Books : reviews

Leonard Bernstein.
The Unanswered Question: six talks at Harvard.
Harvard University Press. 1976

rating : 1.5 : unmissable
review : 31 March 2019

Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures on the future course of music drew cheers from his Harvard audiences and television viewers. In this re-creation of his talks, the author considers music ranging from Hindu ragas through Mozart and Ravel to Copland, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky.

The author’s note begins:

[p.iii] The pages that follow were written not to be read, but listened to

And indeed, I didn’t read them; I listened to them. This book is a transcript of Bernstein’s delivery of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1973. The lectures were were filmed, and are available on DVD. Although the quality of the picture and sound leaves a little to be desired, the content of the lectures is riveting.

I am no expert on music: I don’t play an instrument, and I can’t read musical notation (my schooling was quite lacking in these areas). I don’t know if Bernstein’s ideas of musical syntax and semantics are widely held. But even so, I found these lectures remarkable, and enjoyed them tremendously. I learned a lot about music theory and history, and a bit about poetry; I much appreciated listening to someone so passionate and erudite, even if a lot of the details went over my head. I would recommend watching the lectures, and using the book as an aide-memoire.

And as a bonus, I can now get rid of ear worms. Although I don’t play an instrument, after watching Bernstein play the first few notes of Mozart’s 40th multiple times on the piano, I can remember the hand movements, and so I can recreate the rhythm and sound in my head. This starts the symphony playing, which drowns out any previous ear worm. Okay, so I instead have a Mozart symphony ear worm, but that’s no problem at all.