Leonard Bernstein: From Mahler to the Beatles

by ttucker23 on December 1, 2009

For our discussions on The Beatles’ Revolver album I dug out the clip below from Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated lecture series The Unanswered Question, Six Talks at Harvard. This short extract is from Lecture 5: The 20th Century Crisis, in which he focuses on Mahler’s 9th Symphony. He sees this great symphony as a prophetic vision of the 20th Century that lay before Mahler, a century that was to become shadowed by the spectre of death like no other before it.

Bernstein’s list of the great works of the century is interesting, and he was one of the first of the giants of classical music to champion The Beatles and other significant ‘popular music’ of his time. This lecture was recorded in 1973, and I often wonder what other art works he would add to that list that have emerged since then, and what he would have made of the 21st Century.

It’s interesting that Bernstein should reflect on the Beatles’ Revolver during a talk on Mahler, as I’ve always thought that there is a strong connection between these two very different artists, namely that focus on the universal. Recall that statement Mahler made about his work to Sibelius: “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” Like The Beatles’ work on Revolver he sees the task of art as encompassing the universal spirit.

In his essay on Mahler’s symphonic work in A Guide to the Symphony Stephen Johnson has this to say about the famous Mahlerian irony:

This brings us neatly to one of the most celebrated Mahlerian devices: the use of naïve, or even downright banal material in a way which, far from bringing a sense of bathos, can convey intense feeling. It is one facet (but only one) of the so-called Mahlerian irony. Again context is everything: the clarinet’s Ländler tune in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony is innocuous in itself but after the haunted opening one can read all manner of sinister possibilities into it; the childlike oboe tune of the Sixth Symphony’s second movement Trio has an intrinsic oddity in its alteration of 3/8 and 4/8 bars, but coming as it does at the heart of what is perhaps the classic Mahler ‘horror’ Scherzo, it can be deeply unsettling.

There is a similar effect that we find in the appearance of a children’s song (Yellow Submarine) on Revolver. In itself it’s a glorious sing-along, a beautiful pastiche of the kind of nonsense verse that Edward Lear wrote for children, with the improbable craft updated from a sieve to a submarine. But in the context of an album marked with so much ‘bitter sweet cynicism’ it sets off different resonances.

This was reinforced when the Beatles came to release a single from the album, and chose Eleanor Rigby, a song of hopeless love, loneliness, old age and death (‘no one was saved…’), backed with Yellow Submarine, a song of youth, togetherness and hope (‘we all live…’). Here are the two polarities between which life is lived.

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