Bernstein's Senior Thesis At Harvard: The Roots of a Lifelong Search to Discover an American Identity

Sometime in March 1939 Leonard Bernstein, then a Harvard University senior, wrote a letter to his former piano teacher and future secretarial assistant Helen Coates on Stillman Infirmary letterhead.2 After a day which found him prostrate as a "victime de la grippe," the patient felt "perfectly fine again," although he worried about the possibility of a relapse if he left Stillman's "lair of lassitude" too soon. The "victime" also lamented the inopportune timing of his malady: "It struck me right in the middle of the busiest part of the year—The Birds performance only a short way off [April 21 and 22]; the thesis (only partly done so far) due next week, etc."

Although his final months at Harvard may have been unusually hectic, Bernstein had maintained an active extracurricular life throughout his four years, while managing, often after some last-minute cramming, to achieve passing or better grades in philosophy, English, comparative literature, and with the exception of a "C" he richly deserved in counterpoint for not doing the work, his major, music. He especially relished an aesthetics course taught by the popular David Prall, one of the three people he thanked by name at the outset of the thesis.3 During his four years of study with his piano teacher at Harvard, Heinrich Gebhard, Bernstein also developed his playing skills to a professional level. By the conclusion of his Harvard years Bernstein had also demonstrated considerable interest and promise in both composition and conducting. Considering his future occupation, his conducting debut of his own incidental music to The Birds mentioned in his letter from Stillman infirmary, witnessed and praised by both Coates and Copland, marked a fitting capstone to an active career with deep repercussions for the future.


In this essay I will discuss the content, meaning, and personal historical significance of Bernstein's provocative senior thesis, "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music."4 Just as the Harvard years encompassed considerable intellectual and musical growth and a launching pad for Bernstein's development as a pianist, conductor, and composer, the thesis offers a revealing glimpse into a musical thought process that proved to be of incalculable importance throughout his many years as an educator. The ideas worked out in the thesis also arguably influenced Bernstein's future creative goals and decisions as the young man strove to fulfill his potential as a quintessentially American composer.

At sixty-three pages (more than 30,000 words), the thesis is by far the longest selection in an anthology of Bernstein writings published in Findings (1982), a compendium of juvenilia, letters, speeches, tributes, birthday messages, various homages, and excerpts from a West Side Story Log.5 In fact, it is Bernstein's most sustained writing on any subject before The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, which he wrotefour decades later.6 In the first part of the two-part thesis, Bernstein outlines what he calls "The Problem of Nationalism in American Music" and surveys the historical background of American nationalism in two sections, "The Periods of Pre-Nationalism," and "Nationalism: First Stage." In the considerably longer second part Bernstein focuses on what he calls the "second stage" of nationalism inspired by African-American music, which like most writers of the time Bernstein refers to as Negro music ("Nationalism, Second Stage, and the Negroes") with separate sections on African-American melody and rhythm ("The Negro Scale" and "Negro Rhythms"), a section on the connections between the New England style and African-American style in the work of Harris, Ives, and briefly, Sessions ("The Integration of New England and Negro Strains"), and a short concluding section, "The Tempering Force," on the use of those ethnic elements (which Bernstein calls "racial elements"), that appear "without any admixture of other elements, and without the Americanizing influences with which we have been concerned."7 The most substantive portion of the thesis (more than twice the length of any other section and roughly one-third of the thesis as a whole), focuses on rhythm, in particular African-American rhythm, which, Bernstein argued, provided the central clue to the problem of American musical identity. It is this latter topic that most concerned him in the thesis as a whole.

Throughout his career as a public lecturer and educator Bernstein would return to the topic of American musical identity and the conclusions he first articulated in his Harvard thesis. After discussing a major clue to the planning stages in the months before Bernstein wrote down his thoughts and surveying the points Bernstein makes in the various sections of the thesis itself, I will turn to his later writings in order to demonstrate the remarkable continuity of Bernstein's ideas from youth to maturity. I will argue that to a large extent Bernstein's lifelong search for an American musical identity was completed even as it began during his final year at Harvard.

Bernstein's claim in his letter to Helen Coates that the thesis, due in a week, was "only partly done," may have been somewhat exaggerated. In any event, it is clear from a letter to Copland the previous November 19 that Bernstein had already done some serious thinking about the subject.8 In this letter Bernstein expressed his view that composers like Arthur Shepherd, Henry F. Gilbert, Edward MacDowell, and Charles Wakefield Cadman, the "old boys," as he called them had, "failed utterly to develop an American style or school or music at all" and new composers, especially Bernstein's mentor Copland, had succeeded in acquiring an American identity that transcends the "`material' approach to nationalism," replacing material with a "native spirit." In the thesis Bernstein argues that when "the metamorphosis from `material' to `spirit' begins," American music has attained "the permanent, mature phase of the nationalistic process."9 The music of Copland circa 1929 will form the nucleus of this metamorphosis.

Bernstein gave Copland a working idea about what he wanted to accomplish:

The thesis tries to show how the stuff that the old boys turned out (Chadwick—Converse—Shepherd—Gilbert—MacDowell—Cadman (!), etc.) failed utterly to develop an American style or school or music at all, because their material (Negro, American Indian, etc.) was not common—the old problem of America the melting pot. Having ruthlessly revealed the invalidity of an Indian tune surrounded by Teutonic development, etc., I will try to show that there is something American in the newer music, which relies not on folk material, but on a native spirit (like your music, and maybe Harris + Sessions's [sic]—I don't know), or which relies on a new American form, like Blitzstein's. Whether this is tenable or not, it is my thesis, and I'm sticking to it.

Now how to go about it? It means going through recent American things, finding those that sound, for some reason, American, and translate that American sound into musical terms. I feel convinced that there is such a thing, or else why is that the Variations sound fresh and vital and not stale and European and dry?

This is where you can help, if you would—what music of what other composers in America would support my point, and where can I get hold of it? Would the music of Harris? or Ives? or Schuman? or Piston? or Berezowsky?

A pivotal event that helped shape Bernstein's thinking on the nature of American musical identity—and his own future development as a composer—occurred three years earlier when Arthur Berger introduced the freshman to Copland's fresh and vital Piano Variations that Bernstein praised in his letter to the composer. Two years later, Bernstein was surprised to find himself sitting next to Copland at a concert featuring the New York debut of Anna Sokolow, a dancer in Martha Graham's company. The concert happened to fall on Copland's thirty-seventh birthday, November 14, 1937. After the concert Copland invited his friends in the first row balcony to attend a private birthday gathering at his residence and asked Bernstein to join them. When Copland learned that Bernstein knew the Variations he said, "You do? A junior at Harvard knows . . . I dare you to play it," and the fearless Bernstein proceeded to play Copland's challenging work from memory.10

In his letter to Copland about the thesis, written one year after this first meeting, Bernstein had not altered his view that Copland's Variations, in contrast to works by those "old boys" of an earlier generation, stood out among a group of recent compositions "that sound, for some reason, American." The task of the thesis was to "translate that American sound into musical terms" and to discover "why is it that the Variations sound fresh and vital and not stale and European and dry?" Bernstein acknowledged that he needed to hear more recent American works in order to develop his work. The starting point remained Bernstein's strong intuition that some of these compositions by the composers he mentions, with Copland's Variations at the top of the list, would provide the key to answering the vexing question, "What is American music?" Bernstein based his arguments about this fundamental question on the principle that "nationalism is not an element arbitrarily inflicted upon music; it must be organic"11 After establishing initial roots, the development of the organism would be "manifested in two general stages, which we shall call `material' and `spiritual' respectively."12 Bernstein felt that the possibility of establishing or even defining an organic American nationalism, in contrast to other national musical identities, was seriously inhibited by three factors: (1) the absence of an "aboriginal race" which possessed a rich, ongoing musical life; (2) the presence of a heterogeneous populace that precluded the establishment of a predominant homogenous musical identity; and (3) the reality that America had insufficient time to allow its numerous heterogeneous groups to assimilate. For Bernstein, if America was a melting pot and not a salad bowl, the pot was still lukewarm. The last impediment, America's youth and consequent lack of assimilation and homogeneity, may have been influenced by a passage in Copland's December letter: "Don't try to prove too much. Composing in this country is still pretty young no matter how you look at it."13 Bernstein did not quite take Copland's advice. Although he acknowledged America's youth, he did try to prove too much in his thesis. In fact, the question of American musical identity Bernstein grappled with seventy years ago remains equally unresolved and equally relevant today.

In Bernstein's formulation, and this was an issue he discussed in "The Problem of Nationalism in American Music," there was "no common American musical material"14 to link the disparate heterogeneous groups. In fact, among all these groups Bernstein found that only two "racial elements can attain to universality."15 The first of these went all the way back to the New England colonists and includes the hymn or Protestant chorale, with its American modifications, and the wealth of English, Irish, and Scottish folk music.16 The second element is based on jazz, which in turn is based on African-American music. Bernstein saw the New England sources as problematic because they are limited to those who share this regional heritage and because, in contrast to other ethnic identities, they possess a universality that goes far beyond American borders. In contrast, jazz in Bernstein's view is common to all Americans, and in Bernstein's formulation, more confined to American borders, albeit "more international than is commonly supposed."17 For Bernstein then, jazz constitutes "the ultimate common denominator,"18 the key that unlocks the mysterious essence of American music: Before Bernstein returns to a fuller discussion of jazz in the second part of the thesis, he quickly surveys nearly three centuries from the Puritans to the years around 1900 in "The Periods of Pre-Nationalism" followed by another short section on "Nationalism: First Stage." The starting point for this first stage was Dvořák's "New World" visit. American awareness of a nascent musical identity is commonly attributed, at least in part to Dvořák's advocacy during his New York residency (1892-95) that American composers look to the music of Native and African Americans. In the two paragraphs he gives to Dvořák at the outset of this section, Bernstein argues that, although the visiting Czech composer "went so far as to write a symphony based on Negro themes," in the end "it must be admitted that most of the themes sound more Slavic than anything else."19 After giving short shrift to Dvořák, Bernstein devotes several pages to Henry F. Gilbert, whom he considered "perhaps the most noteworthy composer to emerge from those who used Negro material at all extensively" (especially in the tone poem The Dance in the Place Congo of 1906).20 Although Bernstein describes Gilbert's use of "Negro material" in the "enjoyable and exciting" Dance as "artificial," he characterizes the man as "basically a sensitive and sound musician" with "a profound feeling for the Negro folk art."21 This latter assessment contrasts with the dismissal of Gilbert as one of the "old boys" who "failed utterly to develop an American style or school or music at all" that Bernstein voiced in his letter to Copland on November 19, 1938. The more tempered view may have been influenced by Copland's response to Bernstein's letter on December 9, in which he advised the ambitious senior to avoid trying "to prove too much."22 Earlier in this brief letter Copland cautioned Bernstein not to brand a composer, in this case Gilbert, as un-American simply because he used "Negro material."23 Just as Virgil Thomson famously quipped that if an American composed music, the music would be American music, Copland asked his acolyte to consider the possibility that a work by Gilbert "might have an `American' quality despite its material."

In the first section of Part Two of the thesis, "Nationalism, Second Stage, and the Negroes," Bernstein takes up jazz: "Jazz in the twentieth century has entered the mind and spirit of America; and if an American is a sensitive creator, jazz will have become an integral part of his palette, whether or not he is aware of it."24 At the outset of the next section Bernstein offers a musical example of what he called "The Negro Scale" (the pitch collection for many years known as the blues scale): C-D-E/Eb-F-G/Gb-A-B/Bb-C. According to Bernstein, this scale, while influential, contained "restricting features" that led to stereotypes and a dependence on diatonic music.25 For this reason, a composer who used this scale as extensively as Gershwin was ultimately doomed to conservatism. Bernstein concluded that "it was necessary for Copland to reconcile the scale with his own advanced style" and that only such reconciliation would allow Copland to extend the resources of jazz in his Piano Concerto of 1926 beyond what Gershwin had accomplished in his Rhapsody in Blue two years earlier.26 After the Copland Concerto, in Bernstein's view, "the Negro scale has ceased to affect American writing, except for purposes of out-and-out jazz imitation."27

On the other hand, the influence of African-American rhythms was "far-reaching," but only if they "lost all their Negro quality."28 In short, Bernstein regarded African-American rhythm as the indispensable starting point on the road to an authentic, modern, and assimilated American style. Bernstein thought the major breakthrough took place "in the vicinity of 1929," although it could be traced as "far back as 1927" in Roger Sessions's Symphony in E Minor.29 By 1929, the organic nature of African-American rhythm and syncopation had made possible the fruition of such authentically American works as Sessions's Piano Sonata, published in 1931 and Copland's Piano Variations, which, significantly, Bernstein placed in 1929.30 Bernstein writes:

In Sessions, then, we find a genuine and important adaptation of rhythms primarily Negro, received through the medium of jazz, and combined with an intensely personal and highly developed style totally independent of jazz. The other great development of Negro rhythms by an American into an independent idiom is to be found in the work of Aaron Copland.31

Despite going "two steps beyond Gershwin,"32 Copland's Piano Concerto, which "has absorbed the jazz of its time," is also dated ("like rings in petrified wood") compared with the more sophisticated Variations.33 At the end of his section on African-American rhythms, Bernstein offers a useful summary of his argument:

To sum up, then: American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America's art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.34

In the next, and penultimate, section of his thesis, "The Integration of New England and Negro Strains," Bernstein attempts to demonstrate how Harris, Ives, and Sessions combine stylistic features indicative of their New England roots with "a personal and genuine use of the Negro rhythms."35 In discussing Ives, Bernstein offers several examples from the "Hawthorne" and "The Alcotts" movements of the Concord Sonata (published in 1920). This monumental work had received its historic first performances by John Kirkpatrick at Cos Cob, Connecticut, on November 28, 1938 and at Town Hall in New York on January 20, 1939, that is while Bernstein was researching and planning his thesis. Early in 1939 the Cos Cob performance received a thoughtful and positive review by Paul Rosenfeld in the familiar Modern Music, and Lawrence Gilman, writing for the New York Herald, famously lauded the work after the Town Hall performance as "the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication."36

It is possible that Bernstein learned about Ives and his Concord Sonata fromCopland, who in 1932 had arranged for a performance of seven Ives songs (published later as Seven Songs that same year by Cos Cob Press) at the Yaddo Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York. Two years later Copland published an article in Modern Music in which he voiced his mixed response to Ives's 114 Songs.37 However Bernstein came to know Ives's Concord Sonata, he managed to obtain a score and study the work as part of his thesis preparation. I think it is likely that Bernstein was the first (and perhaps also the last) to conclude, based on a number of significant melodic and rhythmic features, that what Ives wrote added up to "practically a piece of jazz."38 Significantly (and paradoxically in view of this judgment), to Bernstein's ear Ives's jazz never sounds like jazz, ("never does the thought enter the hearer's mind"), but nonetheless the sonata feels like American music.

In 1927, one year after he completed his overtly jazz-influenced PianoConcerto and one year before he conceived his subtler jazz-influenced Piano Variations, Copland published his most important early statement on jazz, "Jazz Structure and Influence," in Modern Music.39 Towards the end of this essay Copland assesses the significance of jazz and concludes that the unique use of jazz polyrhythms was "unprecedented in occidental music" and "the real contribution of jazz."40 Perhaps under the influence of Copland, Bernstein in his thesis similarly describes the virtues of polyrhythms in his remarks on Sessions's Piano Sonata No. 1 and Copland's Piano Concerto and Piano Variations. He also finds significant additional examples of what he now calls "counterrhythms" in Ives's Concord Sonata.

Example No. 1. Ives, "The Alcotts," Page 54, System 4.

Example No. 2. Bernstein's Graph of Counterrhythms in "The Alcotts," Page 54, System 4.

Example 3. Bernstein's Graph of Syncopations in the Top Voice of "The Alcotts," Page 54, System 4.

Ives's counterrhythms may have their roots in jazz—more accurately in Ives's case, ragtime—but to Bernstein's ear the result is a universal American music that does not create direct audible associations with either African-American rhythm or jazz. After graphing contrapuntal layers in the passage from "The Alcotts" movement of the Concord Sonata (see Examples 1 and 2), Bernstein describes and interprets what he has observed:

This rather complex analysis serves to show that various beat groupings arising from triple and duple combinations have been set together to produce a total syncopative effect. The jazz element has been strengthened—voluntarily or not—by the characteristic interval of the descending minor third, so typical of jazz; and further by the simultaneous sounding of E-flats and E-naturals in the tonality of C; and yet further by the by G-flat which is another feature of the Negro scale variant. Add to this the inner syncopations in each chordal voice, as for instance, in voice A [see Example 3] and you have practically a piece of jazz. Yet never does this music sound like jazz; never does the thought of it even enter the hearer's mind. But the American quality does; it feels American. For Ives has used these rhythms only in connection with his basically New England style (combined with his Beethoven obsession); and the combination results in a most personal sound, different from the musical expression of any other composer we have discussed. Ives could never be confused with Sessions, for example; yet they share exactly the same ingredients of Americanism.41

Both Copland and his protégé thought of jazz as a means to an end, the end being the creation of an authentic and universal American musical identity. For Copland and Bernstein, jazz was a practice and a style to make use of but of little value in and of itself. Both men made sharp distinctions between vernacular and cultivated traditions and neither composer considered jazz as the cultural equivalent of serious (i.e., art) music. Further, just as Copland, in writing about jazz rhythm in his 1927 essay, includes examples by Irving Berlin, Zez Confrey, and Gershwin but offers no examples by African Americans, Bernstein in his thesis does not link jazz to great contemporary African-American jazz artists, not even Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. This omission may seem narrow-minded, elitist today, and perhaps even racially charged, but it should be noted that it was not until the 1950s that a major jazz critic, André Hodeir, published a book which espoused the view that a jazz work, Ellington's "Concerto for Cootie" (1940) could stand alongside the concertos of Mozart or the more esoteric styles of Schoenberg and Webern, and that as late as 1965 only twenty-five American colleges offered courses in jazz.42

Copland concluded "Jazz Structure and Influence" with the hope that jazz, a popular style, would inspire a "serious" composer to free jazz "of its present connotations" and to form "the substance not only of his fox trots and Charlestons but of his lullabies and nocturnes."43 It is likely that Bernstein inherited from his mentor the idea that jazz was rich in potential but limited on its own terms. In any event, his thesis certainly reinforces Copland's own view of the limitations of jazz.44


Bernstein was serious when he told Copland that he would be sticking to his thesis whether or not it was tenable. In fact, he stuck with it the rest of his life. As a conductor and educator Bernstein would also continue to serve as an advocate for the music of Ives, Copland, and despite some ambivalence, Gershwin.45 Surprisingly, although Bernstein indefatigably championed American music in the concert hall and on tours, he devoted relatively few televised programs to this repertoire (albeit all are culturally significant and innovative). In the late 1950s Bernstein broadcast programs on "The World of Jazz" (1955), "The American Musical Comedy" (in 1956, less than two months before the opening of Candide and less than a year before West Side Story), and "Jazz in Serious Music" (1959). After "What Makes Music American?," however, the second program in the series, only five of the fifty-three Young People's broadcasts between 1958 and 1972 explore American musical themes, three focusing on Copland (1960, 1961, and 1970), one on "Jazz in the Concert Hall" (1964), and one on Ives (1967). I will now turn to some examples of the extraordinary continuities between the thesis and some of these and other lectures as Bernstein evolved from a Harvard senior into one of the most influential musicians and musical educators in America and the world.

Bernstein introduced jazz in the second of his ten widely-viewed "Omnibus" lectures, "The World of Jazz" (October 16, 1955).46 After explaining the blues, the blues scale and blue note, syncopation, jazz timbre, and connections between jazz improvisation and classical theme and variations, Bernstein sketched a history of jazz from its folk origins to the cool jazz of the 1950s, "an advanced sophisticated art mainly for listening, full of influences of Bartók and Stravinsky, and very, very serious."47 As with his thesis, Bernstein concluded "The World of Jazz" with the idea that jazz (now "the new jazz") "is the real beginning of serious American music, that at last the American composer has his own expression."48

Another continuity between the thesis and his future public lectures is evident in Bernstein's view on Dvořák, especially his views on the Czech composer's success in capturing American nationalism. In his remarks on the "New World" symphony in the thesis Bernstein concluded "it must be admitted that most of the themes sound more Slavic than anything else."49 This is what Bernstein concluded about Dvořák's "New World" Symphony in his lecture "What Makes Music American?," a "Young People's Concerts" broadcast with the New York Philharmonic on February 1, 1958:

So he made up some Native American themes (and some African-American themes, because he decided also that black folk music was American), and he wrote a whole "New World" Symphony around those themes. But the trouble is that the music doesn't sound American at all. It sounds Czech, which is how it should sound, and very pretty it is, too.50

Two years before "What Makes Music American?," Bernstein offered the same conclusions when he explored Dvořák's "New World" at greater length in his introductory remarks before a performance of the work on January 9, 1956.51 Again, Bernstein rarely hears American music in this work. He does, however, hear Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Musorgsky, national elements common to German and Scottish music, and perhaps even Chinese musical identifiers. Mainly, however, he hears Czech music—or what Richard Taruskin would describe as Czech "tourist nationalism"—"a matter of superficially marking received techniques, forms and media with regionalisms (drones, `horn' 5ths, polkas or furianty in place of minuets or scherzos), as one might don a native holiday costume)."52 Bernstein also hears modal elements that are as common to "much early English music and Gregorian church music and Hindu and African and old Greek music," as they are to music of the American Indian.53

In Bernstein's view, Dvořák's inorganic symphony is "not, by any stretch of the imagination, American music."54 This does not mean that Bernstein was unable to discover an authentic, albeit subconscious, American presence in Dvořák's "New World." Beyond words like excitement and punch, however, Bernstein cannot explain why he feels "something like an American spirit" in the "oom-pah" accompaniment against the triplets in the melody in a passage from the first movement development, a feeling soon "spoiled" by a reference to Wagner's Tannhäuser.55

True to the adage that nationalism lies in the ear of the beholder, whether an individual or a nation as a whole, I will note two anachronistic but creative connections that Bernstein made in this lecture about Dvořák, both of which are analogous to those offered by that prototypical "jazz" composer, Ives, who in his own Second Symphony managed to uncover the hidden "Turkey in the Straw" in Dvořák's "New World" Symphony.56 The imaginary connection consists of a precocious and fleeting quotation from the famous trio to John Philip Sousa's march "Stars and Stripes Forever," which Bernstein readily acknowledged Sousa did not get around to composing for another three years.57

The second hypothetical allusion occurs in the last bars of what Bernstein refers to as Dvořák's "Old World" Symphony.58 In these final moments of the symphony Bernstein quirkily hears a touch of boogie-woogie that in his somewhat whimsical view also seems to allude to "I'll Be Down to Get You in a Taxi, Honey" (the song's opening lyric, the correct title is "Darktown Strutters' Ball," published in 1917).59 Both nonsensical claims suggest that for Bernstein, latent Americanism can be found in unlikely places, even Dvořák's mostly-Czech "New World" Symphony. These perceived allusions probably say more about Bernstein than they do about Dvořák's "New World." In any event, the ingenuity of Bernstein's perceptions matches the ingenuity of the phantom allusions themselves. The perceptions may also help us to appreciate the lively compositional imagination that gave rise to Bernstein's amazingly eclectic career as an American composer with a transformation of jazz at its core, albeit a jazz that does not take into account the improvisational achievements of Armstrong and Lester Young or the compositional contributions of Ellington and other African Americans.

In contrast to the prominence he gave to African-American roots, if not African- American jazz performing artists and composers, as the foundation for an authentic American music, Bernstein in his thesis would virtually dismiss Native-American music, or adaptations thereof by Dvořák and his followers, as "socially almost negligible."60 Twenty years later he would similarly assert in "What Makes Music American?" that Native American music was a dead end because "Indian music has nothing to do with most of us."61 Even a distinguished work such as MacDowell's Indian Suite simply did not sound "American."

In "What Makes Music American?" Bernstein broadened the scope of his thesis criteria for an authentic American music when he considered "many other things about American music that make it sound American—things that have nothing to do with jazz, but have to do with different sides of our American personality."62 Although he identifies a few compositions that exhibit this expanded range of Americanism, Bernstein does not specify what is American about these works beyond such vague descriptions as "loud, strong, and wildly optimistic" to describe Schuman's American Festival Overture, the "ruggedness" and "vitality" Harris's Symphony No. 3, the American musical loneliness in Copland's ballet Billy the Kid that is qualitatively distinct from the musical expressions of loneliness in other national languages, the "sweet, homespun, American quality" of Thomson's hymn in The Mother of Us All, and the popular sentimentality expressed in Randall Thompson's Second Symphony.63

The next year, in "Jazz in Serious Music," a lecture telecast on the program "Lincoln Center Presents with the New York Philharmonic" on January 25, 1959, Bernstein revisits the central concerns and arguments of his thesis.64 As he did in the thesis, again Bernstein credits Gershwin as a composer who successfully combined the scale and rhythmic patterns of jazz with symphonic composition. Again Bernstein argues that what he still called the Negro scale became something of a dead end after Gershwin's and Copland's jazz compositions of the 1920s. Following a performance of Rhapsody in Blue on this same broadcast, Bernstein also returned to his thesis argument that "many American composers since Gershwin have turned jazz to far subtler and more complex uses than he did."65

For Bernstein, jazz provided the foundation for "the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music."66 Nevertheless, it was only when "jazz entered their blood stream" and formed "part of the air they breathed" that American composers, after Gershwin, would be able to create a jazz that "came out in their music in new, transformed ways, not sounding like jazz at all, but unmistakably American."67 This kind of metamorphosed jazz was for Bernstein not only America's "first tangible indigenous style," it would also form the basis and inspiration for Bernstein's own evolution into an American composer. Clearly, Bernstein has stuck to his senior thesis.

More than a decade later in his magnum opus of musical lectures, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, Bernstein only discusses two American compositions, Ives's Unanswered Question and Copland's Billy the Kid. Bernstein, the educator, interprets the former work as "the most trenchant description of the tonal crisis" and a "strictly musical question: Whither music in our century?" a question that also preoccupied Bernstein, the composer, who possessed an unshakable and at the time unfashionable faith in the power and primacy of tonality.68 His discussion of Billy the Kid follows a quick survey of various vernaculars, Russian among several others in the work of Stravinsky, "a Parisian speaking the Brazilian vernacular" (Milhaud), and a vernacular "straight out of Montmartre" (Poulenc).69 Bernstein then quotes a passage from the "Street in a Frontier Town" section from the Copland ballet, in which part of the orchestra plays a free reworking of the cowboy tunes "Great Granddad" and "The Streets of Laredo" in duple meter against an "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in triple meter, precisely the kind of polyrhythms that Copland believed were derived from jazz but now "freed of its present connotations" and destined to "stir his [i.e., a composer's] imagination."70 For Bernstein, "the point is not only that this bit of Billy the Kid is polyrhythmic, but that it is in the American language, and the cowboy vernacular to boot."71

In Bernstein's opinion the promise of the New England and African-American traditions became fulfilled a little more than a decade after World War I, when Americans moved from "kindergarten" (Dvořák epigones), to "grammar school" (MacDowell), to "high school" (Gershwin and the early works of Copland). As much as Bernstein respected Gershwin's and even Copland's treatment of jazz, the music they composed in the 1920s did not yet qualify them for entrance into "college" because "they were still trying consciously to write `American' music—and the results were still not very natural."72 Bernstein's next sentences further reinforce similar ideas first expressed in his senior thesis: "But during the thirties the jazz influence became a part of their living and breathing, and the composers didn't even have to think twice about it. They just wrote music, and it came out American all by itself. That was much better. That was leaving high school and going to college."73

For Bernstein, in 1958 as well as 1938, the Piano Variations was Copland's first American work in which spirit had replaced material. In October 1938, one month before he wrote his mentor about his thesis, Bernstein was swept off his feet at the American premiere in Boston of Copland's El Salón México and wrote a "fan letter" that expressed the "secure feeling to know we have a master in America."74 Soon he would get to know and love Copland's inspiring new ballet Billy the Kid, the only work other than Ives's The Unanswered Question used to represent American music in the Harvard lectures of 1973-74. Finally America had produced a composer prepared to enter Bernstein's metaphoric college. At this imaginary university "the jazz influence became a part of their living and breathing, and the composers didn't even have to think twice about it. They just wrote music, and it came out American all by itself."75 What Bernstein was looking for and discovered in Copland was a new kind of music that uses syncopation "which comes out of jazz but doesn't sound like jazz at all."76

Instead, the new American music spirit incorporates a musical language that has "become a natural part of our musical speech."77 This is the music of Sessions's Three Chorale Preludes (1924-26) and Copland's Variations and El Salón México. It is also the music of Bernstein's Fancy Free (1944), On the Town (1944), "The Masque" from The Age of Anxiety (1949), Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949), Trouble in Tahiti (1951), West Side Story (1957), and many other works by a man who began to discover his own American musical identity in part by working out his thoughts in a remarkable senior thesis. By comparing the language of his Harvard thesis with Bernstein's published lectures and writings, we come closer to understanding how, to paraphrase the words of Wordsworth, the child—or collegian in this case—was father to the famous man of American music Bernstein would soon become.


Berger, Arthur. "The Piano Variations of Aaron Copland." The Musical Mercury 1, no. 3 (August-September 1934): 85-86 .

Bernstein, Leonard. "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music." Harvard Bachelor's Thesis, 1939. In Findings: Fifty Years of Meditations on Music, 37-100. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

________. "Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Opus 95 ('From the New World')." In The Infinite Variety of Music, 148-69. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

________. "Jazz in Serious Music." In The Infinite Variety of Music, 49-64. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

________. The Joy of Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

________. The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

________. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Edited by Jack Gottlieb. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Burkholder, J. Peter. All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and Uses of Musical Borrowing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

________. ed. Charles Ives and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Copland, Aaron. "Jazz Structure and Influence." Modern Music 4, no. 2 (January-February, 1927): 9-14. Reprinted in Aaron Copland: A Reader, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 83-87. New York: Routledge, 2004.

________. "One Hundred and Fourteen Songs." Modern Music 11 (1934): 59-64. Reprinted and revised as "The Ives Case," in Aaron Copland, The New Music: 1900-1960, 109-116. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.

Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 through 1942. New York: St. Martin's / Marek, 1984.

Hodeir, André. Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. Rev. ed. New York: Grove Press, 1980.

Kleppinger, Stanley V. "On the Influence of Jazz Rhythm in the Music of Aaron Copland." American Music 21, no. 1 (2003): 74-111.

Laird, Paul R. Leonard Bernstein: A Guide to Research. Routledge Music Bibliographies. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Library of Congress. "The Leonard Bernstein Collection, ca. 1920-1989." Music Division.

Oja, Carol J., and Judith Tick, eds. Aaron Copland and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Olmstead, Andrea, ed. The Correspondence of Roger Sessions. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Schiff, David. "Copland and the `Jazz Boys'." In Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews, edited by Peter Dickinson, 14-21. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2002.

Secrest, Meryle. Leonard Bernstein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Swan, Claudia, ed. Leonard Bernstein: The Harvard Years 1935-1939. New York: Eos Orchestra, 1999.

Taruskin, Richard. "Nationalism." Grove Music Online. (accessed November 21, 2006).


1This essay is a revised and expanded edition of a talk he presented at the conference "Leonard Bernstein Boston to Broadway: Concerts and Symposia at Harvard University," October 12-14, 2006.

2Swan, ed., Leonard Bernstein, 32. A facsimile of the letter can be found online at the Library of Congress, "The Leonard Bernstein Collection."

3Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 35. Bernstein also thanked music professor A. Tillman Merritt (the professor who gave him the C in counterpoint) and I. Bernard Cohen, a graduate student friend. (See Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 35 and 47; and Bernstein, Findings, 38.) In addition to Swan, ed., Leonard Bernstein, the major sources on Bernstein's Harvard years are Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 32-55 and Secrest, Leonard Bernstein, 38-56.

4The thesis, "submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree with honors of Bachelor of Arts," was dated April 10, 1939 (see Bernstein, Findings, 37).

5Bernstein, Findings, 37-100.

6Like The Unanswered Question, the thesis is rich in musical examples. I have counted 114 mostly brief handwritten musical examples (Paul R. Laird reaches a total of 117 in Leonard Bernstein: Guide to Research, 84), ranging from an abstract example of the blues scale (which Bernstein calls the "Negro scale") and the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," to excerpts by Gershwin, Ravel, Copland, Dvořák, Chopin, Sessions, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ives, Harris, and a Hindu dance.

7Bernstein, Findings, 98.

8The greater part of the letter is reprinted in Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 50-51; and Perlis, Vivian, "Dear Aaron, Dear Lenny: A Friendship in Letters," in Oja and Tick, ed., Aaron Copland and His World, 161-62. Oja and Tick include a few significant introductory sentences not present in Burton: "In the midst of ten million other things I'm writing a thesis for honors . . . the subject is Nationalism in American music—presumably a nonentity but on the whole a vital problem. We've talked about it once or twice. You said, `Don't worry—just write it—it will come out American'." At the other end of the letter, Burton adds the sentences that follow Bernstein's question about whether music by Roy Harris, Charles Ives, William Schuman, Walter Piston, or Nicolai Berezowsky would help him to support the thesis: "You see, I know and hear so little American stuff. This is my great opportunity to get to know it well, and find out something about it. I feel more and more that there's something to all this, and that it can be told in terms. I'll be infinitely thankful for any suggestions" (Burton, 51). The middle paragraphs of the letter (quoted in this paper) appear in both Burton and Oja and Tick.

9 Bernstein, Findings, 38-39.

10Bernstein's recollection of his meeting with Copland appears in several printed sources. An early version of the meeting appeared in the November 1970 issue of High Fidelity magazine (reprinted in Bernstein, Findings, 286-88). Another version was recorded in an interview with Vivian Perlis on September 22, 1983 for Oral History, American Music, Yale University (see Copland and Perlis, ed. Copland, 334-41; and Oja and Tick, eds., Aaron Copland, 153-54).Oja and Tick also note that an excerpt of Bernstein's recollection of this event appeared in the television documentary Copland: A Self-Portrait, co-produced by Ruth Leon and Vivian Perlis, directed by Allan Miller, PBS, 1985 (Oja and Tick, eds., 177, n7; quotation on 154).

11Bernstein, Findings, 38, repeated on 39. At the time Bernstein composed his thesis and, in fact, until the advent of postmodernism several decades later, the word organic possessed considerable critical prestige and cachet. As Joseph Kerman wrote in an influential essay, "From the standpoint of the ruling ideology, analysis exists for the purpose of demonstrating organicism, and organicism exists for the purpose of validating a certain body of works of art." Joseph Kerman, "How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out," in Write all These Down: Essays on Music, 12-32(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 15.

12Bernstein, Findings, 38, repeated on 39.

13Oja and Tick, eds. Aaron Copland and His World, 163; a shorter version is reprinted in Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 51.

14Bernstein, Findings, 40.

15Ibid., 41.


17Ibid., 51.

18Ibid., 41.

19Ibid., 46.



22Oja and Tick, Aaron Copland and His World, 162; Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 51.


24Bernstein, Findings, 51.

25Ibid., 55.

26Ibid., 58.

27Ibid., 63.

28Ibid., 64.

29Ibid., 75 and 74.

30According to Arthur Berger, Copland conceived the Variations one year earlier in 1928, began serious work on the composition in January 1930, and completed it in the summer. The composer premiered the Variations at a League of Composers concert in January 1931, and the work was published with a few revisions by Cos Cob Press in 1932. (See Berger, "The Piano Variations," 85-86.)

31Bernstein, Findings, 75.


33Ibid., 78.

34Ibid., 88.

35Ibid., 96.

36Both the Rosenfeld and Gilman reviews are reprinted in Burkholder, ed. Charles Ives and His World, 313-20.The Gilman quote appears on 320.

37Copland, "One Hundred and Fourteen Songs."

38Bernstein, Findings, 98.

39Copland, "Jazz Structure."

40Ibid., 87.

41Bernstein, Findings, 98.

42Hodeir, 77-98. By 1971, more than 500 colleges offered course in jazz (Time, June 7, 1971), 67.

43Copland, "Jazz Structures,"87. For more on Copland and his relation to jazz see Kleppinger, "On the Influence"; Pollack, Aaron Copland, 113-20; and Schiff, "Copland."

44In the brief concluding section of the thesis, "The Tempering Force," Bernstein dismisses as unimportant the role of Jewish music in the formation of an American identity. "Except for such pieces as Schelomo, in which actual Hebrew themes are used, Bloch's Hebraism is all in the program notes. Thus, with Copland, it is fair to say that if it were not known that he is of Jewish descent, the Hebraic element would probably be unnoticed. As a matter of opinion, certain themes of Roy Harris sound almost more Hebraic than the avowedly Jewish themes in Vitebsk" (Bernstein, Findings, 100). In an undated response of 1939 to the receipt of Bernstein's "Lamentation," Copland remarks that the associations with Ernest Bloch and the familiarity of Jewish music are two "drawbacks, of course, to adopting a Jewish melody" (Oja and Tick, eds. Aaron Copland 163-64).

45The music of Sessions would virtually disappear from Bernstein's writings after his Harvard thesis. He did, however, conduct the New York premiere of Sessions's Violin Concerto in 1959 with Tossy Spivakovsky as soloist, a performance the composer described in a letter to Ernst Krenek a few days latter as "stunning." Olmstead, ed., The Correspondence, 421.

46Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 94-119.

47Ibid., 117.

48Ibid., 119. A few sentences later Bernstein shows some sympathy with the intimation that "all American symphonic works up to now are nothing but personalized imitations of the European symphonic tradition from Mozart to Mahler."

49Bernstein, Findings, 46.

50Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, 39.

51The lecture was published with a few small changes in Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 148-69. Both the lecture and the performance were reissued in 2005 as Leonard Bernstein: The 1953 American Decca Recordings. Deutsche Grammophon (DG B00067GKF6).

52Taruskin, "Nationalism," section 11, 1.

53Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 156.

54Ibid., 151.

55Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 165-66. Dvořák's "New World," IV: Allegro con fuoco, Rehearsal Number 2, mm. 1-6.

56Burkholder, All Made of Tunes, 130-31.

57Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 159. Dvořák's "New World," I: Adagio, Allegro molto, Rehearsal 8, mm. 5-7.

58Dvořák's "New World," IV: Allegro con fuoco, Rehearsal Number 12, mm. 42-46.

59Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 168-69.

60Bernstein, Findings, 39.

61Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, 39.

62Ibid., 47.

63Ibid., 47-50.

64Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 49-64. Bernstein's second televised lecture on the Omnibus series broadcast a few years earlier on October 15, 1955 was an introduction to jazz titled "The World of Jazz," in which he explains the blues and the blues scale, syncopation, timbre, and parallels between jazz improvisation and classical theme and variation. (Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 94-119.) A Young People's Concerts lecture entitled "Jazz in the Concert Hall" (March 11, 1964) featured Gunther Schuller conducting his own Journey into Jazz, Copland performing his own Piano Concerto, and Bernstein conducting Larry Austin's Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz Soloists.

65Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, 64.

66Bernstein, Findings, 88.

67Bernstein, The Infinity Variety of Music, 64.

68Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, 268-69.

69Ibid., 359-63.

70Copland, "Jazz Structures,"87.

71Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, 363.

72Ibid., 43-44.

73Ibid., 44.

74Burton, Leonard Bernstein, 49.

75Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, 44.

76Ibid., 45.


Read 9844 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 21/01/2014

Go to top