WDAV Blog

Bernstein Explores Themes of Nationalism, Race and Greek Society in Harvard Writings

Pictured: Leonard Bernstein, 1936. Photographer unidentified / Library of Congress

By Matt Begley

During his years at Harvard, Bernstein wrote two major works, The Occult and his Bachelor’s thesis “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”. The search for appreciation and acknowledgment seems to permeate through both works.

The first of these, The Occult, written in 1938, was a fictional account of meeting Dimitri Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos was a well-known composer and conductor at the time. The two met at a reception for the Greek Society at Harvard, at which Mitropoulos invited Bernstein to attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsals the following week leading up to their weekend performance that Saturday.

The fictional account changes the names of people and places (ex. Leonard Bernstein to “Carl Fevrier” and Dimitri Mitropoulos to “Eros Mavro”), but clearly follows these events, adding references to Greek mythology and hyperbole to allude to this being like an Epic in feel.

The second, his Bachelor’s thesis, discussed the incorporation of folk elements and nationalism into art music. He wrote this in 1939, during the rise of nationalism and the rise of Nazi Germany. Bernstein separates nationalism in music into material nationalism (elements and styles of folk music) and spiritual nationalism (the embodiment of those in art music of that nation).

Bernstein notes that America, unlike many other nations, cannot be identified with a single racial or ethnic background, which limits the material nationalism that represents the entirety of the nation and restricts American composers to mostly imitating Europeans. However, Bernstein argues that musical elements in the African American tradition, specifically Jazz, provide the material nationalism source for American composers to make art music representative of the nation as a whole and embody spiritual nationalism.

The American composers he believes have overcome this using these are Copland and Gershwin. He uses Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as an example of merging material elements from Jazz into spiritual nationalism in American art music. Copland also provided invaluable feedback and guidance to Bernstein while he was working on his thesis.

 

Matt Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, NC. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Leonard Bernstein: The Harvard and Curtis Years

By Amelia Willingham

Leonard Bernstein entered Harvard in 1935 aspiring to be a musician, yet at this point in his life he had minimal musical direction. By the time of his graduation from the Curtis Institute in 1941, Bernstein had built a solid foundation for himself as both a conductor and composer. Though his studies challenged and grew him, it was really the experiences he had and the mentors he learned from that made this time in his life truly pivotal.

Through his involvement in the Harvard Student Union, Bernstein conducted Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937), a highly controversial play faulting the system for working-class Americans’ lack of success. It elicited a Red Scare response in the 50s, and Bernstein became another suspected Communist-sympathetic American classical composer. Another of his most notable projects was his composition and conducting for the Harvard Greek Society’s production of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Each of these projects proved his collaborative skills and built up his confidence as both a conductor and a composer.

While at Harvard, Bernstein met and developed relationships with long-time mentors and friends, Aaron Copland and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Bernstein looked to each for advice as well as reassurance of his talent. Mitropoulos became a key conducting influence, even inspiring Bernstein’s The Occult. Copland served as a compositional mentor as well as a valuable resource for Bernstein’s senior thesis, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”

Leonard Bernstein Graduation at Curtis Institute.

Bernstein’s Curtis Class of ’41 Leonard Bernstein Graduation at Curtis Institute. Source: Kristina Wilson/The Curtis Institute

At Curtis, Bernstein studied Piano with Isabelle Vergerova and Conducting with Fritz Reiner. Each instructor shaped his philosophy on music as well as pushed him to become the disciplined and highly skilled musician and conductor that he was.

In his first year at Curtis, Bernstein conducted Curtis’ orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and Brahms’ Third Symphony. In 1940, Curtis director Randall Thompson included one of Bernstein’s original compositions in a broadcast, boosting his self-confidence in his compositional skill. While at Curtis, Bernstein maintained contact with Mitropoulos and Copland, and even received offers from both to work under their mentorships. While Mitropoulos’ offer fell through due to Bernstein’s lack of Union Membership, Bernstein was able to be a composition student under Serge Koussevitzsky at Berkshire Music Center.

Leonard Bernstein’s experiences both at Harvard and at Curtis, through his relationships with mentors as well as his many accomplishments, propelled Leonard Bernstein along the path of composition and conducting, shaping his philosophy along the way.

Amelia Willingham is a Senior Music Major and Hispanic Studies Minor at Davidson College from Charlotte, NC. She works for Davidson Technical Services and spends much of her time arranging music for and singing with her a cappella group, The Nuances.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Pachelbel’s One Hit Wonder Finds Reprise

By Marisa Mecke

What do weddings, Bob Marley, and Les Miserábles all have in common? The music of all three feature the classical musician’s favorite tune (or favorite tune to hate), Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Whether you love it or hate it, Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the most famous and most recognizable pieces of classical music today. To celebrate National One Hit Wonder Day, there is no artist better to look at than Pachelbel; while his canon is his only truly famous work, the tune has been featured in music across a dizzying array of genres.

While it may seem that classical musicians will never escape the grasp of Pachelbel’s canon, the piece did not become popularized until the 1970’s when French conductor Jean-François Paillard made a recording that launched the piece into mainstream classical music. Before that, not much is known about the origins of Pachelbel’s piece aside from the general time it was written in the 1680’s.

When writing, Pachelbel used a compositional form called canon, a counterpoint-based technique, in which an initial melody, the leader, is repeated at a specific interval by one or more parts at a different pitch, known as the followers. Examples of canon include Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or more similarly to Pachelbel, Frére Jacques.

You may find the chord progression familiar if you are a fan of works like Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,”, Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi,” or the musical Les Miserábles, in which 15 songs directly utilize Pachelbel’s canon. Les Mis demonstrates the variety of ways Pachelbel’s canon can be used in music- to see for yourself, this video plays Pachelbel’s Canon in D and then overlays the melody of famous songs from Les Miserábles to demonstrate the similarities.

 

 

To satirize just how often musicians use Pachelbel’s canon, intentionally or unintentionally, in music, comedian and composer Rainer Hersch conducts a medley highlighting the diverse multitude of songs that use Pachelbel’s canon demonstrating how  through genres and years musicians routinely return to Pachelbel’s one hit wonder.

 

Leonard Bernstein’s Musical Development

By Noah Batke

There are quite a few anecdotes that have arisen regarding how the great Leonard Bernstein first found his interest in music. One such story puts him as old as age 10, striking a chord on his Aunt Clara’s piano and experiencing a musical revelation. Another speculates that as a baby, he continually banged on the door to a room where a piano was being played, crying “Moynik, moynik,” or in English “Music, music!”

In reality, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Bernstein’s prodigious talent came from, or when exactly he became interested in music itself. We do know that Leonard’s family and ethnicity at large is superbly musical. Bernstein’s mother claimed to always be thinking of a song, and his father was known to sing and dance passionately to the Hasidic music of his native Ukraine. In fact, it is very likely that much of Leonard’s early musical exposure was in the temple, listening to choral arrangements of Hasidic melodies, clearly influenced by the music of Arabia, Spain, and Southern Europe. Another source of early musical exposure for Bernstein was popular music, either from the radio or his father’s Victrola. In fact, when Aunt Clara finally gifted the Bernstein family her famous piano, the first song Leonard attempted to learn was “Goodnight Sweetheart”, which he heard on the radio.

From this strong musical foundation, Bernstein began taking formal lessons, all the while pursuing his own projects such as a jazz band and a comedic staging of Carmen. With the help of Helen Coates, Bernstein’s teacher and lifelong secretary, he was afforded many opportunities for public performance, honing the musical skills that would become crucial later on to both his composition and his conducting.

It is important to note, however, that Leonard Bernstein was not a musical prodigy in the classic sense. His musical training did not begin until well into his childhood, and his desired profession was actively discouraged by his father until he broke into the mainstream. Bernstein actually had to teach lessons and play in a jazz band in order to raise enough money to pay for his own lessons. It was this self-reliance and perseverance that likely impacted his musical development more than any single event or genre influence.

Noah Batke is a senior music and psychology double major at Davidson College from Bowling Green, Ohio. He’s also involved with WALT Student Radio, Davidson Outdoors, and Religious Life.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

From Bar-Mitzvah to Broadway: Leonard Bernstein And Judaism

By Isaac Mervis

A history of prejudice and persecution against the Jewish people, dating back to the 6th century BCE, scattered them throughout Europe and northern Africa. However, at the turn of the 20th century, the Russian empire held almost half of the world’s Jews, sequestered into an isolated area known as the Pale of Settlement.

PALE-OF-PERMANENT-JEWISH-SETTLEMENT-for-web

 

Throughout the second half of the Russian Empire, violent destruction and murders known as pogroms targeted this area and slaughtered thousands of innocent Jews. This string of violence forced the Jews to flee once again, with the majority traveling to the United States. Waves of Jewish refugees arrived at Ellis Island, as many as 50,000 each year, with nothing but the hope of a new beginning. These refugees settled in the commercial, industrial, and cultural centers of the United States, namely New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.

 

Russian-Jewish section of Philadelphia

Scene in the Russian-Jewish section of Philadelphia, 1890. Courtesy American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio/Library of Congress.

 

While these destinations were havens for the Jewish people, the massive influx gave way to a wave of prejudice and persecution, resulting in violence and immigration quotas in 1925.

1921 political cartoon portrays America’s new immigration quotas with large funnel crossing the ocean to the U.S.A.

A 1921 political cartoon portrays America’s new immigration quotas, influenced by popular anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment stemming from World War I conflict. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

 

This was the world that produced Leonard Bernstein’s parents and molded Leonard’s childhood. From an early age, he was told by society that his identity was a “problem.” Throughout the duration of his life, his work and activism are evidence of his affirmation of his identity and a celebration of what it means to be a Jewish immigrant in the United States.

Leonard Bernstein playing piano on stage with orchestra in front of large audience.

Bernstein playing Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at a concert for the armed forces during the Israeli War of Independence. Beersheba, November 1948. Photographer unidentified. (Music Division)

Isaac Mervis is a senior music and education double major at Davidson College from Indianapolis, IN.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Remembering Leonard Bernstein: Exploring Bernstein’s Family

By Casey Margerum

Leonard Bernstein is the son of immigrants Samuel Bernstein and Jennie Resnick, both of whom came to the United States to escape anti-Semitism and a life of hardship in the Jewish ghettos of the Ukraine. Though their villages were only about a day’s walk from each other, Sam and Jennie didn’t meet until they were both living in the US.

Jennie was born Charna Resnick in 1898. Her parents, Simcha and Perel Resnick, were devout Jews and lovers of music. Simcha came to America ahead of the rest of his family. After arriving in the States, Jennie, though intelligent and imaginative, had to give up her dreams of teaching to work in a textile mill and help provide for her family.

Sam, who was born Shmuel Yosef Bernstein in 1892, came to America at only 16 years old and against his family’s wishes. His uncle Harry, already living in the US, helped him find a job, first at a fish market and then at Harry’s own barber shop. From there, Sam got a job at Frankel & Smith, and he would later start his own business. He was a fervent believer in the American Dream and rose to a position of wealth by monopolizing the sale of the extremely popular permanent wave machine in New England. He was also an extremely religious man and a Talmud scholar.

Sam and Jennie were married in 1917, and they had their first child (Leonard) the next year. Two siblings, Shirley Anne and Burton, followed in 1923 and 1932, respectively. Unfortunately, Sam and Jennie were not well-matched, and Sam disliked Jennie’s family. Leonard also had a turbulent relationship with his father, who, remembering of the impoverished klezmer musicians in the Ukraine, did not want his son to become a musician.

Casey Margerum is a senior English and music double major at Davidson College. She sings with the Davidson College Chorale and Collegium Musicum, and she intends to pursue graduate studies in vocal performance next year. 

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts highlighting a different aspect of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3pm at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.