'The music teacher'
by James Panero

a review of 'Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts' (Kultur DVD, $149.95)

May 23, 2005

HERE is a recipe for a sure-fire television flop: Pack 3,000 children into a concert hall and have them sit perfectly still. Check. Perform classical music for an hour. Check. Hire conductor with self-described "lurking didactic streak" to work up music lessons and narrate instruction. Check. Use terms--such as "bitonality," "intervals," "glissando," and "whole-tone scale"--that even most educated adults don't know. Check. Inform audience that "My baby does the Hanky Panky" was written in the Mixolydian mode. Check. Perform Haydn's Symphony No. 88, elicit applause, then exclaim, "Well, it was all wrong!" Check. Ask children to get out "paper and pencils, please" in order to identify the composer, nationality, date, style, and form of two pieces--then perform a Mozart sonata and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony back to back. Check. Insist that Rossini's William Tell Overture has nothing to do with The Lone Ranger but consists merely of "Cs and As and Fs and even F sharps and E flats." Check. Explain: "No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music just is." Check. Now combine these ingredients into 53 hour-long concerts performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and broadcast them in prime-time and weekend timeslots on CBS: Guaranteed to fail.

Well, Max Bialystok: Meet Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts aired over 14 seasons from 1958 to 1972 and were broadcast in nearly 30 countries. The show became a smash hit with over 20 million viewers--beating out Bonanza in Europe--and the high-water mark of network-television programming. Parents famously signed their children up for the concert series at birth. Through television Bernstein fathered a generation of classical-music lovers. You might just be one of them.

Twenty-five hours of the Young People's Concerts have now been released on DVD. The news should not be taken lightly. It should rather be taken as a cue to throw down this magazine and order your copies immediately. As a boon to home-schoolers and to parents concerned with the state of music education today, these DVDs will be invaluable. Just about anyone--adults and children alike--will find a great deal to take away from the episodes. Bernstein's convincing theories on the connection of folk music to national style are just one example (Episode 9: "Folk Music in the Concert Hall"). The series also includes complete performances of Stravinsky's Petrouchka (Episode 11: "Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky") and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 (Episode 19: "A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich"); Aaron Copland guest conducts part of his Symphony No. 3 (Episode 2: "What is American Music?").

The appearance of the episodes improves as the series progresses. The foggy black-and-white episodes from Carnegie Hall in 1958 give way to the result of the millions of dollars' worth of equipment commandeered for the Philharmonic Hall shoots of the early 1970s. But while the clarity of the video track depends on the technologies of the day, the remastered sound of the New York Philharmonic is of consistent high quality. For the run of the show the format of the episodes remained the same, with Bernstein and director/producer Roger Englander maintaining the effect of live performance by eschewing studio work and postproduction editing.

(The shows' simplicity was deceptive; each episode required over a month to write, with that second-oboe close-up and audience cut-away shot timed perfectly to the music.)

"If you get all that," Bernstein announced in one episode, "you're the future conductor of the New York Philharmonic." He meant it. The success of the Young People's Concerts depended not only on the receptivity of a certain television audience but also on Bernstein's commanding presence and his faith in innate musical intelligence. He appealed to adults as well as children and differentiated little between his writing for children and the work he had done for an earlier, purely grown-up show he created in the 1950s. The music critic Tim Page remarked that "one senses that Bernstein presumed a greater musical knowledge on the part of his audience of children than most professional critics in the twenty-first century would presume their grown-up readers to have."

The maturing sensibilities of Bernstein's daughter Jamie, his narrative foil, represent the one arc that contributed to the increasing complexity of his lessons. She was six when the episodes started and a teenager plucking a Beatles tune on her guitar by the end. (That's how we arrive at the answer to the question posed in Episode 20: "What is a Mode?" A mode, it turns out, is the basis of understanding Lennon/McCartney's "Norwegian Wood.")

As he revealed in such books as his 1959 Joy of Music, Bernstein became obsessed with musical pedagogy. He despised what Virgil Thompson once called the "music-appreciation racket," and warned of the "music-appreciation appreciation" racket. He worried that music--"with its concentration of shapes, lines, and sonorous intensities"--might be fundamentally unexplainable. He said intelligent commentary on music was rare, "even among first-class writers": "The Huxleys and the Manns of this world are few and far between." To this we might add the Bernsteins of the world.

Of course Bernstein's lurking didactic streak hit the wrong note more than once. His urge to educate saw him through six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in which he eagerly grafted a culturally relativistic theory of music onto Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind--regrettable, especially since Bernstein gave up writing his Young People's Concerts to prepare them.

Lenny also famously hosted a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party in 1970 that became the talk of the town and the subject of Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic. The parallels between the final episode collected on these DVDs, "Fidelio: A Celebration of Life," and Bernstein's Panther fundraiser are all too clear: In the plot of Beethoven's opera, Leonore, Florestan's wife, disguises herself as a man named Fidelio, and attempts to rescue Florestan from a Spanish prison in which he is being wrongly held for political reasons. The echoes in Fidelio of Bernstein's own contortions to raise bail money for Dhoruba Bin Wahad and the Panther 21 are uncanny.

Bernstein could teach Beethoven, but could not learn from Beethoven. Only Bernstein knows for sure whether this lurking didactic streak prevented him from composing his own great symphony and leaving a more lasting musical legacy. His most famous composition remains the score for West Side Story, a work of popular theater written by a young man.

As conductor, composer, pianist, and educator, Bernstein struggled to be all things. A clue to this conflict comes in the form of Bernstein's empathetic episode--the most personal of the series--on Gustav Mahler. A champion of Mahler's rich orchestral work, as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Bernstein brought Mahler back to international prominence after Nazism and the atonalities of 20th-century music had pushed the Romantic (and Jewish-born) composer into obscurity: "Some people say that Mahler's own music sounds too much like all the composers he used to conduct. Naturally, I don't agree ... Still, I admit it's a problem to be both a conductor and a composer. There never seems to be enough time and enough energy to be both things. I ought to know. Because I have the same problem myself. They are both one fellow called Mahler, or Bernstein. He was a double man in every single part of his musical life."

In writing television for children, Bernstein became whole, producing episodes even after he had stepped down as director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969. In the end he composed something more lasting than a symphony. According to Glenn Gould, "in the best and strictest sense of the phrase, [Bernstein had] 'done a great deal of good.'"

The resonance of the Young People's Concerts can be summed up in a coda that took place in Denver in 1960: A boy of four or five bounded over to Bernstein in a park and hit him. When he asked the boy why he did it, the child responded: "You didn't say good night to me! ... You were talking about Mahler!"

"Who is Gustav Mahler?," broadcast on February 7 that year, had run over.