December 2007 -- Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of reviews of the seven best classic documentaries of broadcast television. The first review , published in the April 2007 issue of TNI, was of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark.
The reviews that followed included The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (May 2007); Connections: An Alternative View by James Burke (June 2007); Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan (July-August 2007); and Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton Friedman (October 2007.)
Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The 53 episodes were broadcast between 1958 and 1972. Written and hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Produced by Roger Englander. The 9-disc DVD set, which contains 25 episodes, is available for $149.99 retail.
Music is an art form known to all human civilizations, and one that touches us directly and powerfully. The beauty man can create with sounds must be ranked as one of the great achievements of civilization. The late Leonard Bernstein, in his famous “Young People’s Concerts,” brought these achievements to individuals of all ages.
Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the world’s great composers, pianists, and conductors, and became a popular symbol of classical music in America. In 1943 he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and, in 1957, that orchestra’s music director. His long career also included conducting other great orchestras around the world, recording hundreds of performances, and composing serious as well as popular music. Among the latter, the most popular is West Side Story, which includes the exquisite duet “Tonight,” and which is one of the most highly-regarded of all musicals. Bernstein’s international reputation and career reached their symbolic climax on Christmas Day in 1989, a little over a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in East Berlin, celebrating the restoration of freedom.
Bernstein’s star status with the American public came in large part because of his long-running TV series of “Young People’s Concerts.” The format of this series is unique. The Maestro stands on the stage of Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, trusty piano often by his side, an audience of children and their parents in front of him, and the New York Philharmonic to his back. When he wants to demonstrate a point—how a particular musical phrase, melody, or harmony sounds—he points to the appropriate instrument, section, or entire orchestra, and we hear exactly what he’s talking about. Each one-hour show usually includes complete shorter pieces or movements from larger works played by the orchestra.
This series combines two approaches to music that are brought together too rarely. First, there is the aesthetic experience of music—the beauty and emotion that it evokes in us, which is valued by all humans, in all cultures, and at all times. Second, there is the understanding of music, which satisfies the intellect and enhances our aesthetic experience. In each episode, Bernstein brings together aesthetic experience and understanding, feelings and reason.
Bernstein opens the series by asking his young audience, “What does music mean?” He plays “The William Tell Overture,” which to most listeners in the 1950s was the familiar theme for “The Lone Ranger” TV show. But he explains that the William Tell story has nothing to do with cowboys and Indians.
“Children obtain a new understanding of classical music, while experiencing its beauty and power.”
Sometimes, he points out, we associate particular pieces of music with certain things simply because of their titles. “The Blue Danube Waltz” and “Tales of Vienna Woods,” both by Johann Strauss, present beautiful melodies; but do they really sound, respectively, like a river and a forest? Not particularly; we could reverse the names and it would make just as much sense. Even the meaning of music through which composers try to tell explicit stories is problematic. Bernstein plays a piece of music while telling a tale that might go with the music. Imagine a prisoner unjustly jailed, whose friend, Superman, rescues him. The prisoner is in jail, playing a kazoo as the other prisoners sleep. Superman approaches—on a motorcycle—and rescues his friend.
Bernstein then reveals that the piece is Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote, based on a very different story of a crazy old man who thinks he’s a knight and who mistakes a field of sheep for an army, which he attacks and “vanquishes.”
To further make the point, he plays parts of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral.” But why can’t the composer’s musical representation of a running brook in a pleasant wood just as well represent someone relaxing in a hammock?
“What does music mean?” It’s not some external story, Bernstein answers; it’s how it makes us feel when we hear it, how it changes us inside. That is what music is about. What’s important is the feeling and emotions that music evokes—pain, happiness, loneliness, anger, love. Some feelings are so special and deep that we often can’t express or describe them in words. Music expresses them in notes, not words. Music is movement and it moves us.
The conductor introduces his audience to each family of instruments—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—and to each member of these families. Which instruments are best to play which parts of a work? He explains and demonstrates what the “orchestration” of a piece is all about. Leading the orchestra in a section from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” he displays a page of the score, so the audience can see which instruments are playing the different parts of the piece. To show why it is orchestrated that way, he then has the various instruments and sections of the orchestra play the wrong parts. Of course, it sounds terrible! Give a phrase that’s meant to be gentle and lyrical to a trombone rather than to an oboe or violin and you’ll immediately realize why proper orchestration is so important.
Bernstein explains the basic difference between symphonic music and other genres: development. Music usually begins with a melody. Composers then take it through different changes and permutations. With the aid of the orchestra, the listener hears how the same melody can be varied, what happens if it’s slowed down or sped up, or broken down into its components, or augmented.
To illustrate development, Bernstein plays on the piano the beautiful little Russian folk theme on which Tchaikovsky built the fourth movement of his Fourth Symphony. He next explains and plays exactly how Tchaikovsky develops and changes the melody. Finally, he has the orchestra play the whole movement.
Bernstein introduces his discussion about the sound of an orchestra with the New York Philharmonic performing a selection from Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. He then reveals that the orchestra was playing the piece very poorly. But there were no obvious missed notes. No one dropped an instrument. So, what was the problem?
The Maestro points out that the orchestra was showing off. Orchestras should attempt to play a piece the way the composer wanted it to be played.
To begin with, Haydn wrote the piece for a small orchestra and the Philharmonic has many more instruments than Haydn intended; thus, the sound is just too loud. Bernstein has many orchestra members get up and leave. Haydn also marked the piece to be played with a certain kind of pacing, with emphases on certain notes. The orchestra was playing with pacing more appropriate to a romantic rather than an early classical piece. Bernstein even shows how the same notes played on the same instrument can sound different. We hear the opening brass blast from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played in the flowing American style that the composer intended, and then same notes, played in a more exact, German style. Very different sounds!
Throughout the series, Bernstein asks questions, such as, “What makes a piece of music sound American, Latin, German, jazz, and the like?” He demonstrates how composers evoke humor in music. He explains the structure of a concerto and the sonata form. He even uses examples from Elvis and the Beatles to make his points.
Episodes are devoted to particular composers, including Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Of special note is his episode on Gustav Mahler. Few American audiences knew about the great Bohemian composer until Bernstein’s concerts introduced Mahler to many and made his works fixtures in American concert halls.
Today, too few schools offer classes in what used to be called music appreciation. As a consequence, too few young people ever experience the riches that await them in the works of the great masters, nor do they acquire the knowledge that can add to their enjoyment. The late Luciano Pavarotti helped to take opera out of a narrow niche market and bring its beauty to a wider audience. A generation earlier, Leonard Bernstein did the same with his “Young People’s Concerts.”
Even now, children and adults alike can expand their understanding of music and enhance their enjoyment of its beauty through the timeless recordings of Leonard Bernstein’s classic television series.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.