In his role as a kind of classical music professor to the television audiences of America, Leonard Bernstein came across as supremely genial and patient. But that doesn’t mean he dedicated his own career as a conductor to agreeableness above all. Here on Open Culture, we’ve previously featured the occasion in 1962 when he conducted Glenn Gould’s performance of Brahm’s First Piano Concerto, but not before officially declaring his lack of “total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception” of the piece. Another notable moment of discord arose a decade later, between Bernstein and the late mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, and it, too, has been preserved for all time.
It happened during rehearsals for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. “Ludwig, seen in this clip in her first rehearsal, begins to sing a verse from the fiendish fourth section, ‘Von der Schönheit’ (Of Beauty), but struggles to fit in all the words at Bernstein’s breakneck tempo,” writes Classic FM’s Maddy Shaw Roberts.
“She shakes her head and walks over to his stand, telling the maestro: ‘I can’t keep up.’ The pair then launch into a delightfully awkward, bilingual disagreement. ‘This is so much slower than I ever do it,’ Bernstein retorts. They try one more time, but Ludwig is still forced to stop as she runs out of breath.”
Whatever difficulties arose in the preparation, Bernstein and Ludwig more than acquitted themselves in the final performance, which you can see in full in the video just above. (The key moment comes at the 26:15 minute mark.) And according to Ludwig, their artistic relationship was far from difficult. “With Bernstein it was true love, I must confess,” she told the Italian magazine Musica. “When singing with Lenny there seemed to be an electric current coming from the orchestra, the conductor and the singers on the stage which went out into the public, forming a circle in which love, sensuality and eroticism became mixed. Bernstein didn’t just conduct the music but he seemed to live it physically as though he was composing it at that moment.” It could hardly be much of a stretch to suppose that, on the deepest level, she agreed with him that there are times — as in Das Lied von der Erde — when clarity must give way to passion.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.