Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)
«Prelude, Fugue and Riffs»

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)
Konzert für Klavier und Orchester G-Dur

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)
Konzert für Orchester

Old Tunes, New Riffs

Jazz, more perhaps than classical or any other type of music, is a music of transformation. Its roots are in movement more than place, in the nightmarish sea crossings of millions of kidnapped West Africans to the Americas rather than the gilded salons of Vienna, Budapest, or Paris. So it is no surprise that the mid-20th century, with its own brand of forced sea crossings for thousands of musicians and others, should draw on jazz to embody its own stürm und drang. And even, at times, to spark a little life in a dying culture.

There’s a historical map that can be drawn from Maurice Ravel’s 1931 Piano Concerto through Bela Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra to Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a Baedeker of transformation from the Old World to the New. It begins during Ravel’s first American tour in 1928. Between concerts and recitals, Ravel celebrated his 53rd birthday at a party in New York on March 7th. One of the guests was the 29-year old George Gershwin who entertained the assemblage by playing his Rhapsody in Blue and The Man I Love. It was mutual musical love at first sight. So much so that when Gershwin asked Ravel for composition lessons, the Frenchman declined. “It is better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel, which is what would happen if you studied with me.” Curiously enough, there is plenty of good Gershwin jazz in the Ravel Piano Concerto, which premiered three years later.

One of the highlights of Ravel’s tour was a New York concert led by the Russian-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky. When Bela Bartok was forced to leave Hungary in 1940 and emigrated to the United States, he found the transformation not only painful but debilitating. It was Koussevitzky who rescued him from his composition doldrums with a commission. A Concerto for Orchestra is, on the face of it, an exquisite jazz improvisation of sorts, a contradiction in terms, a transformation of the orchestra into a soloist in its own right. And its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the end of 1944 marked the beginning of a sunset year of exquisite composition that included his Sonata for Solo Violin and his Third Piano Concerto.

Koussevitzky also assisted in the transformation of the young Leonard Bernstein, who in 1940 began to study with and later assist the maestro at the Boston Symphony’s summer home in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. And although Bernstein could be said to be more a product of his school days under Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute, this period marked the beginning of a new era for American conductors.

And what title could better show that evolution than Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. Originally conceived in 1949 for the Woody Herman Band, the work begins in an ancien regime with a lineage stretching back to Bach and ends across the ocean on West 54th Street, the Jazz Capital of the World. While Prelude and Fugue are recognizable in the lexicon of Old World classical music, Riff is a peculiarly American word that has its roots in New World jazz. Common among the hepcats of the wartime jazz era, it is still used by rock and pop musicians as well as jazz players to mean a brief, repeated phrase. Think Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Or think Bolero by Maurice Ravel, another product of the year of Ravel’s American tour, with its riff that repeats more time than the opening of the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Riffing has also come to mean not only the theme but its improvisations. And indeed the Massachusetts-born Leonard Bernstein, improvised himself into a fully American variation of Koussevitzky and Reiner. On November 14, 1943, replacing an incapacitated Bruno Walter, Bernstein jumped onto the podium at Carnegie Hall and riffed through the program with the energy of a Charlie Parker, opening a new era for conductors, composers, classical music, and all that jazz.

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