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The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard


Always absorbing and frequently brilliant, Leonard Bernstein's The Unanswered Question is a very lucid and convincing discussion of music's history and forms, with particular emphasis on modern music. It addresses the average intelligent listener who is not musically trained but wants to know what makes music work--what is meant, for example, by "tonal" and "atonal." It requires some concentration, but Bernstein, a superb teacher, keeps technical jargon to a minimum, illustrates what he means with musical examples and graphics, and repeats key points. 

Delivered in 1973, the talks were transcribed for a book, but in it Bernstein insists "The pages that follow were written not to be read, but listened to," really an endorsement of the video edition. The talks are, in fact, performances. Television was always kind to Bernstein; he had magnetism and knew how to use it. To illustrate various points in his analyses, he plays the piano frequently, sings occasionally, and conducts significant works of key composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Ravel, Debussy, Ives, Mahler, and Stravinsky. 

Bernstein traces the development of music from its origins to the 20th-century struggle between tonality (championed notably by Stravinsky) and atonalism (represented mainly by Schoenberg). The last two talks, devoted to these composers, are particularly enlightening, but all six are outstanding. He argues persuasively that humans are born with an ability to grasp musical forms, and that rules of musical syntax are rooted in nature--in mathematically measurable relations between tones and overtones.

These talks are a key document. They coincide chronologically, as cause and/or symptom, with the movement of America's leading composers back from Schoenbergian forms toward a tonal orientation. Bernstein predicts and promotes this movement, which is still in progress. He is clearly an advocate of tonality, but he discusses atonal music with sympathy and understanding. --Joe McLellan



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