inspiration

Inspirations: Leonard Bernstein by Ben Frost

Who are you if you are not the sum of everything that’s happened before?
— Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein_To_CH_1948_1000.jpg

Imagine you’re the assistant to one of the most famed conductors in the United States. He is performing a concert this evening and has suddenly taken ill. There’s no time for rehearsal, there’s no option to cancel and the concert is going to be broadcast live on radio to the nation. There’s no choice: you’re on to conduct this evening.

This is exactly what happened to Leonard Bernstein in 1943 when he stood in front of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to make his professional conducting debut thus becoming a national treasure overnight. What a way to start a career!

Leonard Bernstein, or Lenny to his friends, was one of the giants of 20th Century American music. He first entered the nation’s consciousness as a conductor but unusually he was an equally talented composer, author, lecturer and pianist. Not a polymath in the wider sense, but someone with an extraordinary grasp of every aspect of music-making, and who was set apart by his enthusiasm and desire to share music with others.

My first experience of Bernstein’s music, along with most people, was West Side Story. I bought the CD of the original Broadway recording on a whim in a music shop in France whilst on holiday. It didn’t leave my Sony Discman for weeks. From the moment I pressed play and the Prologue exploded into my ears, I became a lifelong worshipper of Leonard Bernstein. The addictive rhythms, the lush melodies and abundant amount of fun contained in those notes are all signatures of his music. Indeed, it is those very same traits that brought him criticism in the serious music circles that he moved in.

Bernstein stepped (seemingly) effortlessly from the world of classical music* to the giddy maelstrom of Broadway and popular song which was and is very unusual. At one end of the spectrum, he had a deep and profound understanding of some of the most extraordinary pieces of art ever created: the works of Mahler, Wagner, Stravinsky and countless other giants of the music world were at his fingertips. Yet he, uniquely, was able to draw on those influences and transmute them into the more popular form of musical theatre. What else is the West Side Story prologue than a bluesy riff on early 20th century classical music?

I am a sucker for a tune, that’s for sure, and Bernstein always wins me over with an infectious melody. What always gets me is that his melodies aren’t predictable. Take the 7/4 tune in the first movement of the Chichester Psalms, heard here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Yhnml4DW9g) at 1:10. Or Tonight from West Side Story (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_QffCZs-bg)**. His melodies are wide-ranging, tricky, yet wonderfully memorable. On paper they look challenging but music doesn’t live on paper, and when liberated as sound it becomes beguiling and catchy. 

The other thing that grabs you about Bernstein’s music are his chords, and by that I mean his use of harmony. If you’ve ever tried to play his music on the piano you’ll have struggled to get your fingers around the keys: they’re like tongue-twisters for your hands. They brought a new sound to musical theatre - just listen to the stabbing chords at the beginning of the West Side Story Mambo. They’re thrilling because they’re unexpected - they are notes in there that shouldn’t be there and that’s fun. In his classical writing he pushed to the point where conventional harmony rules break down completely - this is most clearly explored in his 3rd Symphony, the ‘Kaddish’ (http://youtu.be/BcmmaEtbNJc?t=1m34s). Nothing is predictable and there are no conventional tunes but it’s a great way to see how far Bernstein drove himself in the pursuit of true music-making. By exploring this kind of music, he broadened his own theatrical vocabulary. 

Bernstein used his prominent position as conductor of the New York Philharmonic to launch a series of televised lectures about music. They are one of his greatest legacies and set the standard for musical education on both the screen and the classroom. Here’s a fantastic clip with Bernstein looking at fragments of music that Beethoven discarded whilst writing his 5th Symphony. 

 

I suppose the largest imprint that Bernstein leaves on my consciousness is his fearlessness. He pushed the boundaries in every field of his music-making and was unafraid of experimenting. Some of these were disasters but his masterpieces would not have been achieved without these mistakes on the way. He famously conducted Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the slowest tempo you have ever heard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puUn42egmvE). For a movement usually performed in 4 minutes, he stretches it out a further minute and a half. Extraordinary stuff.

If you don’t already know his work outside West Side Story, I thoroughly recommend investigating Leonard Bernstein a little further. It’s an exploration that’ll have you in turn tapping your toe, weeping, skipping to the next track then singing along. You’ll love half and hate the other half. The one thing it’ll never be is boring.

Ben Frost

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough

FURTHER LISTENING
Christopher Street from WONDERFUL TOWN https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4JlCwzIACE
Times Square, Finale Act One from ON THE TOWN https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JNvbT5Irbc
Waltz from DIVERTIMENTO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC6XkVotHYo
Mambo from WEST SIDE STORY http://youtu.be/J_NelA3ZW4g?t=9m53s
Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-aU2Se1RHw

* Interestingly, Bernstein didn’t differentiate between serious music and popular music, only what he called good music and bad music. 

** Incidentally, dubbed by the extraordinary Marni Nixon who also voiced Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She also turned up as a nun in the How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria sequence of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. 

Inspirations: Douglas Adam by Richard Hough

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.
— (from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, 1987)
   

  

Douglas Adams was a genius, one of the most gifted writers of his generation. When he died in 2001 aged only 49, he was at the peak of his powers, with so much still to say. But he left such a legacy behind him that his voice continues to influence writers and dramatists and, I would suggest, lyricists, across the world. Ben and I owe him as profound a debt as any of them. Douglas understood people. He knew their flaws as keenly as any psychologist, and their virtues as well as any philosopher. And he condensed his observations on life, the universe and everything into his writing.

Douglas wrote comedy and drama, initially for the BBC. What made him so special was that he wrote dialogue as if it was poetry, with a rhythm and a texture all his own. Every one of his lines is beautifully constructed, created with no regard for naturalism, but with an undeniable truth all the same. His characters are concisely sketched and instantly recognisable, no matter how outlandish or grotesque. And his stories are told with such a pace, and they include so many impossibly original ideas, that to experience the work of Douglas Adams is to be left breathless, and just a bit bemused, but at the same time feeling that the world outside makes a little more sense. And that’s a wonderful feeling to have. But don’t take my word for it. If his name is unfamiliar, I urge you, dear reader, to seek him out; pick up one of his books or TV or radio series today, and then thank me afterwards in the comments section. 

His earliest success (and the show for which he is still best remembered), was a radio comedy entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, later adapted into a television serial for BBC 2. Here’s a piece from the second instalment, a treatise on language, miscommunication and the miraculous “Babel Fish.” (The narration comes from an inter-galactic talking book, the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide, brought to life in the adjacent clip by the voice of Peter Jones.)

At the same time Douglas was working on Hitchhiker’s Guide, he was employed by BBC Drama as Script Editor on the 1979 series of Doctor Who. Before the days of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, Douglas Adams was show-running an altogether more outlandish series, in his own inimitable style. This clip is taken from a story called “City of Death” (which is a terrible title, but a terrific yarn, available on DVD). It is quite simply the wittiest thing every to happen in 1970s family adventure fiction. 

Enjoy!

Richard Hough

Follow Frost & Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough