Writing (Without) Music: Composers Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein | Music
A few classical composers have successfully moved from quarter notes and time signatures to past participles and auxiliary verbs, writing prose as enjoyable to read as their music is to hear. It’s a short list, though. During the Romantic era, Hector Berlioz gained a mile, in particular his memoirs, with Richard Wagner far behind. (Wagner gets points for historical significance but not for clarity and style.) Here we regale you with the delightful turns of phrase, wit and thought of more contemporary composers: Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein.
More than “empty elegance”
Virgil Thomson was a Missouri-born Francophile whose Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The mother of us all (1947) are two of this country’s finest operas. Both feature radically simple music that showcases Gertrude Stein’s Dadaist texts and the composer’s consummate skill in setting rhythms and inflections of American discourse to music. Given his ear for language, it’s no surprise that he was also a top notch writer.
In his deliberately provocative book The state of music (1939), Thomson pilloried what he called the “music appreciation racket” and its focus on a limited repertoire of certified masterpieces, mostly of German or Austrian origin. He was also one of the few who understood how the economy of the system worked. One of his book chapters was “How Composers Eat, or Who Does What to Whom, and Who Gets Paid”.
The book caused a ruckus in the world of music and media, and the New York Herald column soon hired Thomson as senior music critic. He held the position for 14 years, producing a body of work widely regarded as some of America’s finest critical writing in any field. This reputation rests as much on his style of prose, direct, energetic and very personal, as on his vast knowledge. “Yesterday’s performance was a ripsnorter for cheerfulness, vigor and general racing,” one began. Another led with, “Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recital last night was as empowering as a needle shower.”
Violinist Jascha Heifetz and his brilliant virtuosity were not to Thomson’s taste. His review was titled “Silk-Underwear Music” and ended with “Four-star luxury hotels are a legitimate business. Still, there’s something about their machined finish and empty elegance. more than a little vulgar.
In his memorable description of Giuseppe Verdi The Forza of Destiny, Thomson comically mimicked the ineffective plot structure in his review’s writing style: practically all there was. There are murders and curses and tavern merriments and cross-dressing and mistaken identity and a battle and a storm and a meal scene and a comical monk and a paternal abbot and a chorus of men dressed as Franciscans and several duels and in the end a general carnage of all the main people.
“Wagner without his erotic-metaphysical paraphernalia is a better composer than with him” was Thomson’s assessment of Richard Wagner Die meistersinger. His famous three-word summary of Tristan and Isolde? “Just lieder, louder.”
Recommended books: The best comprehensive collection of Thomson’s criticism is Virgil Thomson: musical chronicles, 1940-1954 (Library of America, 2014). Virgil Thomson: a reader (Routledge, 2002) has a representative sample.
“The Ideal Explainer”
“What terrifying letters you write: they are worthy of the flames,” wrote Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein in 1940. “Lenhut,” as he often referred to himself in his letters, was a tireless correspondent who wrote thousands of , poignant letters, earthy, bitchy and sometimes terrifying before his death in 1990.
When The Letters of Leonard Bernstein was released in 2013, The Economist named it one of their books of the year, saying, “With their intellectual brilliance, humor and wondrous attention to detail, Leonard Bernstein’s letters blow all biographies out of the water.” They provide an unparalleled sense of his personality and range of interests; the composer’s correspondents, including Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Harpo Marx, Arthur Miller, Bette Davis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in addition to family members and professional colleagues.
A particularly rich selection dating from the rehearsals of West Side Story in 1957, includes an August 8 letter to his wife, Felicia: “We wrote a new song for [the character] Tony is a killer, and it wasn’t the same not to play him first for you. It will really save his character – a 2/4 driving [meter] in the great tradition, but of course [expletive] by me with 3/4s and whatever – but it gives Tony the balls, so he doesn’t emerge as a mere euphoric dreamer.
Her missive ends with a postscript about her five-year-old daughter: “I loved Jamie’s letter, especially the lentils. (Jamie Bernstein grew up to be a writer, narrator and filmmaker; his memoir famous father Girl is also highly recommended reading.)
Virgil Thomson called Leonard Bernstein “the ideal explainer of music, both classical and modern”. He is best known in this guise for the CBS Television 14-Year-Old Concert Series, which won multiple Emmy Awards. Bernstein wrote all 53 episode drafts by hand on yellow notepads, eventually typing them as they approached the final form.
His interests went far beyond the Eurocentrism that then dominated musical thought (and still does, in many ways), as he demonstrated in his second installment, “What American Music ?” Bernstein answered the question by citing the diversity of his sources in the Western Hemisphere: “So what our composers ultimately feed on is folk music that’s probably the richest in the world, and all that is American, in spirit, whether it’s jazz, or square dance tunes, or cowboy songs, or hillbilly music, or rock and roll, or Cuban mambas, or Mexican huapangos , or Missouri Hymns.
Unsurprisingly, Bernstein’s interests extended to writing song lyrics, as well as music. He co-wrote the lyrics to West Side Story with Stephen Sondheim, then insisted on giving them full credit for Sondheim in thanks for his work on the show. Songs with his lyrics have also appeared in On the city, wonderful cityand Candid.
In I hate music! A cycle of five songs for children, Bernstein’s lyrics deftly captured the way children talk in zigzags: “My mother says babies come in baby bottles, but last week she said they grow on special shrubs. I don’t believe in storks either! They’re all at the zoo, busy with their own babies! And what is a baby-bush, anyway!? My name is Barbara.”
And what they really think about classical music: “Music is a lot of people in a big dark room, where they really don’t want to be at all; with lots of chairs and lots of tunes, and lots of furs and diamonds! I hate music, but I like to sing.
Recommended books: The Letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale University Press, 2013) and Famous father’s daughter by Jamie Bernstein (Harper Collins, 2018). Both are available at the Santa Fe Library. The Library of Congress holds Bernstein’s archive and much of the material is available online, including some current scripts for the Youth Concerts. Visit loc.gov/collections/leonard-bernstein /about-this-collection. ◀