Mark RudioLeonard Bernstein

Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety, Part 4: A Great American Mind

Mark RudioLeonard Bernstein
Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety, Part 4: A Great American Mind

This is the last of four parts examining the legacy of Leonard Bernstein and why so many performing arts organizations are celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017/18 season. They were originally written for The Washington Chorus in support of their November 8th concert at the Kennedy Center, where they'll be performing Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast

My siblings and I have often thought that in a way, our dad was writing the Young People's Concerts to us. His last Young People's Concert was in 1972, in my sophomore year of college. And then, the following year, a funny thing happened: my father went back to college too! His residency at Harvard coincided exactly with my junior and senior years there, and my brother's freshman year. You could say that the Young People's Concerts turned into college lectures when his own kids became college age.  -- Jamie Bernstein

As a musician and composer, Leonard Bernstein has many peers worthy of the epithet "Great American." Ives, Copland, Gershwin of course, and even Philip Glass and John Adams -- in their own way all of them are "Great American" composers. But as an educator Bernstein was, and remains, peerless. Thankfully there's a treasure trove available to us of Bernstein in teaching mode, and today watching and listening to Bernstein discuss classic music, and explain it to an audience, not only teaches us about music but reminds us of something extremely valuable our culture is at risk of losing. 

A natural showman, Bernstein always seemed to relish the role of teacher. His daughter Jamie has said that of all his achievements he was most proud of what he accomplished in that role. He exuded knowledge and patience, and compared with today's leading political and cultural figures, his intellect and articulateness seem almost otherworldly today. His Young People's Concertsseries, which ran for fourteen years on television, from 1958 to 1972, are the most widely remembered and influential.

However, Bernstein might have been the first of what we call "early adopters": he first began discussing classical music on television during the mid-1950s on the Omnibus program. His success on Omnibus led him to pitch CBS on Young People's Concerts. That Emmy Award-winning program covered basic topics such as the first season's "What Does Music Mean?" and "What is Orchestration?" Later episodes continued expanding the audience's understanding of music by devoting shows to the music of Mahler, Liszt, Bach, Berlioz, and Beethoven's Fidelio, as well as explications on sonata form and melody. Today they are all available on DVD and streaming services, and even those well-versed in music theory can pick up a thing or two by revisiting them, or at least have the pleasure of watching an unparalleled master discuss the subject.

For people just discovering Bernstein's educational legacy, it's worth noting the timeframe and contemporaneous culture in which Bernstein developed it. Elvis Presley's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was in 1956 -- an earthquake moment in American pop culture that was only surpassed when the Beatles appeared on Sullivan's show in 1964. Between 1958 and 1972 rock music took over the Western world, and classical music began losing its cultural currency with each successive generation. By 1972, the final year of the Young People's Concerts series, the Beatles had been broken up for two years and the Rolling Stones had evolved to Exile on Main Street. The year that rock music reached its Ziggy Stardust zenith, Bernstein concluded the series with a show about Holst's The Planets. 

Perhaps Bernstein, who paid attention to pop music, was aware Holst's music had already been tackled by progressive rock bands like Yes and King Crimson. If so, it wouldn't have been the first time on the program he discussed classical music that was being widely heard through other mediums -- one late episode included Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathrustra, which after performing the piece's fanfare, Bernstein turned to the audience and said,"I guess you all recognize that hip tune. It's on every jukebox, it's the background for endless tv commercials, and it's the in-joke of the film world. The music of the future, of the space age, the theme song of the Milky Way..."

Then Bernstein asks, "But what is it really?" and then proceeds enlighten the audience about the entire piece, including bits about Zoroastrianism, Nietzsche's philosophy, and how man's conflict about mortality plays out in musical terms. Suddenly that opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed a lot more interesting to people in the audience and watching along on tv.

But as we noted in Part 2 of this series, Bernstein didn't ignore the impact of popular music on Western culture. Instead, he engaged with it on his own terms, and did so from the beginning: even in the Omnibus clip posted above, he weaves James Cagney's Yankee Doodle Dandy into his explanation of Beethoven's 5th and symphonic movement.

As we watch the evolution of Bernstein the educator on television (or online), we're watching an artist evolve with the times, and his audience.

In 1971 Bernstein was invited to be the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Once again, he was joining some illustrious company -- Stravinsky, Copland, e.e. cummings, and W.H. Auden had all previously held the post. On campus he was a hit, being named "Man of the Year" by the Harvard student newspaper. Harvard was Bernstein's alma mater, and his daughter was now attending the university. Acknowledging his surroundings and his own evolution as a musician and educator, Bernstein expanded his subject and incorporated an inter-disciplinary approach, framing his discussions of music within Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories. That sounds like heady stuff, and it was, but the result was one of the most fascinating discussions of music and the arts ever recorded, with topics ranging from linguistics, aesthetic philosophy, acoustics, music history, semantics, the Romantic era, and composers including Copland and Bach.

Bernstein called the series "The Unanswered Question," after the Charles Ives piece, and because he discusses in the final lecture how he believes Stravinsky had in fact found the answer to "the crisis" brought about in the 20th Century by atonal music. Watching the Harvard lectures today one is immediately struck by Bernstein's facility with language, the breadth of subject matter, and the fluidity with which he weaves various disciplines together to connect classical music to the wider world around it with purpose and clarity. It's such an impressive display of knowledge and erudition that it causes other unanswered questions to arise: who will carry this legacy forward? Who possibly can?