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Bernstein and Beethoven

A product of his times….that seems like such a cliché way of telling a story – but, yes! A product of The Age of Enlightenment, Beethoven was all about some revolution. Through his free and fierce nature, he wrenched music out of the 18th century and into the next – Stravinsky would do the same thing a century later. What Beethoven did makes him if not the last of the Classicists then arguably the first of the Romantics. His adventures in disregarding 18th-century structure, requirements and protocol marked his music and his daily life, and in both areas he achieved a virtually complete freedom of expression. He was like Elvis Presley of the symphony…only he never wiggled his crotch on Ed Sullivan.

The idea of the authority of a composer and that his word was considered definitive were some of the common thoughts during that age. The creative mind was respected, with the composer an object of reverence. This was the Romantic view. Mozart and Haydn were definitely influences on Beethoven’s work. Beethoven’s “Quintet for piano and winds” is said to bear a resemblance to Mozart and his version, only he Beethovened it up. He also explored new directions and gradually expanded the scope of his work. Some important pieces from the man are the First and Second symphonies, the first two piano concertos, and the famous Pathetique sonata.
Sources show Beethoven’s disdain for authority, and for social rank (what’s cool about this is how Bernstein captures that exact topic in West Side Story – at least I thought that was pretty cool). He stopped performing at the piano and called a bitch out if the audience chatted amongst themselves, or afforded him less than their full attention. At parties, he refused to perform if suddenly called upon to do so. Eventually, after many confrontations, the Archduke Rudolph decreed that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven. He was a rebel just like The Jets.
Many later composers of the Romantic period and beyond were influenced specifically by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The famous choral finale is Beethoven’s musical representation of Universal Brotherhood. Wagner completed a piano arrangement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, an important theme in the finale of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #1 is related to the “Ode to Joy” or “Ode to Freedom” or any eventual “Ode to…fill in the blank” theme.
Bernstein had a pretty exuberant conducting style. He actually had a pretty “fuck you all who don’t like it” kinda style. I like this man very much. He strayed far from classic conducting techniques, using his whole body to get the best out of his orchestra, and had evident fun doing so. Exploring his output, one finds the famous and obscure – works that both are reflective of their times and somehow preserve and encapsulate them. Bernstein also used the podium as a way to popularize the music he loved. In 1958, he began a series of televised Young People’s Concerts that brought symphonic music into the homes of Americans. He was like “Check this shit out, kids!”
But now let’s move on to some West Side Story! In West Side Story the sung text is crucial to the telling of the story. When the music is conveying certain emotions there can only be language left to really hit it home to the listener. The lyrical beauty in love ballads, the language of the characters in songs by street gangs and ethnic characters and the poetry of the lyrics truly help to take the music a step further.
Bernstein was very effective in bringing modern society and the 20th century to stories and musical themes that were familiar or previously explored. He added his own flair to classical pieces as well as giving a modern twist to age old tales for the current times.
As far as the “hope dies last” and “despair does not rule” ideology – I think the ideas presented in West Side Story and Beethoven’s 9th are similar in the fact that they deal with brotherhood of man. The end of West Side Story touches on the idea that the two different cultures are going to work as brothers from now on and not enemies, Beethoven’s entire purpose of his symphony is to promote that idea of a coming together peacefully.
When Beethoven premiered his symphony in Vienna he received five ovations. At that time, it was customary that the Imperial couple be greeted with three ovations when they entered the hall. The fact that five ovations were received by a private person who was not even employed by the state, and moreover, was a musician, was in itself considered almost indecent. Police agents present at the concert had to break off this spontaneous explosion of ovations. This certainly tells of the class that musicians were put into at the time and how private people were looked at. It makes the ideas Beethoven was presenting all the more controversial and liberal. If I were Beethoven…and could hear…I would have been like “Please, please! Let’s have at least one more round of applause for the Imperial couple…then we can return to me!!!” I would have been blackballed.
Bernstein tackled quite the liberal idea of brotherhood in his musical. He addressed issues including rebellion from authority, troubled youth, poverty and racism. Juvenile delinquency is seen as an ailment of society: “No one wants a fella with a social disease!” It certainly was teeming with American ideas toward immigrants. At the time nothing like this show had ever been produced with its raucous dance numbers and brutal subject matter. I would imagine that if, in the end, you feel the urge for Tony and Maria to be together – the idea that love can transcend all racial boundaries may even affect people that let themselves sit through shows about gay relationships as well. I think shows like West Side Story pave the way for further exploration of topics concerning tolerance and acceptance. If he were alive today I am sure that Lenny would bust it out with some amazing gay story like that – since he was definitely no stranger to some boys in his life. Gotta love him!
The idea of these pieces being program music made me sit on the fence for a moment. But, although there may not be text for the audience to read in West Side Story to some of the instrumental moments, I do think that those moments tell a story. When The Jets are dancing to the familiar theme of their song – the music definitely represents what is going on and the feeling that is being conveyed without the lyrics. Beethoven’s 9th was primarily instrumental until the final movement, so I would say that his piece could count if there were program notes given to the audience to explain the earlier movements. It is like the way Vivaldi’s Four Seasons captures the idea of each of the times of year or the way Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique captures the idea of killing the one you love and burning in hell for it, the music in Beethoven’s symphony and West Side Story – respectively – capture a feeling or an idea. They certainly perform the same function that film scores do now – they pull emotions out of you while you are listening to the story and make you feel it on a much deeper level than words alone could ever do. The bottom line for me is that they both definitely tell a story and are conveying a message to the audience. I think that lends them the right to be called program music.
Both men certainly use their music to convey a variety of emotions and help to really move their message and ideas forward. Beethoven utilized cyclical structure in his symphony to link the movements thematically. Bernstein did the same with his characters and events – you would hear lilting music with the themes of “Somewhere” or “Maria” when the two lovers were thinking of each other, within close parameters of one another or holding each other. The Jets and the fighting scenes were underscored by the themes that were featured in “The Jet Song” and “Dance at the Gym” – similar themes can be heard in both compositions and are identifiable with those characters. Beethoven incorporated a Turkish march in his final movement to represent a military aspect and war, I believe he was talking about what the present held and then moves onto the idea with voices soaring – that all men can be brothers. It is very much like the end of West Side Story. Bernstein uses frenetic percussion and latin styles to create his mambo theme and the energetic “America” has a mexican cha-cha-cha feel to it like a mariachi song. He uses themes like Beethoven does in his movements to tie his musical theme together. Bernstein assigns musical themes to characters the way Beethoven returns to them in each of his movements. Like I said earlier – The Jets have similar themes when they are causing a scene – even when they are harassing Anita in the store the music is very disjointed and has elements of the musical themes underscoring their rumble with The Sharks and their other songs as well.
Bernstein uses immediate and quick tempo with strings and clashing percussion in “Tonight (Ensemble)” that sounds foreboding – it’s almost like the strings in “Jaws” and there are maracas shaking as well to help illustrate who they are referring to (The Sharks). When Tony and Maria begin to sing, the strings become soft and soaring and feel hopeful. They really soar when Maria begins to sing her part – then immediately they are loud and frenzied when The Jets begin their parts again. When Tony sings “Something’s Coming” the strings are excited yet soft as he begins to talk about this amazingly great feeling he has.
Beethoven really uses strings and brass to produce this feeling of duty almost, at least that’s what I hear when the brass gets loud and the strings come under softly and then begin to crescendo before the brass takes over. It sounds very regal and then gets frenetic like The Jets songs. But that is only how it begins. That “Bah-Bah-Bah-Dum!” that occurs with the brass gives me the idea of duty to your country, military men standing at attention and those sort of ideas. It’s like the loyalty the gangs feel to one another and their “war” in West Side Story. Beethoven and his “Bah-Bah-Bah’s” that happen later tend to ease up a lot – the “Bah-Dum!” is replaced by another quick “Bah” instead. I’m totally explaining this like I should be fingerpainting and writing this in crayon. The strings get nice and quiet and soothing towards the end – before the chorus busts it down. The chorus starts out kind of sounding stern to me. Then when the women join it isn’t so “military” like. It begins to take on a happier tone. Then it’s just all sorts of amazing and breathtaking. The strings get sweet and low (no pun intended) and then the voices come in much quieter and begin to slowly crescendo and it’s like “Heeey! What’s up, now? Go on witcha baaad self!” The part I think is awesome is when the voices start singing in the style that reminds me of the English madrigal – it’s like “Fair Phyllis” and it is a complete surprise when it just happens out of nowhere – there are the sweeping moments, the regal sounding moments and then suddenly there is the overlapping texture. He creates this feeling of many emotions happening with the differing dynamics – much like Bernstein creates so many emotions with the texture of overlapping in “Tonight (Ensemble)” and his amazing rhythms.
To decide which composition is more artistically powerful – I immediately think of Leonard Bernstein and his West Side Story. Not only because the end made me cry like a little bitch, but because there are so many themes and rhythms being explored to tell this age old story that is just as relevant today as it was then and in times before and it will continue to be relevant – I am sure of that. It is a lot more distinct to me to see what Lenny was doing with his story, characters, moods and emotions than it was for me to pick things out of Beethoven’s 9th. West Side Story affected me more on an emotional level. I can identify with the “love that is not accepted by the majority” theme – and holy shit did I ever have to keep myself from sobbing at the end. I kept saying “It’s not real! Natalie Wood isn’t even Puerto Rican! She’s Russian for Christ’s sake!” I was literally saying these things in my head so I wouldn’t bawl my eyes out when she started to sing “Somewhere” without accompaniment (which by the way is another way that Lenny used just a single voice to make the audience feel stripped and vulnerable – and it worked – well!). I am just simply in love with Bernstein’s music in West Side Story.