Ned Rorem on Leonard Bernstein

This likewise from Other Entertainment – “Lenny Is Dead” (October 1990).

During the terrible hours following Lenny’s death last Sunday the phone rang incessantly. Friend after friend called to commiserate, and also the press, with a flood of irrelevant questions: How well did you know him? What made him so American? Did he smoke himself to death? Wasn’t he too young to die? What was he really like? None of this seemed to matter since the world had suddenly grown empty – the most crucial musician of our time had vanished. But next morning it seemed clear that there are no irrelevant questions, and these were as good as any to set off a brief remembrance.

How well did I know him? To “know well” has to do with intensity more than with habit. Everyone in Lenny’s vast entourage felt themselves to be, at one time or another, the sole love of his life, and I was no exception. The fact that he not only championed my music, but conducted it in a manner coinciding with my very heartbeat, was naturally not unrelated to love. Years could pass without our meeting, then for weeks we’d be inseparable. During these periods he would play as hard as he worked, with a power of concentration as acute for orgies as for oratorios. In Milan, in 1954, when he was preparing La Sonnambula for La Scala, I asked him how Callas was to deal with. “Well, she knows what she wants and gets it, but since she’s always right, this wastes no time. She’s never temperamental or unkind during rehearsal – she saves that for parties.” Lenny was the same: socially exasperating, even cruel with his manipulative narcissism (but only with peers, not with unprotected underlings), generous to a fault with his professional sanctioning of what he believed in.

Was he indeed so American? He was the sum of his contradictions. His most significant identity was that of jack-of-all-trades (which the French aptly call l’homme orchestre), surely a European trait; while Americans have always been specialists. … Yes, he was frustrated at forever being “accused” of spreading himself thin, but this very spreading, like the frustration itself, defined his theatrical nature. Had he concentrated on but one of his gifts, that gift would have shriveled.

Was he too young to die? What is too young? Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 years old but 288. Was he, as so many have meanly claimed, paying for the rough life he led? As he lived many lives, so he died many deaths. Smoking may have been one cause, but so was overwork, and especially sorrow at a world he so longed to change but which remained as philistine and foolish as before. Which may ultimately be the brokenhearted reason any artist dies. Or any person.

So what was he really like? Lenny was like everyone else, only more so. But nobody else was like him.

Ned Rorem on Ravel and Debussy

Have been browsing through one of Ned Rorem’s collections, Other Entertainment. This is from a very brief piece on Ravel and Debussy:

Ravel and Debussy, the mother and father of modern French music, were so alike in esthetic and vocabulary that it’s become fashionable to claim how different they were. In fact, the differences are superficial: like Comedy and Tragedy they are two sides of the Impressionist mask. Good musicians of the same generation often come in pairs wherein both speak one language, but with divergent accents – of optimism and pessimism, for instance, or of concert hall versus opera stage. Witness Mozart and Haydn, Mahler and Strauss, Copland and Thomson, Britten and Tippett, Poulenc and Honegger.

In formal matters everyone agrees that Ravel was a classicist, Debussy a free versifier. Yet the orchestral masterpiece of each one proves the reverse. Ravel’s Daphnis is a loose rhapsody, Debussy’s La Mer a tight symphony. Melodically Debussy was short of breath, like Beethoven, while Ravel spun out tunes that were minutes long, like Puccini. Contrapuntally they were, like all the French, unconcerned. Rhythmically they were, like all the French (because of the unstressed national speech from which their music springs), generally amorphous. Harmonically they dealt in the same material of secondary sevenths, except for the whole-tone scale, which Ravel avoided. And coloristically they both excelled, making rainbows from a lean palette. Their game could be called Sound, sound taking precedence over shape, over language.