After speaking to an audience recently about some of the compositional techniques in the Serenade, an audience member asked me a two-part question — “Was Bernstein aware of what he was doing? And how does this make me hear the piece differently?” More subtly, the subtext of her question was, “does this really matter?”
To answer the first question, my instinct is that Bernstein was aware of what he was doing much of the time, but not necessarily all of the time. He liked to talk about the power of the unconscious.
“I trust the unconscious implicitly, finding it a sure source of wisdom and the dictator of the condign in artistic matters.” (Funny It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, pg. 184)
And speaking of other composers’ awareness, for instance Wagner’s use of a diminished seventh chord, he wrote, “Is that prevalence the result of calculation on Wagner’s part? All my instincts tell me, No. It must have been an unconscious action.” (The Unanswered Question, pg. 235)
Or whether Stravinsky was aware he borrowed from Verdi’s Aida for his opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex… “It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that somewhere deep in his inner musical consciousness the basic metaphor contained in Aida registered, stuck and connected with the corresponding deep metaphor in Oedipus Rex. Again, it’s the amazing power of the unconscious at work.” (The Unanswered Question pg. 417)
Now to answer the question of whether it matters to study a piece of music or not? I’d like to share my own feelings on this subject. I live in Paris; when I moved there I didn’t speak a word of French. Being social and a francophile, when I was invited to parties I enjoyed listening and partaking in the general ambiance, but I couldn’t participate in the conversation. Slogging through French grammar lessons, little by little my comprehension improved. A turning point came when a friend told a funny story about her cat and I laughed! I never once thought, “wow, what an interesting use of the subjunctive case,” I simply laughed! But of course, the fact that I had studied the subjunctive case allowed me to understand, and to have an emotional response to her words.
Music is a language, like any other. The point of familiarizing oneself with its grammar, is not to be aware of the grammar, but to allow it to open you up to have an emotional response to the music, which is the whole point of communication and art.
So explore this site, learn about Bernstein’s language, and then forget it! It will stick with you in your unconscious and free you up to simply enjoy the music in the spirit in which it was intended.