The summer of 1976, PBS broadcast The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein. Each week Bernstein explained the structure and the meaning of music as well as the crisis of harmony composers faced in the 20th Century. I was in my 20s, a folk-blues-ragtime-jazz guitar player, a composer of songs and instrumental pieces that fit that wide vein. But I was also bored with the smallness and the lack of abstraction of these musical forms. My musical-analytic interests were spiraling outward like a nautilus. But whither? In lecture five, Bernstein played Charles Ives's "The Unanswered Question," a mystical work for strings, woodwinds, and trumpet. Here's a sketch: the strings drone a pulseless diatonic chord; a trumpet plays a melodic fragment, sounding like a question; the strings drone on; the winds answer the question in harmony; the trumpet again poses the question while the strings drone on; the winds respond as a group but with individual lines; trumpet questions; strings drone; winds, losing cohesion, play chaotic, ambiguous lines; trumpet questions but it goes unanswered while the strings drone on. This piece, Bernstein said, embodied the increasing confusion and violence of 20th-century music as well as of the 20th Century itself. That music could pose ideas -- become a field of inquiry, which I'd associated only with literature, philosophy, and criticism -- was enthralling. I headed to the library.
I began with Bernstein recordings. He had, alongside musicals like West Side Story, composed three symphonies. His first was the Jeremiah Symphony, issued on Columbia ML 5703 (recorded in 1960, released in 1962). A marvelous piece, while on the flip side was the Third Symphony (In One Movement) by the American Roy Harris. Harris, once a farmer, was a largely self-taught composer, born in Oklahoma, raised in California, who'd been on the vanguard of a new sensibility in American classical music. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky premiered Harris's Third with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939, calling it "the first great symphony by an American composer." Critic Edward Downes noted how Harris's Third revealed the "brooding prairie night" of Western Kansas. Its slowly unfolding initial section gave off "stronger and more fundamental emotions than are associated with the entertainments of American jazz."
I loved jazz and all things musically American. But Harris's 17-minute symphony, as it swept forth from my Pioneer speakers, was unlike anything I'd ever heard. There was nothing "entertaining" about it. It was emotionally dark, its sound, recognizably, achingly nationalistic. It also seemed that to identify the feelings it raised in words lessened it somehow, robbed it of its soul. Stirred by Bernstein's analysis of Ives -- "Why," he asked, "do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?" -- I hoped to discover what it was about this piece that beckoned and resisted my own explanation.
Harris labeled the Third's five sections: tragic, lyric, pastoral, fugue-dramatic, and dramatic-tragic. The sections can be heard as such but, overriding all, is a developing, eerie instability. The music lopes, dances, marches, rushes ahead in boyish exuberance. The last two sections grow, as Harris wrote, from "savage bright to savage dark." The harmonies and the melodies clash in several church modes; the phrasing is asymmetrical; the rhythm and the meter are irregular and syncopated.
But what was the Americanness it projected? We hear the Germanic in any Beethoven symphony as the composer repeats and extends short musical figures with his characteristic expeditionary and uncompromising ego. Harris develops his melodic ideas with immediate variation; he eschews repetition, paradoxically letting phrases wander but without losing their momentum. The music seems lost while it's getting somewhere. It struck me that Harris was illustrating my own indecision.
In 1976, I had decided to return to college to study composition. This was part of a pattern: either fate or my insecurity over which expressive language -- music or writing -- was mine, had bounced me from one to the other since I was young. As a child I sang in choirs and played several instruments. By high school, I had left music for the rapture of Victorian novels and dreams of writing. After two years of studying literature in college, I quit: a romance gone bad was the reason. I went back to playing and composing. The unanswerable questions snapped at my heels: Should I write? Should I compose? Which art could satisfy my longing that one art transcend the other?
For me, Harris's syncopated trumpets bursting over trudging chords, his finger-pointing crescendo that ends naggingly on g-minor say this: our lives open and close on tragedy while in the long in-between where the inevitable is disguised and waylaid things are sunny and serene. His symphony captures the fatalism of American life, optimistic and aggrieved, what the Kansas sky is brooding upon. It also speaks to my fate, saying this: Let the tension between music and words be. I need not choose, I need not think the beauty of music has lessened because of my attempts to explain it in words. Every time I hear Harris's Third I hear the mystery that couples song and explanation; I also hear my desire to hold fast to that mystery as it escapes me at every moment.