THE POETRY OF THE EARTH

Galen Guengerich     March 19, 2000

One of the Young People's Concerts performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1958 was titled "What Does Music Mean?" At one point in the program, Bernstein stands at the piano before his audience of children and teenagers, and asks them, "Did you ever feel that you wanted something more than anything else in the world, and you said so, and they said no, you can't have it. And you said again, I want it, and again they said no. And again you said, louder and more excited, I want it, and again louder, I want it. Until it seemed that something would break in your head and there is nothing left to do but cry. Well, that's like this music. Listen."

At that moment, Bernstein begins playing on the piano that powerful and haunting crescendo about ten minutes into the first movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony. At the end of each rising phrase, Bernstein sings along: "I want it! I want it!"--first in single time, then as the music quickens in double time: "I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it!" As the musical crescendo rises both in pitch and in volume, Bernstein's voice cracks, then falls to a lower octave as he pounds the piano in an increasing frenzy, still moaning "I want it, I want it!" Then he says abruptly, "And finally something breaks in your head"--more pounding on the piano--"and you cry." Then he lifts his baton to conduct the Philharmonic in playing the same passage from the 4th Symphony, and says to the audience, "See if you feel something like those emotions."

To Bernstein, that's what music means. Music lives in that place deep within each of us where longing and tears hold sway. More than anything else, music is about joy and sadness, and melancholy and hope. At its best, music enables us to feel deeply the emotions within our hearts and souls, and to sense through them our connection to the people and world around us. Indeed, the only significant criticism of Bernstein as a conductor was his willingness to respond more to the emotion in a piece of music than to the tempo and volume markings of the composer.

But for Bernstein, if you don't discover the emotional energy in a composition, everything else is simply notes on a page. In other words, the emotion in a piece of music is not just the main thing, it's the only thing. "I want it! I want it! I want it!" Emotion! Passion! Beethoven! Mahler! Even the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the percussive beat of street gangs, the rhythm of anti-war chants: wherever there was passion, there Bernstein found rhythm and melody. And all of those elements found their way into his music.

That's why, as a composer, Bernstein was very much at odds with the trends of his day. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and John Cage were writing music that was literally and intentionally the antithesis of the music Bernstein and his audiences loved best. Some of the so-called avant-garde works were 12-tone, others were serial, many were non-tonal; all were experimental. Which led Bernstein, in his Norton Lectures on the Future of Music at Harvard in 1976, to address the Unanswered Question posed by Charles Ives in the first decade of the 20th century: whither music? Where is music going? Isn't non-tonal music an oxymoron, Bernstein wondered? What are modern composers thinking?

Bernstein put it this way in the preface to his book The Infinite Variety of Music:

I am a fanatic music lover. I can't live one day without hearing music, playing it, studying it, or thinking about it. And all this is quite apart from my professional role as musician; I am a fan, a committed member of the musical public. And in this role of simple music lover, I confess, freely though unhappily, that at this moment, God forgive me, I have far more pleasure in following the musical adventures of Simon and Garfunkel or of The Association singing "Along Comes Mary" than I have in most of what is being written now by the whole community of avant-garde composers. Pop music seems to be the only area where there is to be found unabashed vitality, the fun of invention, the feeling of fresh air.

Bernstein himself actually composed a number of avant-garde works during a sabbatical year from conducting the Philharmonic. He had already achieved significant success as a conductor and as a Broadway composer. But he also wanted to be taken seriously as a classical composer, hence the avant-garde works. No sooner were they finished, however, than Bernstein threw them away. All that remains from that year's work are the Chichester Psalms--tuneful, melodious, emotionally satisfying.

The Norton Lectures themselves are heavy going, especially for those of us who do not have advanced degrees in musicology. But, so far as I can tell, the six lectures conspire to argue a relatively simple point. The avant-garde approach notwithstanding, Bernstein argues that music is inherently tonal, and the tonality of music is built into the nature of things, just like language.

Bernstein begins his lectures with an insight derived from Noam Chomsky's linguistic theory. I imagine myself just lying there as the original hominid infant, Bernstein says, contentedly trying out my new-found voice.

Mmmm Then I got hungry: MMM! MMM!--calling my mother's attention to my hunger. And as I opened my mouth to receive the nipple--MMM-AAA--lo, I had invented a primal word: MA, mother. This must be one of the first proto-words ever uttered by a human being. Still to this day, most languages have a word for mother that employs that root, MA, or some phonetic variant of it. All of the Romance languages: mater, madre, mere, and so on; the Germanic: mutter, moder; the Slavic: mat, mattka; Hebrew: Ima; Navajo: shi-ma; even in Swahili and Chinese and Japanese they call her Mama.

In the same way, Bernstein argues, music--by which he means tonal music--is built into the nature of things. He once wrote that because human beings have a built-in sense of tonal relationships, we cannot hear two isolated tones without immediately imputing a meaning to them. "We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer," Bernstein concludes, "but we infer it nonetheless." The interplay of intervals, and our emotional response to those intervals, is the poetry of the earth. Deryck Cooke makes a similar point in his recent book The Language of Music. He takes the Western chromatic scale (made up of the twelve black and white keys in each octave on a piano) and constructs an emotional lexicon from all the possible combinations of those twelve notes. Cooke shows how each of the various intervals--there are eleven possible pairs of notes in all--has a different emotional impact on us.

For example, the third note of the scale is the one that mostly determines whether the music is in a major mode or a minor one. A major key features a major third and is usually associated with positive emotions such as happiness, triumph, love and joy. The well-known theme "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a good example of this effect.

A minor key, by contrast, is one in which the third note of the scale is lowered by one half tone. The minor third can suggest the expression of emotions such as sadness, anxiety and melancholy. Not surprisingly, the flatted or minor third tone of the scale is often referred to as the "blue note" in jazz and blues. The depressed and often depressing sound of the minor third has been used by composers over the years to convey the sense of an unhappy ending, or the prospect of unrelieved tragedy. As Bernstein himself points out, the minor third is also used by children the world over to give voice to playground taunts. When I sang this to the children in chapel here at All Souls last week, they immediately felt uncomfortable. They also recognized that many ambulance sirens, particularly those that warble between two tones, are tuned to sound a minor third.

Bernstein's point, echoed by Cooke, is that music is tonal--made up of intervals--and the intervals between tones have emotional import. It's like the intervals that span the other spaces in our lives--the spaces between siblings or spouses or lovers, the interval between what we long for and what we fear, the distance between the person we are at home and the one at the office, the gap which separates our ambition from our accomplishments, or our beliefs about life from our behavior in it. As with musical intervals, what matters in each case is not the actual size of these intervals but the expectations they create and the feelings they produce.

The composer's art is to take all the notes in the repertoire, all the relationships, and with them make sounds that honor the full range of musical and emotional possibilities. At its best, music expresses anguish as well as longing, acceptance as well as concord, mournfulness as well as aspiration. It captures both movement and stability, both flux and finality.

The art of living is to do the same. It is to listen to the music that resounds from the relationships of our lives. I suspect that's mainly the reason we come to All Souls: not just to listen to Wally and the choir, but also to listen to life, to embrace its well-textured dissonance and celebrate its enduring harmony. Music is the poetry of the earth--and the poetry of the human heart.

In April of 1970, Leonard Bernstein wrote a letter to the music critic of a Vienna newspaper, after having conducted within a period of six days two performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one by the Vienna Philharmonic, the other by the New York Philharmonic. The letter was about the rather dramatic difference between the two performances. At first, Bernstein wrote, he was inclined to attribute the difference to the mysterious, complicated, and elusive complexity of Beethoven's symphonic thought. "But now," he continued, "I realize it is precisely the opposite--it is the utter simplicity of his thought. It is a simplicity so basic, so believed-in, so elemental that it necessarily invites interpretation, in the same way that the simplest, most basic statements always have. Let there be light. I think therefore I am. All is vanity. Blessed are the meek. Existence precedes Essence. God is One. God is Three. God is Dead."

Music is as simple as the tones in an octave, and as elemental as longing and joy. It is the poetry of the earth--a simple song: one hand, one heart, one life. And yes, I too want that. I want it! Copyright AllSouls 2000.

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