Biographies

Leonard Bernstein & The Meaning of Music/Life

“What does music mean?”

That was the premise of the very first Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” televised live on CBS-TV, January 18th, 1958 – exactly one week after my second birthday.

For all I know, my parents sat with all five of us little kids in front of the TV that night. Both my parents were fans of classical music and always encouraged arts appreciation.

In all, Leonard Bernstein, arguably the greatest American music man…conductor-composer-teacher-pianist, hosted a total of 53 Young People’s Concerts on live TV between 1958 and 1972, first from Carnegie Hall and later (from 1962 on), from the Philharmonic Hall in the glistening new Lincoln Center. These performances inspired generations of music lovers and musicians the world over, and continue to do so now that the entire series is available on DVD.

So…what does music mean? Well, as the Maestro would say, music can mean different things to different people. Music can make one feel uplifted and inspired or even sad and melancholy. Different people can feel different emotions from the same piece of music. And just because someone may feel differently about a piece of music than you do, that does not make what the other person is feeling wrong. The power of music is subjective and every individual listener is entitled to his or her own perspective about the music.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, it is difficult to underestimate the impact that Bernstein had in the world of music in his 50-year career. Whether he was composing concert music, chamber music, ballet, opera, or Broadway musicals; conducting the New York Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic or other orchestras around the world; or teaching and lecturing, Leonard Bernstein’s over-sized personality and passion for people and music is an example that comes along only once in anybody’s lifetime. And as great as his talent was, it was able to shine bright despite the challenges of his own common human frailties and insecurities. He smoked one hundred cigarettes a day and drank his first scotch of the day during breakfast, whether that be in the morning or afternoon. He was a terribly flawed human being who also happened to be a musical and intellectual genius beloved by millions around the world. But, it was about eight years before he died that Bernstein lamented to his assistant one lonely night, “People love me for what I do, not for what I am.” Perhaps the Maestro was asking himself, “What does life mean?”

Debussy Turns 150 Years Old!

“Music is the silence between the notes.”

“I love music passionately. And because I love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.”

“Art is the most beautiful of all lies.”

Claude Debussy was a man of powerful words, daring music, and poignant nuances. The father of musical Impressionism – although Debussy loathed the title – this French pianist turned the very foundations of composition on its head. According to a recent article by The New York Times, however, Debussy is not receiving the honor he is due as he approaches his 150th birthday:

“Perhaps Debussy is not considered enough of an audience draw, but I suspect that the real reason may be more complicated. We like to think we know and admire Debussy. Ah, Debussy the great Impressionist! … “La Mer,” how gorgeous. … Yet the alluring surfaces of Debussy’s works can mask the utter daring of the music. … I think we take Debussy for granted, and this may explain the lack of celebration this year.”

Conversely, here at WDAV, you should expect to hear an extra helping of Debussy for his sesquicentennial on August 22.

But what about the man himself?

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Achille-Claude Debussy, the son of a china shop owner and a seamstress, was born in 1862 to a poor French family. When he showed a natural talent for music, Debussy’s aunt began paying for piano lessons when he was just seven years old. By eleven, he was studying piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory. His time at the conservatory foreshadowed the direction he would go with his composing; while his peers acknowledged that he was gifted, they found his compositional experiments strange.

In 1880, Debussy fell under the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, a Russian woman who was also a large sponsor of Tchaikovsky’s. Meck hired Debussy as a piano teacher for her children, and he spent years traveling around Europe with them. His time at Meck’s estate also allowed him to become familiar with Russia’s musical greats, specifically Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin. These exposures would later greatly influence his works.

At age twenty-two, Debussy won the “Prix de Rome,” a composition competition, and was awarded a scholarship for two-years of musical study in Rome. While at school, he studied the opera Tristan and Isolde and came to greatly respect the show’s composer Wagner – Debussy loved his ambition but not his flashy approach. He would later model his one and only opera Pelleas et Melisande after Wagner’s work.

Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy’s opera was an immediate success, although it had a polarizing effect on its audiences – you either loved it or hated it. The show had a gloomy tone, which was periodically interrupted by surges of terror. As one writer noted, “[the opera’s] rule of understatement and deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera – but an unrepeatable one.”

Yet another influence soon followed as Debussy returned to Paris for the 1887 World Exhibition. He fell in love with the music of the Javanese gamelan, an ensemble that included bells, gongs, xylophones, and sometimes vocals. The composer incorporated these sounds into many of his mature works.

The inclusion of Javanese Gamelan music was not the only technique that made Debussy stand apart from his contemporary composers. He used Eastern traditions in his works, such as pentatonicism (only using five notes in a scale), modality (the creation of mood), parallelism (the parallel movement of two or more lines of music) and the whole tone scale (each note in the scale is separated by a whole step). Debussy also challenged how instruments were characterized in composition. He believed strings did not have to be merely lyrical and thus instructed players to pluck their strings – instead of using their bow – where written in the music. He began including more clarinet in his works to take advantage of the instrument’s rich tone. He even experimented with the use of piano in various genres.

Unfortunately, the late part of Debussy’s career was rather stagnant. His pieces became less relatable and harder to deconstruct. Other up-and-coming composers such as Igor Stravinsky began to overshadow him, using his own techniques to do so. Debussy also began a public dialogue about art and music with his alter ego Monsieur Croche.

As with many great artists, Debussy died early – at only fifty-six years of age – of colon cancer.

A Few “Debussyisms”

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun 

Clair de Lune 

Children’s Corner