Bernstein: Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs

Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs

LEONARD BERNSTEIN
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City

The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017-18 season.

COMPOSED: Begun—and, it seems, essentially completed—in 1949. Revised into a different, unperformed format in 1952. May have been touched up (from its original version) prior to its first performance, in 1955

WORLD PREMIERE: October 16, 1955. Benny Goodman was clarinet soloist, with the composer conducting on a broadcast of the Omnibus television show. In 1963, Bernstein added a further two measures as a transition in the Riffs section

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—November 1994. David Breeden was clarinet soloist, Alasdair Neale conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo clarinet plus 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, piano, 4 tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, vibraphone, wood block, timpani, and double bass

DURATION: About 7 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Throughout his career, Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as a composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. Time for composition was potentially the most endangered in the mix that packed his date-book, and he had to take special care to see that it didn’t get entirely crowded out by his day-to-day obligations as a performer. That he left as large an oeuvre as he did is a testament to his astonishing musical fluency and to his embrace of a wide variety of American styles.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bernstein was schooled at Harvard (where he graduated in 1939) and, following advanced work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, returned to his home state. There he worked at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and was taken under the wing of Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony. In 1943, he moved to New York, the city with which he would become most famously associated. While working as assistant conductor to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein stepped in at short notice—on November 14, 1943—to substitute for an ailing conductor (Bruno Walter) at a Philharmonic concert and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1958, he began a decade-long tenure as that orchestra’s music director.

By that time, he was already making a mark as the first conductor to truly harness the power of the rapidly developing medium of television. A generation of music lovers received some of their earliest indoctrination through his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, a series of fifty-three broadcasts that began in his first season with the New York Philharmonic. (He continued to oversee the series until he handed it off in 1972 to Michael Tilson Thomas, then the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony.) But Bernstein had already established a presence on television several years before he inaugurated the Young People’s Concerts. In November 1954, he presented his first special on Omnibus, a Sunday-night show that ran from 1952 through 1961, originally on the CBS network, then on ABC and finally NBC. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation and hosted by Alistair Cooke, it exemplified the medium’s highest aspirations, purveying insightful programming on topics in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Bernstein presented seven Omnibus installments on a variety of musical topics. His first, using Beethoven’s sketches for his Fifth Symphony to explore the composer’s decision-making process, became a classic. Bernstein included its script in his 1959 essay collection The Joy of Music, along with those of his other Omnibus topics, which included American musical theater, the innovations of Stravinsky, and the brilliance of Bach.

THE MUSIC  In October 1955, Bernstein’s Omnibus program was “The World of Jazz.” He discussed syncopation, improvisation, and jazz-inflected instrumental colors; he demonstrated how a famous couplet from Shakespeare’s Macbeth could be rendered in the style of the blues; and, at the end of the show, he premiered his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a spirited example of a classical-music eminence building a bridge between disparate styles. The piece had been on the back burner for some while. Bernstein had written it for Woody Herman’s jazz band in 1949, but that particular incarnation of Herman’s ensemble disbanded before the piece was completed, the anticipated commission payment never materialized, and Bernstein therefore let the composition languish in his “someday” files. In late 1952, he revised the piece, with a reduced instrumentation, to serve as a ballet scene in Wonderful Town, the musical he was writing with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That scene was cut from the show during preliminary try-outs, but Bernstein did incorporate bits of it into two numbers in that show. The score on the whole went back into his files. The Omnibus broadcast finally offered a reason for Bernstein to complete the work. He conducted the ABC-TV Studio Band in that first airing. He ended up dedicating it not to Benny Goodman, who many sources have stated was the soloist in the premiere. In fact, the clarinetist was Al Gallodoro, whose rich career included playing lead clarinet and alto saxophone with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and bass clarinet in the NBC Symphony. That initial broadcast now lives on YouTube; an interesting detail it reveals is that, in the premiere, a bass saxophone was used for the score’s baritone saxophone line—a substitution Bernstein obviously approved, since he was conducting.

The three continuous portions of the piece stand as essentially independent episodes, each focusing on a different sound-world within a standard swing band. The Prelude features the trumpets, trombones, and percussion—at first intoning a snappy gesture, then a sultry tune. The Fugue is a bouncy expanse of counterpoint (not quite two minutes long) featuring the five saxophones, with punctuation from the percussion and some underpinning from the double bass. The solo clarinet is held in reserve for the Riffs segment, where it indeed lets loose melodic flourishes, assisted at first by piano and then the band’s other instruments. The texture builds through this section before the fugue subject makes some final appearances and the piece reaches its swing-band raise-the-roof conclusion.

James M. Keller

Portions of this essay appeared earlier in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and the Edinburgh International Festival and are used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Leonard Bernstein conducting the Columbia Jazz Band with clarinetist Benny Goodman (Sony)  |  Simon Rattle conducting the London Sinfonietta and Michael Collins (EMI)  |  Paavo J√§rvi conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Sabine Meyer (Erato)

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale)  |  Leonard Bernstein: American Original, edited by Burton Bernstein and Barbara Haws (Collins)  |  Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, by Misha Berson (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books)  |  West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, edited by Elizabeth A. Wells (Scarecrow Press) 

(September 2017)