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The Unanswered Question – Leonard Bernstein at Harvard

Written by on 30th January 2019

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Leonard Bernstein - The Unanswered QuestionThe Unanswered Question is the title of a lecture series given by  the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1973. This series of six lectures was a component of Bernstein’s duties as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, and is therefore often referred to as the Norton Lectures. The lectures were both recorded on video and printed as a book, titled The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard.

Linguistic Context

Although these are lectures about music, Bernstein framed them as interdisciplinary. He justifies this interdisciplinary strategy by saying that “…the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline,” a lesson he proudly attributes to his days as a Harvard student.

As the primary interdisciplinary subject, Bernstein chose the recent work of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s major contribution at the time was challenging structural linguistics, or structuralism, for failing to account for the ways in which sentences could be radically transformed while minimally changing meaning or how they could be minimally transformed while radically changing meaning. Chomsky advocated generative linguistics which is characterized by a subconscious, finite set of rules that can account for all grammatically correct linguistic transformations. Chomsky argued that all humans possess an innate grammatical competence, which enables children to construct grammatically correct sentences they may have never previously heard.

Bernstein acknowledges Chomsky was not the only prominent linguist with new theories worth considering within the context of music, but he chose Chomsky because he was “the best-known, most revolutionary, and best-publicized name in the area”.

Theoretical Context

“… The purpose of these six lectures is not so much to answer the question as to understand it, to redefine it. Even to guess at the answer to “whither music?” we must first ask whence music? what music? and whose music?” Essentially, the purpose of this lecture series was to discuss the future of classical music.

His inspiration for the series’ title came from the 1908 work of American composer Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question. Bernstein interprets Ives’ piece as posing the question, “whither music?” because of the tonal language and increasingly dissonant nature of music at the time it was written.

These lectures are a useful tool for us to see one side of the music theory debate in the mid-twentieth century. This debate regarded the future of classical music and the roles both tonality and twelve-tone writing (serial composition) would take. Bernstein was disappointed with the trajectory of classical music in the 1960s, as atonality took more precedence. To examine how music got to this point, Bernstein argued that we have to understand “Whence music.” By the time he gave the lectures, however, he was more optimistic about the future of music, with the rise of minimalism and neo-romanticism as predominantly tonal styles. Encouraged by the progress of tonality’s resurgence, Bernstein, in essence, uses these lectures to argue in favor of continuing the tonal music system through eclecticism and neo-classicism.

Many composers in the mid-twentieth century converted from serialism to tonality and vice versa. Bernstein’s compositions are rooted firmly in tonality, but he felt that, in order to be taken seriously, he had to draw on serial techniques. He credits this to eclecticism, which he argues is a superb twentieth century innovation and an ideal direction for music to take into the future.

To answer the question, “Whither music?” the first three lectures are based on the question, “Whence music?”  These lectures provide background about the history of music, and most of the analogies to linguistics are created during these segments. With the deployment of the linguistic connections as the series progresses, the lectures begin to feature listening examples more prominently. This is especially evident in the increasing frequency of full movements, and the increasing length of the lectures. Lectures 4 and 5 discuss the current state of classical music through the lenses of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Lecture 6 discusses the potential future directions music can, and should, take.

Lecture 1, “Musical Phonology”

Phonology is the linguistic study of sounds, or phonemes. Bernstein’s application of this term to music results in what he calls “Musical phonology.”

To describe musical phonology, Bernstein first explores monogenesis, the hypothesis of a single, common origin for all languages. Bernstein’s linguistic example for this is the prevalence of the sound “AH”. He makes a case for musical monogenesis through the use of the harmonic series.

Bernstein uses a low C as an example to show how a note contains overtones, or higher pitches that sound simultaneously. Using this concept, he relates the harmonic series to tonality in several ways. First, he notes the relationship of the fundamental pitch, in this case a C, and its second overtone, in this case a G (the first overtone is an octave). These pitches make up the tonic-dominant relationship fundamental to the system of tonal music. Continuing to identify the overtones, he points out that the fourth overtone, the next pitch whose class differs from that of the fundamental, is two octaves plus a major third above the fundamental. The overtones C, G, and E comprise a major triad.  on to later overtones, A (it’s actually somewhere between a well-tempered A and B-flat, but A is the usual choice), he constructs a major pentatonic scale.

This scientific aspect of pitches, Bernstein says, makes music universal, or a “substantive universal”. Although he still supports the idea of musical monogenesis, he identifies Chomsky’s innate grammatical competence as a theory especially applicable to music.

Bernstein justifies the remaining notes of tonal music through the circle of fifths. Here he introduces the balance between diatonicism and chromaticism, diatonic notes being those found lower in the harmonic series of the specific key area. The notes higher in the series add ambiguity, or expressiveness, but do so at the loss of clarity.

Bernstein uses Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 to illustrate these harmonic implications. He points out several particularly chromatic passages before playing a recording of the piece.

Lecture 2, “Musical Syntax”

Syntax refers to the study of the structural organization of a sentence, or as Bernstein summarizes, “the actual structures that arise from that phonological stuff”. In addition to syntax, Lecture 2 relies on Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, which states that innate mental processes take place to transform sounds and words into meaningful structures. The theory seeks to explain the transformational processes small units of language take to become larger structures. Grammar is a key aspect in this process, because through the use of underlying grammatical rules, the mind is capable of combining phonemes into syntax. These resulting syntactic structures include linguistic material such as words, clauses, and sentences.

The transformational process can be represented by a transformation from deep structure to surface structure. Deep structure comprises underlying phonemes and word parts, while surface structure is the spoken sentence.

To demonstrate the innovations transformational grammar has provided linguistics, Bernstein diagrams the sentence “Jack loves Jill”. The diagram shows the underlying processes transforming the bottom row, or deep structure, into the spoken words, or surface structure.

Although this transformation is innate, it requires many complex subtleties of language. Examples of transformational processes in language include passive transformation, negative transformation, interrogative transformation, and pronominal substitution.

Bernstein extends deep structure and surface structure analogies to music. He explains that deep structure is musical prose, or an unartistic version of music. This musical prose is constructed out of the “underlying strings,” which include “melodic motives and phrases, chordal progressions, rhythmic figures, etc.” Surface structure, in contrast, is the actual music. Transformational processes in music are the steps which composers take from deep structure to surface structure. Some of these processes include transpositions, augmentation, deletion, and embedding; he describes them in terms of manipulating melodic material. Ambiguity becomes a more significant theme as Bernstein discusses transformational processes’ ability to add ambiguity, and therefore heighten expressiveness.

In terms of transfomational processes, Bernstein focuses predominantly on the process of deletion; to demonstrate this process, Bernstein extends several different examples from language, poetry, and music. Turning Mozart’s Symphony 40 into a poetically balanced piece means adding ambiguity, and in particular, utilizing the process of deletion. He rewrites some of Mozart’s music to show the process of deletion when repeating phrases. He expands the first 21 measures into a rambling 36 measures, which he calls “a perfect nightmare of symmetry”. This shows the transformative processes to travel from deep structure to surface structure, or music. Then he discusses the hypermeter of this symphony, assigning measures either a strong or weak designation, which prevails despite Mozart’s deletion.

Because language has literal meaning, in addition to a potential aesthetic one, the comparison of surface structures between language and music cannot appropriately apply. Bernstein, therefore, invents a new level for a more complete analogy, called the supra-surface structure. This level applies to poetry in order to serve as a more appropriate aesthetic analogy to music.

Lecture 3, “Musical Semantics”

Semantics is the study of meaning in language, and Bernstein’s third lecture, “Musical Semantics,” accordingly, is Bernstein’s first attempt to explain meaning in music. Although Bernstein defines musical semantics as “meaning, both musical and extramusical”  this lecture focuses exclusively on the “musical” version of meaning. The following lectures examines extramusical associations more extensively.

Bernstein proposes that the meaning of music is metaphorical. A metaphor is a statement equating two unlike things, or “this equals that”. Bernstein’s recurring example for metaphor is the sentence, “Juliet is the sun.” He creates an unabridged sentence to explain this metaphor: “The human being called Juliet is like a star called the Sun in respect to radiance” . Through the process of deletion, he arrives at the original statement, “Juliet is the sun.” Bernstein identifies metaphors, and thus deletion, as a source of beauty.

Transformations in music involve somehow changing a melodic pattern in a variety of ways. To better understand musical metaphors, he examines two main types of metaphor found in music. The first type is “intrinsic,” where the metaphor is constructed by altering musical material into new musical material, as discussed in Lecture 2. This includes “Chomskian transformations,” such as augmentation, transposition, diminution, inversion, etc. The second metaphor is “extrinsic,” which includes “non-musical meaning”. This metaphor involves the association of a musical passage with extra-musical ideas, such as animals, emotions, or landscapes.

With an awareness of the difference between these two types of metaphor, he asks the audience to focus only on intrinsic metaphors for the moment, or in other words, avoiding extramusical associations. He challenges the audience to hear Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (“Pastorale”), not as a musical depiction of nature/extrinsic metaphor, but as continuous transformations of musical material, an intrinsic metaphor. He analyzes the opening of the symphony in detail to explain the many ways in which Beethoven manipulates the first theme to spin out the next few phrases.

Lecture 4, “The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity”

Bernstein provides two distinct meanings of the term ambiguity. The first is “doubtful or uncertain” and the second, “capable of being understood in two or more possible senses”. In terms of musical ambiguity, Bernstein discusses ambiguity predominantly in terms of tonality and increasing chromaticism. He traces the use of tonality through Berlioz, Wagner and Debussy, focusing on the new ways in which composers obscured tonality and how these modifications ultimately affected ambiguity.

In Part I of this lecture, Bernstein names three different types of musical ambiguity: (1) phonological ambiguity, or uncertainty of the key, (2) syntactic ambiguity, or uncertainty of meter, and (3) semantic ambiguity, or uncertainty of the meaning. Beethoven’s sixth symphony represents a semantic ambiguity, because it could mean either the musical notes performed or the extra-musical associations of a pastoral (199-201).

Finally, Bernstein discusses Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet, paying particular attention to the programmatic element of Berlioz’s music. He details Berlioz’s depiction of the balcony scene, using musical ambiguity to identify extrinsic metaphors, such as the contrast between music depicting the dance and Romeo’s “lovesick sighs”. The key is another example of ambiguity, because it ambles between two different key areas as Romeo deliberates about a decision.

In Part II of this lecture, Bernstein examines Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde in terms of its similarities to and increase of ambiguity from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. Wagner’s work is a metaphor for Berlioz’s for several reasons beyond the choice of similar plots; therefore Bernstein examines three significant transformations within Tristan to show how the work can be viewed as a rewriting of Berlioz’s piece. A phonological transformation occurs through increased chromaticism, including ambiguous key areas, ambiguous chords, and chromatic melodies. Next, a syntactic transformation heightens metrical ambiguity through the loss of a pulse and clear rhythmic distinctions. Lastly, Tristan’s semantic transformation, or “its true semantic quality” is Wagner’s strong reliance upon musical metaphor. The piece “is one long series of infinitely slow transformations, metaphor upon metaphor, from the mysterious first phrase through to the climactic heights of passion or of transfiguration, right to the end”.

Bernstein indicates that the phonological transformation, or the extreme chromaticism of Tristan, is at a breaking point for tonality, so Part III examines the next step in twentieth century ambiguity: atonality. Bernstein begins the foray into atonality with Debussy’s  Afternoon of a Faun. This work uses a whole-tone scale, which is atonal but entails sufficient unambiguous containment, according to Bernstein.

In his analysis, Bernstein commends the use of atonality in Afternoon of a Faun partially because of the presence of tonality. Bernstein notes, “throughout its course it is constantly referring to, reverting to, or flirting with E major…” and “the ending of this piece finally confirms that it was all conceived in the key of E major, right from the beginning”. Similar to the serial passages in his own third symphony and his admiration of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Bernstein’s lauding of these works stems not from the use of atonality, but the presence of tonality.

Lecture 5, “The Twentieth Century Crisis”

Lecture 5 picks up at the early twentieth century with an oncoming crisis in Western Music. As these lectures have traced the gradual increase and oversaturation of ambiguity, Bernstein now designates a point in history that took ambiguity too far. Twelve-tone music emerges as one potential solution to the crisis, but Bernstein considers this idiom so ambiguous that it destroys the all-important balance between clarity and ambiguity.

He takes issue with the increasing preference among composers for twelve-tone music, because even though at its core it rejects tonality, twelve-tone is nonetheless unquestionably tied to the tonal system. This unintended connection to tonality can be explained by the harmonic series and musical phonology.

First of all, tonality is innate, and twelve-tone music systematically fights with this innate process. Overtones are present whether the music is tonal or twelve-tone, so the importance of a perfect fifth within the overtone series, and by extension, the circle of fifths, is contrary to twelve-tone writing. Also, because of the natural hierarchy of musical pitches, truly equalizing all notes is impossible. As long as the composer is working within the Western Music tradition of twelve notes per octave, tonal relationships still exist. Despite the attempt at establishing a new organization of pitches, composers will inevitably write with tonal implications.

In order to see how composers dealt with the twentieth century crisis, Bernstein discusses two composers, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. He sets up the dichotomy by referencing Theodor Adorno’s statements in The Philosophy of Modern Music about the superiority of Schoenberg’s music and the inferiority of Stravinsky’s.

Bernstein uses the composer Alban Berg as an example of twelve-tone writing which he designates as successful, namely the violin concerto. The row itself simulates traditional tonality slightly, so by acknowledging the presence of inevitable tonal hierarchies, Berg’s work is more effective than other twelve-tone pieces. This piece, like several of Bernstein’s other favorite pieces, ends on a tonal chord, B-flat major.

Part II of this lecture focuses on Mahler. After introducing Mahler’s prophetic skills, Bernstein presents his ninth symphony as a death march for tonality. He plays the Adagio from this work, and instead of listening for intrinsic musical meanings as he did in previous lectures, he assigns an extrinsic meaning, the metaphor of death. Instead of the previously established format based on meticulous analysis, this section is purely an emotional appeal. This format is not consistent with the “quasi-scientific” approach taken thus far. The incorporation of opinion, however, may be significant, as they serve as a glimpse into Bernstein’s opinions about Mahler, a composer he championed throughout his career.

Lecture 6, “The Poetry of the Earth”

This lecture takes its name from a line in John Keats’ poem, “On the Grasshopper and Cricket.” Bernstein does not discuss Keats’ poem directly in this chapter, but he provides his own definition of the poetry of the earth, which is tonality. Tonality is the poetry of the earth because of the phonological universals discussed in Lecture 1. This lecture discusses predominantly Stravinsky, whom Bernstein considers the poet of the earth.

Stravinsky kept tonality alive through the use of free dissonance, and more specifically, polytonality. Stravinsky, therefore, is the poet of the earth, because his contributions to music have the potential to save tonality. He used free dissonance and rhythmic complexities to enliven tonality after it had reached the chromatic brink of collapse at the hands of Mahler and Debussy.

Stravinsky’s semantic ambiguity arises from his objective treatment of styles outside of his direct life experience and training as a composer. These styles include folk music, “prehistoric” music, French music, jazz, etc, and they create ambiguity by conflicting with the identity of the composer.

Bernstein explores the concept of sincerity in music to explain that Adorno’s preference for Schoenberg arose out of a belief in his sincerity. Bernstein indicates, however, that Stravinsky’s use of neoclassicism is, in fact, a matter of sincerity. By keeping an emotional distance, Stravinsky achieves “objective expressivity.”

Syntactically, in this lecture he again coins a new type of structure, this one a combination of surface-structure music and super-surface structure poetry. This level is found in music with text, and he explores the relationships between text and music and  the new artistic material that results from their combination. He designates this combination of text and music as the “X-factor”.

At the end of the lecture, Bernstein adds his final thoughts on the state of music and its future. Here he combines the “quasi-scientific” format established in Lecture 1 with an emotional appeal to make a case for continuing the use of tonality. Although he spends a lot of time arguing for neoclassicism and new ways to write tonal music, Bernstein ultimately makes a case for eclecticism, where various compositional techniques – twelve-tone, tonality, polytonality – are all welcome, so long as tonality predominates.


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