Can classical music ever reclaim the populist influence of Leonard Bernstein?

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (Kultur Video, 9 DVDs)
The Joy of Music (Amadeus Press)
Leonard Bernstein: An American Life (WFMT Radio Network, produced by Steve Rowlands for CultureWorks Ltd.)

Leonard Bernstein’s absence looms over classical music and its current dilemma: superstar conductors and dwindling receipts, “crossover” CDs and spiraling sales, and the ongoing burnout between academic composers and listeners. When Bernstein began his YOUNG PEOPLES CONCERTS in early 1958, classical culture was different in ways he changed irrevocably: the concert tradition was “high culture” filtered through Europeans like Toscanini, targeted at an educated elite, and orchestras were the province of elderly white men.

How quaint that all feels today, looking at Kultur Video’s reissue of 25 (of 52 total) Bernstein Young Peoples Concerts spread across 9 DVDs. This set eavesdrops on a different space and time for classical music, and measures how things were more complicated than they seemed. To screen these programs now returns you to an era when live, black-and-white television was the high altar of techno-cultural achievement (Edward R. Murrow’s interviews, the Playhouse 90 telecasts, the Kenney-Nixon debates). The concerts began a few months after West Side Story hit Broadway; they concluded thirteen years later, in 1972, with a program on Beethoven’s Fidelio. (Bernstein died in 1990 at the age of 72.)

This enormously influential series, in the vaults until now, portrays Bernstein at his best: as a passionate conductor and teacher, unlocking ideas embedded in the most complex orchestral scores. At the time, he was a self-conscious emblem of his century’s merger between high art and pop culture. When he greeted his first television audience, he was not just a newfangled maestro who wrote Broadway show tunes but an evangelist who ushered Americans like Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, and William Schuman into the repertoire; an omnivorous listener who made compelling cases for then-obscure material, like the songs and symphonies of Gustav Mahler, Vaughn Williams’ Fourth Symphony, or Shostakovich’s darkly comic Ninth. Everything Bernstein lays out in these programs became the new norm for “classicism,” only we keep acting like it never happened. So what became of Bernstein’s extravagant promises?

“Bernstein’s view of western music as a larger continuum, an interactive tapestry between highfalutin and popular, academic and everyday, is among his greatest legacies…”

How radical it must have been to watch these programs in Eisenhower living rooms and hear Bernstein refer to jazz and rock’n’roll as cousins to Mozart. Six years before the Beatles crashed the party, Bernstein’s analogies were current and down-to-earth; he drew inspired connections between classical scores and rock songs. Later on, the triumph of the Beatles only fueled his ideas: to his ears, “And I Love Her” became a lyrical 3-part sonata form; and “Norwegian Wood” traced the Mixolydian mode. Bernstein’s view of western music as a larger continuum, an interactive tapestry between highfalutin and popular, academic and everyday, is among his greatest legacies. (And he’s enjoying a resurgence: Amadeus press has just published a new edition of The Joy of Music, and the Young People’s Concerts book is due next year. Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, a candid 11-hour audio biography narrated by Susan Sarandon, was broadcast last fall to over 700 public radio stations.)

There’s more to Bernstein than these concerts can show: he was an eccentric, uneven conductor who pined for respect as a “legitimate” composer, in both popular and concert idioms; a classical figure who behaved like a rock star, and steered the stuffy classical world off into the tabloids. Toscanini was his European father figure, who, at age 87 in 1954, concluded a 17-year run conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. His reign turned post-war America into a new center not just for European musicians but for European concert music itself. America responded by hailing him the “greatest conductor of all time.” In cultural terms, Toscanini played John Wayne to Leonard Bernstein’s Elvis Presley.

Bernstein’s rebellion was about substance as well as style: Toscanini was dictatorial, a white-haired ball of intimidation who had less jazz in him than Vice-President Richard Nixon. A few more narrow-minded, Euro-centric brutes like him, Bernstein reasoned, and classical music would fossilize. So he got CBS to mount its own symphonic series, whereby New York’s first American-born conductor would charm audiences into music’s New Frontier — ahead of John F. Kennedy. Whirling between piano and podium to illustrate his points, Bernstein turned in bravura performances, even if his persona upstaged his insights. Only a showman could make Haydn slow movements breath with such relevance. Along the way, he tore down every elitist assumption he could think of, beginning with the idea that the classical music need be somber (an entire lecture on “Humor in Music”), or exists in a sacred vacuum, detached from popular styles (“The Latin-American Spirit”). He even brought a young Gunther Schuller out to conduct “Journey Into Jazz,” with text by critic Nat Hentoff, a kind of swinging Peter and the Wolf.

His ideas both enlightened audiences and nourished the New York Philharmonic’s playing. Alongside the transition from black and white to color, the series covered the orchestra’s move from old world Carnegie Hall (“Home of the world’s greatest musical events…”) to the open square of the newly built Lincoln Center (“Home of the world’s greatest musical events…”). The virtuoso players, from legendary concertmaster John Corigliano (father of the composer) and principle flutist Julius Baker, take thrilling risks on their instruments, and they sound much jauntier than they look. As Bernstein preached a new populism, the orchestra responded with a vitality that favored feel over polish. Nowadays, major orchestras lock down smooth, shopworn surfaces as a matter of habit into the standard repertoire.

“They sound much jauntier than they look…”

So why does so much classical music sound sterile — even fossilized, if you believe some critics? Many reasons, but mostly because the stars aligned behind Bernstein’s charisma. Like Kennedy, his timing was genius. Where liberal arts music departments and public libraries will cherish this set, these Young Peoples Concerts have a mixed heritage. Instead of writing the great popular tunes of his time, Bernstein stepped down from the New York Philharmonic early, in 1967, to compose. First came the unspeakable Mass, which fed off the era’s worst hippie clichés. Even though he roared back with the Harvard Norton Lectures, his high-low sensibility was reviled by both sides. American culture continued to cherish its movies and rock music like art, but Bernstein himself seemed to lose his nerve. So he spent a lot of his late career obsessed with his legacy: Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler cycles with the Vienna Philharmonic, a vanity recording of West Side Story as grand opera (with José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa), and a devolving personal life reflected in his face as a withering degeneracy. Where Bernstein’s opening act was all populism and plurality, his second act slowed to vainglorious pomposity.

In another sense, Bernstein’s popularity merely echoed Toscanini’s cult of personality. If his audience outreach is the model on which all conductors must now market themselves, most of them forget Bernstein’s key principles — humor, showmanship, expansiveness — before they lift their batons. The exceptions prove the rule: Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein protégé, who leads the adventurous San Francisco Symphony; or Robert Spano, who’s shaking up Atlanta (the new Cleveland!). Many more of Bernstein’s students, like John Mauceri, work far more in Europe than at home. While it’s tempting to dub Bernstein’s era as “the good old days,” that presumes too much of one man’s authority and too little of all the women and minorities performing in today’s orchestras. There are no more large-scale, unifying TV “networks,” but there are best-selling movie scores like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, which expose millions of moviegoers to fantastic orchestral dreamworlds. Perhaps Bernstein’s vision will reach even more ears now that this series is finally available to any classroom with a DVD player, and anyone interested in taking the best music appreciation class ever. (Tim Riley)


Leonard Bernstein Society
YPC Scripts
Leonard Bernstein Collection (Library of Congress)
Sony discography
Deutsche Grammophon discography
Leonard Bernstein: An American Life
iTunes: Bernstein


The New Hi-Lo Frontier
Democracy’s Baton
Roll Over Toscanini
Pulping the Classics
Leader of the Pack
High-Minded Populism
Will You Still Listen Tomorrow?
Blue Suede Tuxedos

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