Brain Pickings

Legendary Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Future of Music, Harvard 1973


“A great new era of eclecticism is at hand.”

In the fall of 1972, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, his alma mater — a position originally created in 1925 to bring celebrated poets as campus residents and student advisors and previously occupied by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Robert Frost. In 1973, Bernstein delivered his sextet of lucid lectures, aimed at an intelligent listened not musically trained but keenly interested in how music works and how to listen to music.

Titled The Unanswered Question, the lectures — covering Musical Phonology, Musical Syntax, Musical Semantics, The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, The Twentieth Century Crisis, and The Poetry of Earth — spanned more than 11 hours, all of which are now available online. In 1976, they were transcribed in the eponymous book The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (public library).

Bernstein ends the series with a kind of summation of his credo, one he leaves out — or, rather, modifies and makes less prophetic — in the book:

I believe that a great new era of eclecticism is at hand — eclecticism in the highest sense — and I believe that it has been made possible by the rediscovery, the reacceptance of tonality, that universal earth out of which such diversity can spring. And no matter how serial, or stochastic, or otherwise intellectualized music may be, it can always qualify as poetry, as long as it is rooted in Earth. … I believe that from that Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal. I believe that these sources cause to exist a phonology of music, which evolves from the universal known as the harmonic series — and that there is an equally universal musical syntax, which can be codified and structured in terms of symmetry and repetition; and that by metaphorical operation, there can be devised particular musical languages that have surface structures noticeably remote from their basic origins, but which can be strikingly expressive as long as they retain their roots in Earth.

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones, but do not preclude additional responses, which are conditioned or learned; and that all particular languages bear on one another and combine into always-new idioms perceptible to human beings; and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind; and that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And, finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that [the] “unanswered question” has an answer. I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know the answer — and the answer is, “Yes.”

Complement The Unanswered Question with Bernstein on motivation and why we create and his the only true antidote to violence, then revisit David Byrne on how music works and this lovely vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Share on Tumblr