One Fine Insight from 1973

June 10, 2009


A memorable part of Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures at Harvard, in which he gave a masterly elucidation of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, came when he recomposed the first movement as Mozart would have done had he been merely a master of musical materials and not a genius. Everything was perfectly thought-out, symmetrical — but without that spark of life that genius lends.

Ever since that revelation, I have now and then been struck by the same principle being displayed by a great variety of the best composers (whether or not to Mozart’s degree is another question) . To take an example that revealed itself to me a few days ago: Puccini’s “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly. It would be difficult to come up with a composer more distant from Mozart in many ways. But in the aspect of creativity that Bernstein was dealing with, they are blood-brothers. Here is a take-home assignment: look at or listen to “Un bel dì” and rethink it as perfectly well-behaved, very regular, tune. My efforts produced a perfectly charming tune for a popular song — which simply revealed why people are so enchanted with the much less predictable tune that Puccini came up with.

To take one example that occurs right off the bat: the mediocre composer (maybe me) might have ended the first phrase, “Un bel dì, vedremo” with “-mo” held for three beats and followed it by a perfectly balanced consequent phrase. But the conflicted Butterfly gets to sing something far more interesting. Just as she utters her “-mo,” the orchestra continues the melody immediately, to be joined by the unhappy geisha two beats later. There are so many intricate things going on here that reward close examination. But for now, I just want to register my delight at this general way of thinking, which I was led to years go by Bernstein’s infectious and intelligent love for Mozart’s great edifice in G Minor.

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