Other Matters: Bernstein, Seriously

Leonard Bernstein took a bit of a thrashing here recently in the Sid Caesar spoof and some of the Bernsteincomments that followed it. So, it is only fair to let Maestro Bernstein (1918-1990) redeem himself. The Rifftides recommendation of Rudy Royston’s new album mentions that he includes Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.“ The opening seconds of the performance that you’re about to watch show the sort of Bernstein mannerism that was fodder for Caesar’s satire. Still, eight months Mozartbefore his death, Bernstein and the Bavarian Radio symphony orchestra and chorus gave a gorgeous performance of the piece that Mozart wrote in 1791. “Ave Verum Corpus” inspired Lizst, Tchaikovsky, no doubt countless other composers—and Rudy Royston. This was in the basilica of the parish church in Waldsassen, Bavaria.

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  1. David says

    Bernstein found himself in a bit of a predicament when Glenn Gould was booked to play a Beethoven concerto with the New York Phil. Gould’s interpretations were often eccentric and he and Bernstein couldn’t reconcile their viewpoints. Possibly fearing a barrage of bad reviews accusing him of ruining the Beethoven, Bernstein made a pre-concert announcement that he would be accommodating the soloist’s interpretation although he personally didn’t agree with it. The result was a barrage of bad reviews accusing him of violating concert etiquette.

    Speaking of Beethoven, one of Sid Caesar’s funniest routines is one in which he and Nanette Fabry perform a pantomime set to music from B’s 5th symphony:

  2. Mike Harris says

    Actually, the incident referred to above involved Gould’s approach to how to perform the Brahms First Piano Concerto, rather than a Beethoven piece. I remember the stir caused by Bernstein’s pronouncement that he could not go along with Mr. Gould’s conception of how the piece should be rendered, after which I was privileged to witness Gould come slouching out to the piano carrying his glass of water, which he placed within reach atop the music stand, and then launched into the mighty opening movement at a tempo which seemed, if memory serves, to be about half the usual speed.

    To this listener at least, the slow tempo detracted from the necessary headlong momentum of this titanic concerto, so that by the closing bars, I could not help but agree with Bernstein that Gould’s approach constituted an example of eccentricity gone somewhat amok. Nevertheless, it was of course a memorable privilege to have heard these two great artists at the peak of their powers.

  3. says

    Not only had the audience the privilege you’ve mentioned, Mike, they had also the rare chance to listen to two versions, or rather: two opposing approaches of the very same musical piece simultaneously 😉

  4. anonymous says

    Ahhhhhh – but WHAT exactly was he rebelling against when he praised the Beetles? (I hadn’t previously known this, don’t like it, and have been disturbed ever since fellow commenter Mike Harris reported such in the earlier exchange inspired by the great Sid Caesar clip).

    Mr. Harris’ question does hang in the air (Was Bernstein properly feeling toward jazz, ever, at all?). Moreover, was his inexplicable praise for the Beetles some sort of, again, rebellion, against his very own legacy as a popular song-writer, and against that idiom and its greatest practitioners (those more or less destroyed by the advent of the Beatles: for one very great example, Harold Arlen’s sad disillusionment, but also Hugh Martin and Burton Lane, and Julie Styne, and so many more de-facto geniuses of the song form, of course.) I can’t understand why an indisputably great musician, Leonard Bernstein, would praise the Beatles.

    So, was he, indeed, against jazz, and against even his own effort in The Great American Songbook, and wanting to sign its death warrant (and so be seen only as a composer of serious concert works?). His praise of the Beatles does not stand on esthetic grounds…

  5. Peter Levin says

    For what may be the longest explanation by Bernstein of his interest in pop music (including his musical analysis of some Beatles tunes), go to this program. While it is very much a period piece, it reflects a genuine attempt to make sense of what to him was the best of the music his children were playing.

  6. Mike Harris says

    Thank you, Mr. Levin, for supplying a link to that website—the amount of free cultural history, across multiple topics, that is available there is quite amazing.