The Leonard Bernstein Letters: On Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner & Strauss

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 1 December 2013 | 2:28:00 am

The recently published, The Leonard Bernstein Letters are fascinating. If you have not bought this extraordinary historical record we can only recommend you go out  and do so - whether a Bernstein "fan" or not. This fascination is greatly added to in that included is not only those letters from Bernstein but also those to him from some of the most famous names of the 20th century classical music world.  You may think very differently about not only Bernstein but a number of other people afterwards. 


For us of course, of greatest interest are those letters from or to Bernstein that revolve around Wagner or those "associated" with him. We could review the book, but how do you review personal correspondence? Ok, that won't stop anyone but we feel the best way to "review" this book is to look at some of the letters themselves. So with this in mind we reprint a few, very, short extracts below.

"Appalachian Spring has had a great success here. I have played it also in the provinces, where they love it, almost more than in London! But the greatest joke is that the Times called me [a] “real Wagnerian conductor” after my Tristan and Götterdämmerung with Marjorie Lawrence! I had never done Götterdämmerung before, and my whole Wagner repertoire has been almost nothing! So much for the critics." To Serge Koussevitzky, - 22 June 1946


"Non per me, ma per altri”, “che voi dire, per altri”? It's my son: he has become a fan of yours. (This is an understatement.) He is working at Unitel in Munich, translating your Salzau Romeo und Julia tapes–commentaries into German. He “schwärms” about you on the phone and I hear about Romeo sitting in the garden, the triangle that shouldn't sound like a doorbell – in short (he is 24) you seem to have revived his interest in music (something I haven't managed to do) and he is pestering me for the following:

Here is a CD of West Side Story. Do you by any means think it possible for you to sign the first CD of the set (on the label-side with an indelible thingamajig) with a “dedication” to Marko (with a K) Kleiber? and leave it (have it left) at the Met or the Carlyle?

This would make him the happiest person in the world, renew his respect for me (cause I know you personally) and generally improve the morale all round".
Carlos Kleiber to Leonard Bernstein. October 1989

"Congratulations on your stunning exploration of the why's and wherefore's of modern music on Omnibus last Sunday. You are – it goes without saying – uniquely qualified for the task. I am very confident that you made many converts with your lucid and detailed explanations which, although of necessity assumed that the viewer knew very little of the composer's vocabulary and method, nevertheless at no point talked down to the audience. How few composers would be able to do this with your naturalness, conciseness and virtuosity!

Having said that much, however, I also felt moved to point out a serious flaw in your delineation, namely an unfortunate intrusion – conscious or subconscious, it is hard to say – of your own personal viewpoint of the subject in the latter half of the program.

After a very factual exploration of how atonality developed logically from chromaticism, you allowed your own qualitative feelings about Wagnerian heaviness and/or excessive emotionalism creep in to such an extent that it became quite apparent what “camp” you were in. This is all the more a shame since the actual statements you made (juxtaposing the new objectivity of Satie and Hindemith with post-Wagnerian romanticism and expressionism) were mostly valid statements per se – in cold print they would appear quite sound – but the slightly sarcastic coloring & inflection you gave these thoughts made it too obvious which way you wanted the listener to be swayed. In other words, you seemed to momentarily abandon at the crucial point the very “objectivity and clarity” you mentioned so often.

Giving the picture this slant was a little unfair. The further we get into the middle of our century the more objectively we see some of the highly controversial and heated arguments of earlier decades (you indicated this yourself when you said it seems that the two camps were coming closer together, that a kind of synthesis may be in the making). It has thus also become clear that Debussyan chromaticism, which you had in the anti-Wagner camp, is a lot closer to late Wagner than anybody including Debussy was for a long time willing to admit, and that the important works of the Impressionists were to an until recently greatly underestimated extent responsible for not only the break-through to atonality but the instrumental sound and coloring of early Schönberg and almost all of Webern."

Gunther Schuller to Leonard Bernstein 14 January 1957



"I have just talked with my good friend Humphrey Burton in England who tells me that he spoke to you about the possibility of our working together on a production of Tristan und Isolde. Even though Humphrey reported that you had misgivings I want to tell you personally how very much I would love the opportunity of our working together, particularly on a project as fascinating and challenging as Tristan.


The Tristan idea has been growing in my mind ever since Wieland Wagner asked me to do a production at Bayreuth, but there never was time during the years I was with the New York Philharmonic. Now that my time has become more flexible, I return to Tristan as one of the major projects I want to achieve in the near future. The idea would be to produce it at the Bayreuth Festival in 1973 and to record and film it thereafter. I realize that you may not be interested in staging the opera at Bayreuth but I can think of no one on Earth better suited for a free, fresh and “inner-directed” film version.

Could we talk about this? I will be going to Japan next month, then back in New York from mid-September through January '71. In early February I go to Paris for concerts and then generally around Europe and Israel until the end of April.
I am your profound admirer, and want to work with you!

P.S. Of course, if you were interested in the Bayreuth staging as well, that would be a more than welcome bonus." 
To Ingmar Bergman, 11 August 1970


"I compared the Victor recording of the Love Scene from Berlioz's Romeo with the broadcast and confirmed the fact that the Victor is much faster.

And I confirmed also another fact – namely that every man, no matter the importance of his intelligence, can be from time to time a little stupid. So is the case of the old Toscanini.

Your kind visit and dear letter made me very happy. I felt myself forty years younger.

I hope to see you very soon and it will give me a great amount of pleasure". 
Arturo Toscanini to Leonard Bernstein. 15 October 1949

"They tell me you are now very ill, worse than our last time in Munich. Some people even imply that you feel your life coming to a close – for me, an inadmissible thought. The years of physical age have mounted close to 90, and even I, on the eve of my 63rd birthday, can feel their weight and the concomitant panic at time running out before all our works can be finished.

I have always been somewhat amazed at the warmth and musical closeness of our relationship. After all, you were born in the lap of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, with full title to their domain; whereas I was born in the lap of Gershwin and Copland, and my title in the kingdom of European music was, so to speak, that of an adopted son. That is why I was so surprised to receive your message, some months ago, when you were stopped by illness from completing your Elektra recording, that if you should in time not recover to finish the missing central love scene, I, of all people, must be the one to complete it for you. You can imagine the honor I felt at this request and, also, my sense of inadequacy at the prospect of replacing so great a master.

But you must recover; I know what your recuperative powers can be. You are resilience itself. I have observed it in brilliant action last January in Munich when I watched and heard your last Entführung. It was charming and subtle as ever, but I did notice the difficulty you were having in moving, the extra long time it took you to reach the podium, and the extra effort the singers on stage had to make in order to follow your beat, usually small, but always so clear. Backstage, in the interval, you asked me if you might attend one of my Tristan rehearsals for only 20 minutes – all you thought your body could bear. Remember that you stayed for all of it – all 91 minutes of Act I (in a not very well polished first run-through). Remember, if you can, that you came bounding down the aisle to my podium, when orchestra and singers had left, your eyes aflame, and your cheeks ablaze. “Na Bernstein,” you said looking up (up!) at me from floor to stage, “jetztz hab' ich endlich zum ersten Mal im Leben Tristan gehört.” You looked like a young man, burning, radiant. I was in heaven, not only because of this unbelievable imprimatur from the Wagnerian pope himself, but also because I was watching a mystical, quasi-Faustian rejuvenation. “Auch das Vorspiel?”, I asked timorously, knowing that there was at least a five-minute difference between your timing of the Prelude and mine. “Überhaupt das Vorspiel,” you answered, and began to give me an extraordinary analysis of what I had just done in terms of phrasing, tempo relationships, etc. You taught me, in wisdom, what I had been performing by intuition. You were a young, strong man." 
To Karl Böhm 13 August 1981




"Just because I don't want to miss a chance of making music with you please give me a hint whether you would like me as Kurwenal in the Bayreuth Tristan production of which I heard. You know how opera houses are in their short notice planning.

In case of “yes” it would be a great thrill. Should you already have made an agreement with somebody else, I am still your greatest admirer. Only – I am dying to sing with you again. So please let me know.
Ever,


Sir Dieter Falstaff." Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Leonard Bernstein 9 February 1970

"I am touched by your intelligent letter, but hard put to answer it. When you depict me as “turning my back” on “new” musical trends you do me a disservice, to say nothing of making an irrelevancy. One writes what one hears within one, not without. Lord knows I am sufficiently exposed to the “influences” of non-tonal music; but obviously I have not been conditioned by them. Mahler apart, I cannot conceive music (my own music) divorced from tonality. Whether this is good or bad is, again, irrelevant. The only meaningful thing is the truth of the creative act. The rest of the chips will fall where they may." 
Leonard Bernstein to John Adams. 27 January 1966

"When your Mahler started to fill (but that is the wrong word – because it was more this sensitive trembling) the Cathedral today – I thought it the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I am so glad I didn't know it – it was this strange music of all the gods who were crying."  
Jacqueline Kennedy to Leonard Bernstein 9 June 1968

"Mrs. Alma Mahler-Werfel has chosen some words of mine as the title of her new volume of memoirs and I wish to give a small party for her on the publication of the book. I am asking about twenty friends to meet her at the Algonquin Hotel – reception room 306 – on November 11 – Tuesday – between 5 and 7.30. She tells me her daughter – the sculptor – Gustav Mahler's daughter – will be there." 
Thornton Wilder to Leonard Bernstein. 27 October 1958



"Happy Birthday! I'm all alone, imagine, out in the desert, in a rented house (all Japonee, & ugly) & a wonderful pool, & a Baldwin, and big rocky desert hills, & sun & fine air, all alone thinking of you. How I miss seeing you, & have missed it for years; how much I was looking forward to visiting some Sundays ago, &  couldn't because Felicia wasn't well; thinking about how we can splurge it up a year from now at the Philh. for your 60th; thinking about those inside wheels of me that compose music, and are so rusty now (I wrote a bar today!), and how long I can go on being an all-time maestro without writing; & thence to Mahler (I bought lots of albums of Mahler, & I've been listening & crying as I listen – Das Lied is still one in a million) – & thence to Bruckner (I bought some of his symphs too, having never heard #6, 8 or 9!!) & find him impossibly boring, without personality, awkward &  dull, masked in solemnity.

But Mahler makes me think of you, hard, and of our music, which I don't think I really understand the direction of any more (or the purpose); & I long to talk to you &; have you explain it to me, & reassure me that new music is just as exciting as it was when you showed me all about it 20 years ago.

And I long also to kiss you and wish you a very happy birthday". 
Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland. 12 November 1959



"Life is good, the gods are kind, Rosenkavalier is sensational, I've never worked so hard, etc. etc. My third act rehearsal was almost ruined by my staying up all night with your enthralling Dodecahedron. Things like that. But why I'm really writing is, as they say here, das volgendes:

The Funke literary effort. It was sent me by dozens of people and I never really read it to the end, what with all the hectic goings-on here, until yesterday, when I found myself shocked by the last line. Shocked for you, that is – and I want you to know (as if I needed to tell you!) that, natch, I could never be the source of such a stupid and indelicate remark. But I have talked to Stu[art] O[strow] and told him so, that I will gladly write Funke if you'd like me to, that it's all too silly, life is too short, that I hope you've not been offended, that I love you.

And there you are. Tomorrow morning I get up and play a Mozart concerto for thousands of people and I haven't practiced a note. Tonight's Rosenkavalier boasted the presence of Strauss' son who made known that never before … but why go on. Fact is, I miss you and can't wait to get back and dig in." 
Leonard Bernstein to Stephen Sondheim. 19 April 1968

"I first heard from John Culshaw about the reports in the Vienna Press concerning you and Wobisch. Two days later Wobisch telephoned me about another matter, at the end of the conversation he told me more about the reports and how very distressed he was about them. Afterwards, I felt that without wanting to interfere in a matter which does not concern me at all, I had to write to you for purely human reasons.

As another Jewish conductor, I understand your feelings surely better than anyone else. If somebody, after the Nazi horrors, does not want to work with a German or Austrian orchestra, as is the case with several Jewish artists, I understand only too well. I have been through great soul searching in the past about this, and several times have been on the verge of breaking contact with them. But finally I always had the conviction that one must forgive the past and try to work to help and educate the younger generation in these orchestras.

I am aware of Wobisch's political past (Ed: He was an active member of the Nazi Party during the war), as surely you were before you went to Vienna. However, working with him and knowing him for the past ten years, I have come to the conviction that despite everything he is probably one of the few trustworthy members of that orchestra.

Wobisch worked very hard to bring you to Vienna and to prepare your appearances and successes there; I even heard from Mr. Rosengarten of Decca that Wobisch went as far as threatening to change the orchestra's contract from Decca to Deutsche Grammophon unless they were released to make Rosenkavalier with you. As you will know by now this involved the postponement of my own recording of the opera with the orchestra, which should be enough indication of my real neutrality in this issue." 
Georg Solti  to Leonard Bernstein. 19 May 1967