Spotlight On A Quiet Place
Much of the musical language in A Quiet Place was a departure for Bernstein. A close associate comments on the struggle and relationship Bernstein had with non-tonal music.
Bernstein, the Reluctant Serialist
by Jack Gottlieb
In 1970, I received a letter from Leonard Bernstein in which he said, “It occurred to me that I’ve used 12-tone rows to show: 1. Hysteria (“Galop” from Fancy Free); Boredom (“Quiet” from Candide); 3. Dislocation (Age of Anxiety); 4. Blind groping (ditto); 5. Dogmaticism (Mass); 6. Despair (ditto). Does this seem to say something about the serial world?”
My response should have been: “Maybe it does; but it also says something about you.” That certain something was Bernstein’s attitude toward atonal music—i.e. music without a key center—which he always utilized in his compositions for theatrical purposes and always to show what he considered to be the triumph of tonality over non-tonality. To quote him: “...as a conductor I am fascinated by, and wide open to, every new sound-image that comes along, but as a composer I am committed to tonality. Here is a conflict indeed and my attempt to resolve it is, quite literally, my most profound musical experience.” (New York Times, 24 October 1965)
A shining example of that experience is his Kaddish Symphony (1963) where the opening twelve-tone row has by the end of the work exfoliated into a broad major-mode melody.
One can well imagine the turmoil that Bernstein went through in the creation of A Quiet Place (AQP) since it deals with matters of suicide, alcoholism, schizoid behavior, half-remembered incest (maybe?), confused sexuality and possible gun violence. To create this emotionally supercharged world, Bernstein found new expressive ends for 12-tone techniques, with which he had an ambivalent yet remarkably persistant relationship.
The composer of Trouble in Tahiti (TinT, 1952) made an extraordinary tonal journey on route to AQP (1983). TinT ends with the Trio crooning about “evening shadows”(i.e. twilight) descending upon suburbia. AQP plunges us deep into atonal darkness; but by the start of Act III we are back into the light with Dede’s aria of “Morning, good morning.” Light over darkness, tonality over non-tonality. This observation pertains more precisely to the original Houston production when TinT was performed before AQP. Now that it is imbedded into Act II of AQP, we start in darkness, end Act II in twilight and open Act III with daylight.
Nonetheless, Bernstein’s use of non-tonality in AQP is more dramatically incisive than in any other work of his. For instance, look at an important phrase that first appears in Scene I of TinT on Sam’s words “Try, Dinah, try to be kind”—a critical seven-note motive (that coincidentally suggests a theme from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger). Based on this phrase, TinT concludes on a question mark, both theatrically and musically. Will the protagonists, Sam and Dinah, reconcile? Does the vertical pile-up of five pitches from the “try to be kind” phrase indicate a safe home key? But this A-major 7th chord is made sour by a D-sharp. (Bernstein called it the “Tahiti chord,” more or less the same configuration that triggers much of the music in West Side Story—and a cousin of the Petrouchka chord).
AQP begins with the four concluding bars of TinT, but now we are thrust immediately into atonality. This opening Prologue is dominated by fidgety bursts of sound based on these bars. The orchestra snarls in dissonant twists, a turmoil that evolves into a strict twelve-tone row in Scene I (Dialogue One) based on a transposition of the last four notes of the TinT phrase (again, “try to be kind”). Although Dialogue I adheres to strict twelve-tone Schoenbergian procedure, Bernstein starts the row by changing the order of the four notes. Dialogue II begins with yet another ordering of the four notes. Subsequent derivatives include a backwards or retrograde formation.
In other words, he indulges in permutations, a kind of musical anagramming—which in terms of words was one of his favorite pastimes. His purpose in Dialogue One is to convey the claustrophobia of the funeral parlor and the unctuousness of the funeral director. (Funeral was a word he anagrammed into “real fun”). This permutation game is concomitant with Stephen Wadsworth’s keenly observed “naturalistic” libretto: “English-as-she-is-spoke” was his description. The incomplete sentences, interjections, hesitations, ellipses, stream-of-consciousness are all bound up with similarly spasmodic music.
The backward permutation is potent elsewhere. In Act I it generates the Chorale: “God has His ways,” which in turn spills over into Sam’s aria: “You’re Late.” Here the minor-key four note motive still arouses dispiriting feelings. But at the start (and end) of Act III, the motive has morphed into its major key form. We have moved more into the light, but even so, we still feel uneasy because the opera characters have not fully resolved their conflicts and the music mirrors this distress As at the conclusion of TinT, it is not at all clear that the broken family ties will ever be truly repaired
Although not absolute, the atonality of Act I gradually dissipates over the course of thirteen dialogues, so much so that when Junior bursts onto the Readings in the funeral parlor, his music smacks of “Lulu’s Back in Town,” an old Harry Warren tune. However, Bernstein transforms Junior’s eventual strip-tease turn into such a ravishing orchestral Postlude that the banality and even the gloominess of Act I are snuffed out and transfigured. Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal collaborated with the composer on the orchestration of the opera—the clock was ticking away toward opening night—but the orchestration of this Postlude, the Trio in Act I, the Prelude to Act III and a few other “especially dear” (as Bernstein reported) passages were reserved for the composer alone.
Reviews of the original production observed that the opera was a statement about alienation and the ultimate despair of the 20th century. That is putting too heavy a spin on it. For me the work is more about trying to pin down fleeting moments of happiness. With the possible exception of saints, yogis and ascetics, do any of us ever really find a lasting quiet place?
Sidebar: In 1955, movie star Tyrone Power appeared in a play called A Quiet Place that closed out of New York. The title and title song for this drama by Julian Claman were taken from Trouble in Tahiti.
Composer Jack Gottlieb’s recently published memoir, Working with Bernstein (Amadeus Press), has been receiving rave reviews.