Essays: Lenny the lecturer |
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Lenny the lecturer

ON Monday night’s 9 o’clock News (BBC1), Angela Rippon’s left earring fell off. She stuck it back on again during the filmed obituary for Agatha Christie. Well done, Angie! But take a male chauvinist tip — get those lobes pierced.

Already half over without being much talked about, Leonard Bernstein’s series of six Harvard lectures under the collective title The Unanswered Question (BBC2) is undoubtedly some kind of television classic. At the moment the programmes are going out at 3.30 on Sunday afternoons, which for those of us who sleep all day is inconvenient. A prompt re-screening in an evening slot would be a service — and, I am sure, a success. Besides, even viewers already plugged in would benefit from a second chance, since Bernstein’s line of argument, though scrupulously clear and not often elliptical, is still alarmingly concise, especially if you are one of those people — and one of those people is writing this notice — whose love of music is unaccompanied by any technical knowledge.

Which last is the precise difficulty Bernstein’s new approach is designed to help overcome. Importing Chomsky’s powerful theories of transformational grammar holus-bolus into his own field, Bernstein seems to intend giving anybody who cares to make the effort a possible way of thinking about music comparable in expository scope to the way Chomsky thinks about language. Whatever the validity of his analogies between the two fields — and a better logician than myself, who would not be hard to find, might condemn the whole enterprise as glib sophistry — they certainly amount to an impressive argument, and at least one layman has been sitting at Bernstein’s feet in absorbed dedication.

Since somebody on television is not easy to sit at the feet of unless the set is a long way from the floor, there might be an element of mortification in this. And since Bernstein, the complete musician, is also Lenny, the ham, there are quite a few boyish histrionics to be swallowed along with the meat of the argument. But generally I have not been so interested in the unfolding of a subject since — well, since I once wandered by accident into the Old Schools at Oxford and heard Chomsky himself for the first time.

I suppose the difference lies in the fact that Chomsky was being original on a large scale whereas Bernstein’s originality mainly consists in the application he makes of Chomsky. In addition, Chomsky’s discoveries, despite their immense force, don’t invite (or, rather, they invite but don’t reward) any easy extrapolation into the aesthetic field, whereas Bernstein’s ideas spread with enchanting smoothness from analysis to judgement.

Such enchantment might eventually prove to be what’s wrong with them, but for the nonce it is gripping to watch and hear the kit of analytical tools being employed, with due deference but no real hesitation, to explain the excellence of musical masterpieces — with all of which, of course, Bernstein is exhaustively familiar. From Chomsky you can learn a lot about Jack and Jill and the man who stole Harry’s hat’s sister, but it will be a long journey before he or anyone else can tell you exactly why, say, the last sentence of ‘The Great Gatsby’ is so endlessly resonant. With Bernstein you are in amongst the great music straight away: it’s a short step from the preliminary defining of terms to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and even the most casually brief illustrations are on the level of a Chopin nocturne or a theme from Stravinsky.

Careful as Bernstein is to avoid the seductive tones of sciolistic euphoria, there is still something dangerously over-explanatory about an approach which tends, by implication if not design, to equate aesthetic excellence with pattern-making. But his meticulous anatomising of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony fascinatingly revealed a heck of a lot going on without presuming to solve the problem of why so much going on should have the simple effect of exalting the listener.

To Bernstein’s credit, he was well aware that this problem requires to stay unsolved, and largely directed his energies to the task of exposing false trails for what they are. Probably the most that the aesthetician can hope to achieve is to define the correct insoluble problem by eliminating the incorrect ones. Whether or not that is so, there are numerous benefits to be gained from this superb set of lectures, despite the superficial drawbacks of Bernstein’s manner.

Conducting the Sixth, Lenny employed such, and so much, expressive body-English that one longed for the style of the crippled Klemperer, who supervised the Brandenburg concertos with nothing but his index finger. Also he touches his face too often. But he has enormous learning and love in his own field, so that he can play a few bars of, say, César Franck and send you belting off to find out something about that composer. His references to literature are apposite and often chasteningly adventurous, as though he had read everything.

Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (Granada), by Jack Rosenthal, was a very funny play about an extra with delusions of competence who was given a line to say and muffed it. As McGill, Joe Black had the unrewarding job of being an invincibly boring little man. He did it well, but perforce yielded the centre of attention to Jack Shepherd, who played the harried film-director. Shepherd’s drained anguish has by now become one of the most sought-after acting styles on television — nobody else can do it. Just behaving normally he looks like a bad dream by Edvard Munch. Pretending to despair, his face becomes an historical disaster, the retreat from Moscow mirrored in each eye, He was completely believable as someone driven so far up the wall by delays in filming that he started yelling ‘Cut’ instead of ‘Action’ and falling, still asleep, out of the back of a van.

In The Masque of the Red Death (BBC1), purportedly one of Roger Corman’s key films, Vincent Price lurked about his cassle planning ghassly axe of violence and inviting his victims to pray to Gard. Ellery Queen (BBC1), even duller and destined to be around for months, is an American series full of 100-year-old actors who were in ‘Citizen Kane’ and must now purvey forties’ nostalgia on the cheap, uttering dialogue as anachronistic (‘No way,’ ‘update,’ etc.) as Ellery’s hair-cut.

The Observer, 18th January 1976