By Brian Wise | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Musicians may be excused for the somewhat muted response that greeted the announcement in 2021 of a previously unknown string quartet by Leonard Bernstein. There have been heavily touted musical discoveries before—a four-minute cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in the Czech Museum of Music in 2015, for example—and they are not always what they seem. The 2012 appearance of a Fantasia piano sonata by Beethoven was, after all, a reconstruction of a formative sketch, which involves a healthy amount of guesswork by another composer entirely.
Yet Music for String Quartet, a modest but engaging charmer that an 18-year-old Bernstein wrote as a student at Harvard University in 1936, is a rather different case. After a rehearsal reading by the New England String Quartet, Bernstein gave the first movement to its violinist, Stanley Benson, who went on to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Benson tucked the manuscript away in a household cabinet, where it sat for more than 50 years. Its rediscovery, and the recovery of a second movement elsewhere, involved a number of chance encounters, offhand remarks, and periods of inactivity before a public premiere took place in November 2021.
Now these two quartet movements are the focus of an album on the New Hampshire–based label Parma Recordings, performed by a quartet of Boston-area string players including Ronald Feldman, a former cellist in the Boston Symphony.
“When I got the score, I could readily see that it was a composition that had some of the hallmarks of the later Bernstein that I knew,” Feldman says. “We originally just had the first movement, the Allegro Vivace, and it was fast and accented with complex rhythms, a lot of different meters, and a wide range of assorted dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo. Harmonically, it’s very spare, without the usual rich harmonies that one would associate with Bernstein’s music. But what is typical is that this movement has a really strong rhythmic drive.”
The first movement opens with a chugging eighth-note vamp that inches up and down while a bluesy theme winds through the ensemble. Over the course of the eight-minute movement, syncopated rhythms point to a jazz-age urbanity and a bit of Copland-esque hoedown. The three-minute second movement, a sarabande, is a ruminative andante with thematic nods to the first movement (more on its discovery shortly).
“It has pretty sophisticated string writing for a young pianist,” Feldman continues. “There are only a couple of places where there are some awkward moments for cello. Still, he knew the register that made the most sense for cello.”
The work’s premiere and subsequent recording was shepherded by John Perkel, a longtime music librarian at the Boston Symphony who now organizes concerts for the Berkshire Chamber Players. He first learned of the piece in 2002 at a party for retiring BSO players in Lenox, Massachusetts. While chatting with his friend Lisa Benson Pickett, he learned that Pickett’s mother, Clara Benson (wife of Stanley Benson), had just informed her about the quartet’s existence.
“Lisa was very surprised,” Perkel says in a phone interview. “She saw me and said, ‘John, I have something incredible to tell you.’” Pickett told Perkel about the cabinet, and how the piece occasionally resurfaced after her father’s death in 1988, when her mother performed it with her own quartet. Years passed after the revelation. Clara Benson and her daughter parted with the manuscript in a private sale and, though they kept a copy, they didn’t retain performance rights.
A Revival Takes Shape
As the 2018 Bernstein centenary approached, Perkel mused, “It would be amazing if we could stage the world premiere.” He sent the music to the Leonard Bernstein Office, which verified the composer’s signature and manuscript. After the anniversary passed, he persisted, hiring the musicians, who along with Feldman include violinists Lucia Lin and Natalie Rose Kress and violist Danny Kim (each had an association with either the BSO or Tanglewood).
Perkel also enlisted Charlie Harmon, who was Bernstein’s assistant and archivist, to edit and digitize the handwritten parts. The first movement premiere took place on November 6, 2021, at Tanglewood’s Linde Center as a benefit for the Stockbridge Library.
The story did not end there.
In the fall of 2022, a second movement turned up. It had been found by an employee at the Bernstein Office who had been sorting through the composer’s papers at the Library of Congress. “What amazes me is scholars must have seen [the second movement] before and either forgot about it or thought it wasn’t important,” Perkel says, noting the decades-long existence of the collection. “In a way, I’m glad, because we wouldn’t have had this good fortune [to give the premiere]. But it really surprised me that nothing public was made of this until we did it.”
Meanwhile, Perkel embarked on plans for recording the piece, contacting Parma Recordings and enlisting the four musicians who gave the premiere. He raised $13,800 toward the effort and attended the recording session in Rockport, Massachusetts, last February.
Additional movements may still await discovery. “I don’t think [Bernstein] would have intended to end the quartet the way he did,” Perkel says. “But there’s no proof. That’s the intrigue of the whole piece: we don’t know why he wrote it.”
Kim, the violist, also strongly suspects there is more to the piece. “I think what he had in mind was to create a three- or four-movement work, so there are one or two movements missing,” he says. “I could [envision] a minuet where he’d try out one of his ‘I Feel Pretty’ sounds.” But Kim admires the present discovery, especially the first movement, with its jazzy urban bustle.
“We read it through, and I said, ‘There he is. That’s the Bernstein I have in my ear,’” he says. “There’s a little bit of West Side Story in there with maybe [the Symphony No. 2] The Age of Anxiety. There are some really clever moments, but also, I’ll be honest, some moments where it’s an 18-year-old composer who is still finding his voice. It’s similar to Brahms with his early works: maybe Bernstein didn’t want to publish it because he didn’t find it was one of his strongest works.”
Kress, who plays second violin on the recording, also hears an urbanity in the first movement. “Even though he was a student at Harvard, you hear a real New York energy in the piece,” she says. “At first the piece didn’t look like much. But over the year we played it, it really grew on me.”
Bernstein’s chamber music output is modest, mostly encompassing student works such as the Piano Trio (1937) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1940), before he moved on to splashier works for orchestra and musical theater. Perkel relates a story he heard from Eugene Drucker, violinist of the Emerson String Quartet. When the ailing Bernstein turned up at an Emerson concert in 1990, he wistfully stated that he once wrote a string quartet, couldn’t remember what happened to it, but hoped to write another one. He died later that year.
Unlike the discovery of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song about a decade ago, which yielded nearly 70 performances in its first year alone, the Music for String Quartet has seen a slower rollout. A second performance was mounted in Rockville, Maryland, in May 2022. But the Bernstein Office confirms that the piece will be published sometime in 2024. In the meantime, the Bernstein movie Maestro is scheduled to hit theaters this holiday season, a hook that isn’t lost on Parma Recordings, which submitted the album for Grammy consideration.
Parma CEO Bob Lord talks up the music’s youthful exuberance while acknowledging its inevitable limitations. “I recognize that it’s a partial utterance of Bernstein in a sense,” he says. “It is unfinished, and it was written at a very early time of his life. That being said, I absolutely got chills when I first heard the piece. You can clearly hear the voice of Bernstein inside of this. Why did he never do this again? Why did he not finish it? There are lots of questions that follow once you hear the music, and I think that’s part of the story and part of the enjoyment.”