Genuine Music Legend Leonard Bernstein Asks: Why Beethoven?

“I can’t live one day without hearing music, playing it, studying it, or thinking about it.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

In the summer of 1948 the pianist, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein took a road trip with his younger brother, Burton Bernstein (who appears to have been their speedy chauffeur) and a literary British friend.

Their conversations are far from humdrum, as you would expect from such luminaries. I wanted to share a section of their dialogue that I found fascinating, intellectual and insightful, as documented by Bernstein in an early chapter of his book, The Joy of Music under the heading: Bull Session in the Rockies.

At the time of the conversation they are somewhere in the mountainous region of the Picasso Pass of New Mexico, and Leonard Bernstein refers to his brother as Y.B. (maybe some affectionate nickname) and his literary friend is called Lyric Poet ( L.P.).

Bernstein has these gracious words about his friend: L.P. is a poet’s poet from Britain and one of those incredible people who are constantly so involved in politics, love, music and working ideals, that, despite their established success, they often find themselves embarrassed in the presence of a laundry bill. When L.P. speaks, he is oracular; when he is silent, he is even more so.

I totally admire Lyric Poet, whoever he is/was, for attempting musical discourse with such a mind as Bernstein’s. He must have felt exasperated at times!

I have interspersed the text with Beethoven recordings by Bernstein where he has made a recording pertaining to their conversation to enrich the overall experience.

The following is what transpired between them…

Why Beethoven?

LP: My dear Y.B., I suspect you have forgotten the fact that our tyre burst yesterday was caused by just such driving as you are now guilty of.

YB: Don’t end your sentence with a preposition. (But Y.B. is impressed enough to reduce speed considerably-though gradually enough to preclude the suspicion that he has yielded a point. Few can impress hard-boiled Y.B.; but even he is not immune to the oracle. Some minutes pass in relieved silence; and, with the tension gone, L.P. may now revert to the basic matter of all trip-talk: the scenery.)

LP: These hills are pure Beethoven. (There is an uneventful lapse of five minutes, during which L.P. meditates blissfully on his happy metaphor; Y.B. smarts under the speed restriction, and I brood on the literary mind which is habitually forced to attach music to the hills, the sea, or will-o’-the-wisps.)

LP: Pure Beethoven.

LB: (Ceasing to brood): I had every intention of letting your remark pass for innocent, but since you insist on it, I have a barbed question to put. With so many thousands of hills in the world- at least a hundred per famous composer- why does every hill remind every writer of Ludwig van Beethoven?

LP: Fancy that- and I thought I was flattering you by making a musical metaphor. Besides, I happen to find it true. These mountains have a quality of majesty and craggy exaltation that suggest Beethoven to me.

LB: Which symphony?

LP: Very funny indeed. You mean to say that you see no relation between this landscape and Beethoven’s music?

LB: Certainly- and Bach’s, and Stravinsky’s, and Sibelius’, and Wagner’s- and Raff’s. So why Beethoven?

LP: As the caterpillar said to Alice, “Why not?”

LB: I’m being serious L.P., and you’re not. Ever since I can recall, the first association that springs to anyone’s mind when serious music is mentioned is “Beethoven.” When I must give a concert to open a season an all-Beethoven program is usally requested. When you walk into a concert hall bearing the names of the greats inscribed around it on a freize, there he sits, front and center, the first, the largest, the most immediately visible, and usually gold-plated. When a festival of orchestral music is contemplated the bets are ten to one it will turn out to be a Beethoven festival. What is the latest chic among young neo-classic compcosers? Neo-Beethoven! What is the meat-and-potatoes of every piano recital? A Beethoven sonata. Or of every quartet program? Opus one hundred et cetera. What did we play in our symphony concerts when we wanted to honor the fallen in war? The Eroica. What did we play on V Day? The Fifth. What is every United Nations concert? The Ninth. What is every Ph.D. oral exam in music schools? Play all the themes you can from the nine symphonies of Beethoven! Beethoven! Ludwig v-

LP: What’s the matter, don’t you like him?

LB: Like him? I’m all for him! In fact, I’m rather a nut on the subject, which is probably why I caught up your remark so violently. I adore Beethoven. But I want to understand this unwritten proscription of everyone else from the top row. I’m not complaining. I’d just like to know why not Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann-

YB: Andybody want a piece of gum?

LP: Well, I suppose it’s because Beethoven – or rather there must be a certain tra- That is, if one thinks through the whole-

LB: That’s just what I mean: there’s no answer.

LP: Well, dammit, man, it’s because he’s the best, that’s all! Let’s just say it out unashamed: Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived!

LB: (Who agrees, but has a Talmudic background): Dunkt dir das? May I challenge you to a blow by blow substantiation of this brave statement?

LP: With pleasure. How?

LB: Let’s take the elements of music one by one- melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, orchestration- and see how our friend measures up on each count. Do you think it an unfair method?

LP: Not at all. Let’s see, melody…Melody! Lord, what melody! The slow movement of the Seventh! Singing its heart out-

LB: Its monotone heart, you mean. The main argument of this “tune,” if you will recall, is glued helplessly to E-natural.

LP: Well, but that is intentional- meant to produce a certain static, somber, marchlike-

LB: Granted. But then it is not particularly distinguished for melody.

LP: I was fated to pick a poor example. How about the first movement?

LB: Just try whistling it. (L.P. makes a valiant attempt. Stops. Pause.)

LB: (Brightly): Shall we move on to harmony?

LP: No, dammit, I’ll see this through yet! The…the…I’ve got it! The slow movement of the A-minor quartet! The holiness of it, the thankfulness of the convalescent, the purity of incredibly sustained slow motion, the-

LB: The melody?

LP: Oh, the melody, the melody! What is melody anyway? Does it have to be a beer hall tune to deserve that name? Any succession of notes- Y.B., you’re speeding again!- is a melody, isn’t it?

LB: Technically, yes. But we are speaking of the relative merits of one melody versus another. And in the case of Beethoven-

LP: (Somewhat desperately): There’s always that glorious tune in the finale of the Ninth: Dee-da-da-

LB: Now even you must admit that one beer hall par excellence, don’t you think?

LP: (with a sigh): Cedunt Helvetii. We move on to harmony. Of course you must understand that I’m not a musician, so don’t pull out the technical stops on me.

LB: Not at all Lyric One. I need only make reference to three or four most common chords in Western music. I am sure you are familiar with them.

LP: You mean (sings) “Now the day is o-ver, Night is drawing nigh; Shadows of the eeee-v’ning-“

LB: Exactly. Now what can you find in Beethoven that is harmonically much more adventurous than what you have just sung?

LP: You’re not serious L.B. You couldn’t mean that! Why, Beethoven the radical, the arch revolutionary, Napoleon, all that-

LB: And yet the pages of the Fifth Symphony stream on with the old three chords chasing each other about until you wonder what more he can possibly wring from them. Tonic, dominant, tonic, subdominant, dominant-

LP: But what a punch they pack!

LB: That’s another matter. We were speaking of harmonic interest, weren’t we?

LP: I admit I wouldn’t advance harmony as Beethoven’s strong point. But we were coming to rhythm. Now there you certainly can’t deny the vigour, the intensity, the pulsation, the drive-

LB: You back down too easily on his harmony. The man had a fascinating way with a chord, to say the least: the weird spacings, the violently sudden modulations, the unexpected turn of harmonic events, the unheard-of dissonances-

LP: Whose side are you on anyway? I thought you had said the harmony was dull?

LB: Never dull- only limited, and therefore less interesting than harmony which followed his period. And as to rhythm- certainly he was a rhythmic composer; so is Stavinsky. So were Bizet and Berlioz. I repeat- why Beethoven?

LP: I’m afraid you’re begging the question. Nobody has proposed that Beethoven leads all the rest solely because of his rhythm, or his melody, or his harmony. It’s the combination-

LB: The combination of undistinguished elements? That hardly adds up to the gold-plated bust we worship in the conservatory concert hall! And the counterpoint-

YB: Gum, anyone?

LB: -is generally of the schoolboy variety. He spent his whole life trying to write a really good fugue. And the orchestration is at times downright bad, especially in the later period when he was deaf. Unimportant trumpet parts sticking out of the orchestra like sore thumbs, horns bumbling along endlessly repeated notes, drowned-out woodwinds, murderously cruel writing for the human voice. And there you have it.

LP: (In despair): Y.B., I wish I didn’t have to constantly keep reminding you about driving sanely!

YB: You have just split an infinitive. (But he slows down)

LP: (Almost in a rage- a lyrical one, of course): Somehow or other I feel I ought to make a speech. My idol has been desecrated before my eyes. And by one whose tools are notes, while mine are words- words! There he lies, a bedraggled, deaf, syphilitic, besmirched by the vain tongue of pseudocriticism; no attention paid to his obvious genius, his miraculous outpourings, his pure revelation, his vision of glory, brotherhood, divinity! There he lies, a mediocre melodist, a homely harmonist, an iterant riveter of a rhythmist, an ordinary orchestrator, a commonplace contrapuntist! This from a musician, one who professes to lift back the hide from the anatomical secrets of these mighty works- one whose life is a devotion to the musical mystery! It is impossible, utterly, utterly impossible!

(There is a pause, partly self-indulgent, partly a silence befitting the climax of a heart-given tribute).

LB: You are right L.P. It is truly impossible. But it is only through this kind of analysis that we can arrive at the truth. You see, I have agreed with you from the beginning, but I have been thinking aloud with you. I am no different from the others who worship that name, those sonatas and quartets, that gold bust. But I suddenly sensed the blindness of that worship when you brought it to bear on those hills. And in challenging you, I was challenging myself to produce Exhibit A- the evidence. And now, if you’re recovered, I am sure you can name the musical element we have omitted in our blow-by-blow survey.

LP: (Sober now, but with a slight hangover): Melody, harm- of course, Form. How stupid of me to let you omit it from the list. Form- the very essence of Beethoven, the life of those magnificent opening allegros, those perfect scherzos, those cumulative-

LB: Careful. You’re igniting again. No, that’s not quite what I mean by form. Let me put it this way. Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust- nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard. When he really did it- as in the Funeral March of the Eroica– he produced an entity that always seems to me to have been previously written in Heaven, and then merely dictated to him. Not that the dictation was easily achieved. We know with what agonies he paid for listening to divine orders. But the reward is great. There is a special space carved out in the cosmos into which this movement just fits, predetermined and perfect.

LP: Now you’re igniting.

LB: (Deaf to everything but his own voice): Form is only an empty word, a shell, without this gift of inevitability; a composer can write a string of perfectly molded sonata-allegro movements, with every rule obeyed, and still suffer from bad form. Beethoven broke all the rules , and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness.  Rightness- that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds that last is is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms- leave them to the Chaikovskys and the Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish:  Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

LP: (Quietly): But that is almost a definition of God.

LB: I meant it to be.


I feel that this lively discussion formed the basis of several of Lenny’s famous recordings about the genius of Beethoven in which he espouses the idea of the perfection of each subsequent note in Beethoven’s music.

Rather paradoxically Bernstein slates as well as salivates, over Beethoven. Some of us aren’t happy! Thomas Goss take’s up Lyric Poet’s mantel in defending Mr B!

Whatever your thoughts on Beethoven, mine have been regularly expressed erring on the side of praise, neigh, worship for his craft! Beethoven is a composer of the people and for all time. His music speaks to everything that truly matters in life. Even when it seems trivial it is anything but. And when it is powerful it is transcendent…

It’s why Beethoven has the starring (historical) role in my fiction novel, The Virtuoso, which was described as: “A modern day Beethoven story,” in the summary from one publisher’s review.

I do hope you enjoyed the debate! I’d love to hear your views. I’ll let Beethoven have the last word!

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