During the decades that Leonard Bernstein lived in New York, he was more admired—if not more beloved—than virtually any other public personality.
One of the four dominant figures in American music in the 20th Century along with Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, Bernstein—known universally as "Lenny"—could not walk down Manhattan streets without a throng surrounding him.
For those who did not grow up during the Bernstein era, it may be difficult to grasp what a powerful persona he was. But watching Bernstein's historic Young People's Concerts, recently released as a nine-disc DVD set, will give you some idea of how commanding a cultural icon he was.
The concerts first appeared as an extended television series from 1958 through 1972. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra—which he directed for most of that period—accompanies Bernstein.
Bernstein, who instinctively realized that television would provide an excellent format for teaching music to the young, wrote and directed each of the 53 original episodes, 25 of which are included in the new set.
The concerts show Bernstein's fascination with music and his eagerness to share his knowledge. As Bernstein once said, "Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace."
The title indicates that the material is for children. And, while children will certainly benefit from watching, the real audience is mature adults who enjoy classical music but know nothing about it and teachers who would like to instill intellectual curiosity in their pupils.
I fall into both categories.
I have shelves of classical music. Even though I enjoy it, I can't speak on any aspect of it.
But Bernstein's mix of commentary and musical performances go a long way toward enlightening me.
Among the episodes are: "What is Classical Music?" "What Does Music Mean?" "What is American Music" "The Sound of an Orchestra" and "What is a Melody?"
In just under an hour, Bernstein explains that classical music means different things in different eras. The music of Bach and Handel from 18th Century Europe is strict and mathematical in style. Later, Haydn and Mozart added grace and elegance. Finally, Beethoven broke all the rules and ushered in the Romantic period in music.
In the 53 minutes devoted to explaining what a melody is, viewers learn that "a tune" can be hummed or sung. But melodies are created not with tunes but rather several short fragments woven together. To illustrate his point, Bernstein plays selections from Wagner, Mozart, Hindemith and Brahms.
An orchestra, according to Bernstein, "Should not have its own sound, piece after piece, year after year. What makes an orchestra great is its ability to change at will. Since every composer has a unique sound, that is what the orchestra must strive to deliver."
The star of the Young People's Concerts is, naturally, Bernstein. Teachers would do well to follow how Bernstein leads his audience slowly but confidently from the basic through the more complex.
By carefully inserting musical examples into his discourse, Bernstein explains without patronizing. And throughout the episodes, Bernstein demonstrates a great passion for music but a gentle sense of humor that keeps his material from becoming tedious—if such a thing were ever possible with a magnetic personality like his.
Bernstein had his detractors. Some critics were not persuaded about his skills as a conductor, composer or pianist. Others mocked him as an egotistical showman and podium ham.
But even the harshest voices do not dispute his all-encompassing love for music. More than anything else, Bernstein made classical music know-nothings eager to learn more. [Peter Brimelow harrumphs: Actually, recent scholarship has shown that the Know-Nothings were typically quite educated. Their name came from their refusal to answer questions about their organization, not their ignorance, although immigration enthusiasts typically refuse to admit this.]
Certainly, Young People's Concerts does not cover everything there is to learn. But they serve as an excellent starting point. And I now know considerably more than I did before I sat down to watch the videos.
And for those of you who think you are well versed in classical music, Bernstein may surprise you.
The Young People's Concert's is for neophytes and well as those with a strong foundation in music appreciation.