A Making Music exclusive
An unknown, never-performed, and never-recorded work for string quartet composed by Leonard Bernstein — perhaps the most talented and successful classical musician in American history — later this year will have its world premiere at Tanglewood, the music venue that had a 50-year association/connection to the famed conductor, composer, musician, and educator.
The piece, “Music for String Quartet,” was written by Bernstein in 1936 while he was an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard University. It was brought out once and played to see how it sounded and then, apparently, put away and never heard from again.
“No one knows about the string quartet … it’s never been performed; it’s never been published; it’s not in any books and it’s not listed in the complete catalog of Bernstein’s works,” said John Perkel, retired orchestra librarian for the Boston Symphony and the man responsible for bringing this unknown piece of American musical history to the stage. “This is historically significant.”
Bernstein is considered by many to be the dominant name and force in American classical music in the 20th century. Best known as a conductor — and often called “Maestro” by colleagues, critics, and historians — Bernstein led the New York City Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, as well as being a guest conductor for orchestras around the world. Known as an indefatigable worker, Bernstein also composed symphonies, operas, and ballets, as well as scores for Broadway and film (including the classic films On the Waterfront and West Side Story); he also wrote books and lectured across the world.
Bernstein’s life, legacy, and music have become a part of the American classical music canon, so for one of his original compositions to be unknown and unplayed for so long is extraordinary, Perkel said. “I don’t even believe this happened,” he added.
So how did this happen?
The “Rediscovery” of Bernstein’s String Quartet
Shortly after composing “Music for String Quartet” in 1936, Bernstein was introduced to violinist Stanley Benson and the other members of the New England String Quartet. They were looking for a pianist to play quintets with them in a series of concerts, and Bernstein was invited to be their guest player. He performed with them for some time, as programs for at least three concerts during the summer of 1938 say the quartet was “assisted by Leonard Bernstein.”
What happened next is best told directly from Stanley Benson’s children, Lisa Benson Pickett and Peter W. Benson:
“At some point, Bernstein asked the quartet to play through his string quartet composition at a rehearsal and then wanted to know what they thought of the piece—they said they liked it. After the rehearsal, Bernstein asked Stanley if he would like to keep the music, which of course he said he would. The manuscript was handwritten, with each part signed by Bernstein.
“Stanley later gave the music to our mother, Clara Stagliano Benson, also a violinist, who played it occasionally at home with her own quartet. Our parents and Bernstein remained friends throughout their lives, in Boston, New York, and Tanglewood.
“Clara kept the manuscript in the family music cabinet for many years. One day while driving to Tanglewood, she told Lisa about the Bernstein String Quartet that she had saved all those years. This was an enormous surprise to Lisa. While talking about it, they began to realize what a hidden gem it was.
“At a BSO retirement party at Blantyre one Sunday afternoon, Clara and Lisa told their friend, Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Librarian John Perkel, about the manuscript. He was very surprised to learn that a string quartet composed by Leonard Bernstein existed. After consulting with many music experts and dealers, Clara finally sold the manuscript in a confidential sale. We kept a copy of the music hoping that it would be played so music lovers everywhere could hear it.”
Perkel remembers that he was “quite astonished” when the Bensons told him 15 years ago about the Bernstein string quartet, but that was the last he heard about it. Then, during the 2018 centennial of Bernstein’s birth, Perkel realized what a great opportunity it would be to perform a world premiere of this unknown composition during such a momentous milestone in the Maestro’s history. So Perkel contacted Lisa Benson Pickett with the idea, and she agreed.
Before Perkel did anything else to create such a concert, he contacted Amberson Productions, the production company founded by Bernstein and still run by his children, to ask for permission to perform the string quartet.
“They said, ‘Bernstein never wrote a string quartet. Do you have proof?’” Perkel said. “And I said yes, I have the handwritten composition, with every page signed by Bernstein.” Five months later, Perkel received permission to perform the piece, “so my wheels started turning,” he said. Perkel approached the Stockbridge Library, where he is music coordinator for their chamber music series, to see if they would produce a concert to be performed at Tanglewood. They agreed, and the concert will be in the Linde Center at Tanglewood.
Interestingly, the Benson copy of Bernstein’s “Music for String Quartet” is not the only one in existence. Lisa Benson Pickett said there is another copy in the Library of Congress (which was probably donated by Bernstein’s personal secretary, Helen Coates). Perkel said the only person he has ever talked to who knew about the existence of the string quartet was Charlie Harmon, Bernstein’s assistant and, later, the music editor of the Bernstein estate. “People just don’t know about it,” Perkel said. “Even Amberson [Productions] didn’t know. I’ve spoken with all three of Bernstein’s children and none of them knew anything about it. I have so many questions myself; it’s such a mystery.”
“Nina and I are bursting with curiosity to hear this ‘new’ piece of our dad’s next month,” said Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter. “We thought we were acquainted with all his works; what a delightful surprise to encounter a whole string quartet we knew nothing about!”
Part of the mystery of the unknown composition — in addition to the historical aspect — is its musical value. Quite simply: Is it any good?
“It doesn’t even matter,” Perkel said. “It’s by the most famous classical musician in 20th century America. It’s not his best work, but he was 18. It’s historically significant because people don’t know about it.”
The world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Music for String Quartet” originally scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, in the Linde Center at Tanglewood has been POSTPONED due to the coronavirus situation and nationwide cancellations of all live events.
In addition to Bernstein’s music, there will also be performances of music by Copland, Mozart, and Schumann. Performers for the evening will be Malcolm Lowe (violin), Natalie Rose Kress (violin), Daniel Kim (viola), Ronald Feldman (cello), and Melvin Chen (piano). The concert will be followed by a dessert reception with the artists.
Tickets cost $125 (includes benefit concert and dessert reception), with proceeds to benefit the Stockbridge Library Museum and Archives. Tickets available at www.bso.org, Tanglewood Box Office in Lenox, or by calling 1-888-266-1200.
To learn more about Leonard Bernstein, visit www.leonardbernstein.com.