After decades of near-neglect and sometimes ridicule, the music of Gustav Mahler caught on in a big way in the 1960s — and I thank goodness that I was aware enough then to experience it.
Most Mahler nuts, we’re told, find their ways to this composer through one of the less time-demanding symphonies like the First or Fourth — or maybe the poignant Adagietto movement from the Fifth. My entryway, oddly enough, was through the clangorous finale from the Seventh Symphony on a free Columbia Masterworks LP sampler that my dad brought home in 1966. (I might add that from this one slab of vinyl, I also heard Bruckner, Ives, Nielsen and neoclassical Stravinsky for the first time, igniting lifelong passions for all.) No one ever told me that the Seventh was the tough one that you’re not supposed to get right away. The last minutes sounded like a riotous, even desperate celebration — maybe the cracking apart of 19th century Romantic traditions, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, or something bigger and more current.
His daughter Nina tells Ginny Dougary about the joys and traumas of life with one of music’s most inspirational figures.
Had you been fortunate enough to be in the company of the most charismatic American conductor-composer- teacher-broadcaster of all time for long enough, it is likely that you would have heard this explosion at regular intervals in living rooms and auditoriums across the world: “That’s STEIN!” whenever someone affronted the late, great Leonard Bernstein by introducing him incorrectly as “BernSTEEN.”
His youngest child, Nina, now 48, is talking to me about her father, whose life and art is being celebrated all year at the Southbank Centre. It’s a tantalising and illuminating process attempting to channel such an exuberantly talented man through the women who were close to him (I also speak to Marin Alsop, the conductor, who was his protégée) but ultimately frustrating since everything you hear — good and bad — just makes you wish, even more, that you had met him.
Bernstein’s appetite for life and people and music, as well as his reckless disregard for his health and the judgmentalism of the bien-pensants, can be summed up by this statement: “I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-twenties and [was supposed] to be dead by 45. Then 55.
Imagine this: you drop onto the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, switch on the TV and see a dapper young man with a baton standing before an orchestra and demonstrating the patterns conductors use to lead music in different meters — two, three, four and five beats to the bar. He directs his players in a few examples, bits of Beethoven’s Ninth and Schubert’s Eighth Symphonies, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz.” Then he ups the ante, showing how these simple gestures, with subtle modification, are used to coax a fluid, lyrical performance; a playful reading; or an urgently dramatic interpretation from an orchestra.
For 48 minutes, this young conductor — Leonard Bernstein, caught on film in 1955 — brings you into the musician’s world, talking about how tempo, dynamics and phrasing express a conductor’s feelings and beliefs about a piece, and how that expressivity affects a listener’s perception of the music. And he offers you a glimpse of his preparation for a performance.
“Take this opening bar of the Brahms First Symphony,” he says, and then conducts it. “There are 55 notes in it, being played by 100 instruments, and the conductor has to know them all, or he has no right to ascend the podium in the first place. And this is only one bar out of 1,260 in this symphony.”
Even with hundreds of cable channels to choose from today, the likelihood of running into a show like this is slim.