Leonard Bernstein and the Twentieth Century Crisis of Faith
As a student in the University Honors Program when I was an undergraduate, I completed a long term research project on the convergence of Leonard Bernstein’s political and musical views in his compositions. This project took me through almost two years of exploring Bernstein’s writings and scores, and culminated in the successful completion of a thesis, and a presentation of this work at a Music Program Colloquium Hour. I also received the program’s Outstanding Thesis Award for my final paper. Below is the abstract for my project, as well as a link to the full paper.
Throughout his career as composer, conductor, and educator, Leonard Bernstein experienced and discussed a “crisis of faith” caused by societal, political, and musical concerns. This crisis was primarily one of failing communication: Bernstein felt that many of the political issues of the twentieth century were due to poor communication and fractured human relationships, and he believed the development of atonal music and the 12-tone method were the musical manifestations of these crises. He felt that the poor communication plaguing the century was damaging music severely, as he believed that music without tonality would no longer have the ability to evoke emotional responses in listeners and forge human connections. His dramatization of the musical timeline leading into the twentieth century in parallel with the series of political crises that were also occurring resulted in his repeated argument that tonality was the element of music that made it a universal communicator, and that it could never truly be removed from music. The crisis can be explained through an investigation of his political views, faith, and musical ideas, and how each of these factors influenced his compositions. Bernstein’s three symphonies demonstrate him grappling with this concept through both their narrative themes and the musical techniques he uses to convey them. Analyzing excerpts of Bernstein’s work through the lens of the crisis of faith reveals the significance of the crisis to Bernstein’s life and work, and how he expressed this concept differently as his ideas evolved. Research into this area of Bernstein’s career delves into an important conversation in the musical developments of the twentieth century.