Two autobiographies …
“The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz” by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was the archetypical Romantic — sensitive, poetic, experimental, nostalgic, given to flights of fantasy, easily wounded, progressive, dramatic verging on melo-. He was also a terrific writer. In addition to the adventurous and colorful narrative — which includes his bewitchment with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, for whom he wrote the Symphonie fantastique, their marriage and not so eventual separation — and entertaining bouts of score settling, there are deep insights into the music. This must surely be one of the greatest autobiographies written by an artist.
I had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera, and I asked Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier — the powerful poet of the Iambes — to write a libretto around them.
The result, according to even our mutual friends, lacked the essential ingredients of what is known as a well-made drama, but I liked it, and I still do not see in what way it is worse than many that are performed daily. The then director of the Opéra, Duponchel, regarded me as a kind of lunatic whose music was a conglomeration of absurdities, beyond human redemption; but in order to keep in with the Journal des débats he consented to listen to a reading of the libretto of Benvenuto, and appeared to like it, for he went about saying that he was putting on the opera not because of the music, which he knew would be preposterous, but because of the book, which he found charming.
Accordingly he had it put into rehearsal. I shall never forget the horror of those three months. The indifference, the distaste manifested by most of the singers (who were already convinced that it would be a fiasco); Habeneck’s ill-humour, and the vague rumours that went around the theatre; the crass objections raised by that whole crowd of illiterates to certain turns of phrase in a libretto so different in style from the empty, mechanical rhyming style of the Scribe school — all this was eloquent of an atmosphere of general hostility against which I was powerless, but which I had to pretend not to notice.
(Here’s an interview with composer John Williams that I wrote for England’s Gramophone magazine back in 2005. Richard Kaufman conducts Pacific Symphony in Williams’s Oscar-winning score to “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” for a screening of the film Saturday night. Tickets here.)
By TIMOTHY MANGAN
It must have been a proud moment for the young John Williams – the red carpet premiere of William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million at the Egyptian Theater in 1966. It was one of the composer’s first major film scores. Walking out afterwards, there stood Mr and Mrs Igor Stravinsky two couples ahead, and Williams’s wife, Barbara, encouraged him to introduce himself. But Williams was terrified, he recalled recently. ‘I was convinced that he probably would have said to me, “So you’re responsible for the rubbish I just heard for these two hours.”’
Things are different now, but Williams is still a modest person. Sitting down to an interview in a faux-rustic (this is Hollywood, after all) meeting room at DreamWorks’ offices on the Universal Studios back lot, the man who never met Stravinsky had just received his 44th and 45th Academy Award nominations, for the film scores to Munich and Memoirs of a Geisha. He pronounces himself delighted, a sliver of a smile lightening his features.
‘It’s not something that you get used to, or that has happened so much that it’s not a kick or a thrill.’ Williams (though he didn’t win this year) is now tied in second place, behind Walt Disney, for the most Oscar nominations with composer Alfred Newman, who, as it happens, first hired young ‘Johnny’ Williams as an orchestrator in the 1950s at 20th Century Fox.
Being the child of Leonard Bernstein was like having a nuclear blast for a dad. You practically had to stand back and wear protective goggles when he came into a room, and even then the gale wind and blinding light were hard to withstand. The aftereffects of Lenny radiation included a sense of worthlessness (or at least that one had little talent), sexual confusion and a certain rudderless direction in life. Still, all three of his children apparently adored him, and he adored them back, sometimes to excess. It wasn’t the worst childhood if you were Leonard Bernstein’s kid, but it certainly could be odd and overwhelming.
Just in time for the centenary comes “Famous Father Girl” by Jamie Bernstein, the oldest of the Bernstein children. It’s a “Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” and well done too. There’s a certain built-in page-turning quality to the story if you know anything about Leonard Bernstein at all. You know that, as you read, you’re moving ever closer to the lurid and tragic last decade of his life. Jamie Bernstein heightens that feeling by telling her story chronologically and revealing details about her father, and mother (the actress Felicia Montealegre), as they became known to her. So the early chapters of “Famous Father Girl” are fairly idyllic, told from the standpoint of a young girl basking in the glow of her parents’ love and success and fame.
If your only knowledge of Leonard Bernstein’s musical “On the Town” is the famous movie, then you don’t know it. The film cut most of Bernstein’s music and the composer ended up boycotting it.
Here’s a great bit from the studio cast recording made in 1960 under Bernstein’s direction, and not in the movie. There are two quick comedic preludes and then the wonderful song “Ya Got Me.” The characters are attempting to cheer up their friend, Gabey.
Written in 1945, Still’s Fifth is an attractive, easy to listen to and evocative American Symphony.
The movements are described thusly:
- 1. “The vigorous, life-sustaining forces of the Hemisphere” (briskly)
- 2. “The natural beauties of the Hemisphere” (slower, and with utmost grace)
- 3. “The nervous energy of the Hemisphere” (energetically)
- 4. “The overshadowing spirit of kindness and justice in the Hemisphere” (moderately)
John Jeter conducts the Fort Smith Symphony.
I went to the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, an entertaining way to beat the excessive heat. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is organized by the GRAMMY Museum and curated by its founding executive director Robert Santelli, a music historian. I doubt that any exhibit could capture the plentitude and variety of Bernstein’s life, but this one — with genuine artifacts, as well as replicas and facsimiles — does a good job at showing just how central Bernstein once was in American life. Here are a few of the items that were on display. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)
Entrance to the exhibit.
A photo of a young Bernstein with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1940s.
Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Kindler in March of 1944. Leonard Bernstein chose the remarkable Adagio of this work to perform with the New York Philharmonic as a memorial to the composer after he died in 1976.
To hear more music in this series, click on the “neglected symphonies” tag below this post.