned over it. He was making a point in his usual dramatic way and he never intended his "negative" remarks to be taken seriously. It's just his way of grabbing your attention.

However, there are countless other YouTube interviews in which he leaves you in no doubt about the greatness of the composer.
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