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Commentary/Review – “The Unanswered Question,” Presented by Leonard Bernstein March 14, 2013

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, classical music, Leonard Bernstein, music, music commentary, tonality, Unanswered Question.
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(This is the twelfth of a series of commentaries about a series of books about the nature of music. The other commentaries of this series are listed below. This series has been triggered as a result of my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans” and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II and a discussion of Dr. Eben Alexander’s recent book, Proof of Heaven).


In “The Unanswered Question,” the famed conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein takes on ultimate conceptual questions of music. He frames his study in the context of what he calls a “crisis” in music, and takes the title of his study from the Charles Ives piece of the same name.  The Ives piece reportedly asks a metaphysical question; Bernstein puts the question into a musical context. At the end, he decides he is not sure what this “Unanswered Question” is, but decides the answer is “yes”—yes to music, and yes to other arts (with an emphasis on poetry).

“The Unanswered Question” was a series of lectures delivered at Harvard in 1973. In 1976, Bernstein released these lectures in a book, slightly edited, with printed musical examples. There are DVDs available of the lectures full of musical examples including a complete performances of classical works played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Bernstein himself. I absorbed this study in both formats. The lectures address Bernstein’s perceived Twentieth Century “crisis” in music, a crisis over tonality—I’d say a crisis of accessibility to what might be called “concert music/serious music/classical music.” Bernstein looks for universalities in music, the subject of my own series of blog posts (see below). Bernstein finds parallels with universalities in linguistics, and refers liberally to the important linguist Noam Chomsky. At times, this comparison is strained (at times Bernstein even admits it), but some insights are developed. As part of his search for universalities, he goes into the physics of music, helpful material that reinforces much thinking about these musical conceptual issues. He spends a lot of time analyzing recent (within the last three centuries) Western “classical” music, using brilliant insights to frame the “crisis” he refers to.

Another thought about Leonard Bernstein before I look at the six lectures individually—Leonard Bernstein lectures in two to three hour sessions, consulting some notes, but clearly without a word-for-word text of the lecture. He speaks for long uninterrupted periods in perfect, often eloquent sentences, with only a very rare (maybe less than five in all the lectures) stammer or “uh” or “um.” He sprinkles in piano demonstrations with ease, rendering complex musical passages as if they are not much more than a shrug of the shoulders. This is a brilliant man—was a brilliant man. It is part of the crisis he speaks of—evidence of the crisis— that when I went to college and studied music (1972-1976) Bernstein was generally regarded as a trivial figure, a sort of pop-classical musician worthy of little attention. I realize now this attitude was part of the problem he himself was elaborating at the same time I was experiencing the effects of it as a young music creator! I was in the midst of this snobby elitism, of composers writing obscure, deliberately dissonant, unfathomable music for each other—the idea of wanting a larger audience was considered tasteless and banal. I must express my belated admiration for this talented man.

Lecture 1 – Music Phonology

  • In this lecture, Bernstein gives us a heavy dose of linguistics, comparing the essence of language with the essence of music. He offers the concept that music is “heightened speech” as justification for the comparison. He describes this “heightened speech” that is music as universal among humans. I find the “heightened speech” idea compelling. Speech offers communication at one level—music cranks up that aural communication channel into something above and beyond language. Bernstein goes into universal aspects of music. He describes the tonic-dominant relationship as derived from the overtone series, from the first three notes (the first two being the fundamental—in C, it would be C, C an octave up, then G, the dominant of the scale). He uses the overtone series to explain the cross-cultural prevalence of pentatonic scales, found from Japan to Scotland, from blues to Gregorian Chant, and the summoning sometimes haunting motive of the descending major third. He even gives a convincing explanation of “blue notes,” that fuzzy major/minor third found in American blues scales, but evident in different ways in other cultures. This “blue” note derives from high up in the overtone scale, at a point not easily heard directly, with the actual note of the overtone series somewhere between a major sixth and a minor seventh above the fundamental. He also explains why there are twelve tones in the conventional chromatic scale, using the circle of fifths, the journey through dominant-tonic shifts until our arrival back at the original (the explanation requires an equal-temperament scale).

Lecture 2 – Musical Syntax

  • Bernstein’s search for commonalities between music and language continues. He starts into what to me is a forced attempt to relate elements of music to elements of language: note = letter, scale = alphabet. He also relates triadic inversions to Chomsky’s ideas of linguistic transformation—again, this seemed strained to me. The triad itself is not found universally. This starts us down the path to Western exclusivity to a viewpoint that can only serve to make universal conclusions more difficult to reach. Bernstein does point out that music is more like poetry than like prose, and makes comparisons to poetry throughout his lectures. And when Bernstein makes broader comparisons and analogies between language and music, the ideas are more helpful for developing insights into the universal common denominators of music. Language has its universal elements—words, parts of speech, sentences; and music has its universal elements—notes, some form of scale or mode, and some form of harmony whether through chords or through a sense of unity in the way notes of a scale or mode interact. He ends this lecture with an analysis of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. He relates his analysis to the linguistic terminology, but we start to move into an examination of “Western” music, which will take us to Bernstein’s elaboration of the Twentieth Century crisis in music.

Lecture 3 – Musical Semantics

  • Bernstein introduces the idea that “ambiguity” is the key to great art, especially music, though he includes the written word and even to the “Mona Lisa” painting as examples. I think this is an insightful idea for artists of all sorts, but especially for musicians—musicians using all styles of expression. It’s that ambiguity that allows the music to go one way or the other, so creates uncertainty, suspense—attention-getting, attention-keeping tactics. He discusses the use of “deletion” to keep music fresh, the idea of yanking out a predictable repetition to avoid the risk of tedium and to create more “ambiguities.” In this lecture, Bernstein also explains why the minor triad seems “sad”—the intervals are further out on the overtone scale. I’m not sure of this explanation, but I haven’t uncovered a better one. The minor mode permeates music all over the world. To me, there must be a better explanation. It could be that the major third is susceptible to that “blue note” idea mentioned earlier. But I’m not sure that’s enough of an explanation either.

Lecture Four – The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity

  • Bernstein delves deeply into recent Western musical history, describing the growing development of chromaticism. I found the analysis of Western music fascinating, but drifting off the subject I am trying to study—the search for the universal nature of music, and how that might relate to the melding of physics and metaphysics. I felt the analogies to poetry were forced. I found Bernstein at his best and most helpful to me when he returned to the overtone system as an explanation of the attractiveness of tonality.

Lecture 5 – The Twentieth Century Crisis

  • Bernstein links the “challenge” of tonality to historical events (again with a Western focus)—World War I and the coming of fascism. He describes music as becoming overly long, overly complex, overly chromatic—overly ambiguous. He indicates this crisis led to a potential “collapse” of tonality. He relates the issue again to linguistics, describing tonality as “syntactic clarity” and atonality as “syntactic confusion.” He describes Schoenberg, considered the originator of the system of atonal music, the twelve-tone row or serial music, as eventually concluding that atonality was not possible. Schoenberg even admitted his drive to return to tonal writing from time-to-time! Bernstein points out perhaps the most successful, most performed student of Schoenberg’s serial twelve-tone system was Alban Berg, and Berg appeared to deliberately design tone rows shaped in triads. Those triads were bound to create a tonal resonance with listeners even in the twelve-tone, equal-weight-to-each-note (that was the concept) system. Bernstein goes on to look at Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that he describes as 1) the death of Mahler (he did die soon after writing it) 2) the death of tonality and 3) the death of music. I’m going to describe his crisis in a different way. Music creators came to believe there was nothing new to say—no new direction to take music. There were only so many notes, only so many ways to handle a chord or a mode. As chromaticism spun into exotic directions, composers feared a loss of control as well as a loss of new creative terrain. So a new system of music composition needed to be invented to break new ground, to open new frontiers for music. Frankly, I’ve dismissed this idea previously. Cultural context is always changing, so there are always new avenues for music expression. This is one of the most definitive discoveries of my journey through different musical contexts, past and present. (I’ve discussed this in my previous post, “Book Commentary/Review – Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin.”) But this perceived crisis brought on the tone-row serialists, and other experimentation with atonality. In my opinion, this is now running its course, as music creators realize this perceived crisis was a giant collective illusion. Ironically, and gratifyingly, these atonal techniques are now available for every music creator to utilize in his or her musical vision. The door is open to yet even more possibilities. But tonality is ingrained and hovers over all of these musical avenues.

Lecture Six – Poetry of Earth

  • Bernstein discusses “sincerity” in this lecture, whether composers mean to convey the emotions, the feelings, their music evokes. He mentions Stravinsky and his hostility to the idea that music conveys feelings. Frankly, I don’t care. I did not find this to be a useful tangent. I don’t see the intention of the composer as making any difference. The music creator can have the intention of conveying specific feelings or the music can just stand as it is. No feelings? “The Rite of Spring” conveys passionate feelings—a girl dances herself to death as part of a primitive religious rite—an attempt to connect to the Divine. Maybe Stravinsky created this music with a detached, unemotional heart. But the music is passionate—it conveys feelings—it would be absurd to argue otherwise. Bernstein spends much of this lecture on Stravinsky. He clearly considers Stravinsky to have the answer to the so-called “crisis”—and makes a convincing case. Stravinsky uses poly-tonality and poly-rhythms to bring new musical expression while maintaining a tonal concept. Stravinsky reaches around the world and into the past to meld many styles into his music. He is the embodiment of what I describe as the continually shifting cultural context that makes options for musical expression inexhaustible, even within a tonal, twelve-note, chromatic-scale setting. Bernstein focuses on Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” comparing parts of it to Verdi’s “Aida.” This is more highly “Western”-specific analysis. “Oedipus Rex” itself is an operatic composition—not normally my cup of tea. But some of the choral harmonies are breathtakingly beautiful. After presenting “Oedipus Rex,” at the end of the DVD, Bernstein offers a short statement. In the book, Bernstein goes on at length, expanding his original lecture, tying together semantics and music. At one point he even refers to “Along Comes Mary” by the Association and “the musical adventures of Simon and Garfunkel” as being more desirable to him musically than music written by so-called “avante-garde” composers. Bernstein ends the DVD saying “I believe a new eclecticism is at hand.” Bernstein goes on to express a list of beliefs deriving from these lectures in a solemn, serious tone, in a litany. “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.” He goes on to say “I believe from the Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal. I believe that the sources cause to exist a phonology of music, which evolves from the universal known as the harmonic series.” After listing some further beliefs he concludes by saying “and finally, I believe that because all these things are true, Ives’ unanswered question has an answer. I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is “yes.”

It is gratifying to me that this brilliant recent thinker about music drew some of the same conclusions I have, decades later. There is an ingrained, inborn tonal orientation in the way humans perceive music—a wired-in tonality. Even when composers attempt to muddy, obscure or even eliminate tonality, human ears will naturally search for a tonal center to orient them to the musical experience. Bernstein defends this idea using his incredibly wide knowledge of music and culture, and I believe his viewpoint, a viewpoint I’ve seen dismissed by some, will ultimately prevail. This set of lectures then will become a treatise for the years to come— particularly for music creators of Western “concert/serious/classical” music. (More of my thinking on this subject is in my essay “Is ‘Classical Music’ Fading Into Obscurity?”)

There is one last post to come on this admittedly huge topic that grew on me, exploded on me. In that post, I will attempt to tie all of this together, the universal nature of music, with human consciousness, physics and metaphysics. That’s all—not too ambitious…


Previous posts on this topic:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain

Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr

Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker

Measured Tones by Ian Johnston

Exploring Music by Charles Taylor

Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin

The Study of Ethnomusicology by Bruno Nettl

World Music: A Global Journey by Terry E. Miller and Andrew Shahriari
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part IX
Part X