Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic beginning August 25 by the Smithsonian Institution via mail order West, Suite 1Y, New York, NY 10023)
Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts
The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard Society)
The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard
Virgil Thomson once called Leonard Bernstein “the ideal explainer of music, both classical and modern.” Bernstein explained more than that. The dozens of programs he wrote and hosted for television—including the twenty-five Young People’s Concerts about to become available on video cassette—range effortlessly from Bach to jazz, rock, and Broadway. As TV time capsules, they also explore an incidental topic scarcely apparent when these shows were new: Bernstein himself as the embodiment of America’s musical aspirations and disappointments over a period of two decades.
Before World War I, American musical pedagogy routinely stressed the ability to read music, to play an instrument, and to perceive sonata form and other elements of musical structure. In How to Listen to Music, reprinted thirty times between 1896 and 1924, Henry Krehbiel began by chastising the reader’s ignorance; he bluntly conceded his willingness “to seem unamiable to the amateur while arguing the need of even so mild a stimulant” as the book in hand. The “music appreciators” who followed between the wars, by comparison, were swathed in smiles. They tutored a broader, more passive audience than Krehbiel’s amateurs: an enlarged middle-class constituency for high culture attuned to such Twenties’ popularizers as Will Durant and Hendrik van Loon. George Marek, in How to Listen to Music over the Radio, reassured in 1937: “You can enjoy a Beethoven symphony without being able to read notes, without knowing who Beethoven was, when he lived, or what he tried to express.” Olin Downes, the chief music critic of The New York Times, echoed: “The listener does not have to be a tutored man or a person technically versed in the intricacies of the art of composition to understand perfectly well what the orchestra [is] saying to him.” In 1949, Marek wrote a Good Housekeeping Guide to Musical Enjoyment—a volume incidentally reflecting the homemaker’s migration from the parlor spinet to the family phonograph—which prescribed no composer later than Wagner or Verdi.
Krehbiel, the lordly dean of New York’s turn-of-the-century music critics, pondered how to create a distinctively American musical high culture. He urged contemporary American composers to study the music of African and Native Americans. He advocated opera in English as a catalyst toward an American operatic tradition. The music appreciators had no such concerns; attracted to foreign accents, they appointed, and sanctified, a pantheon of European masters. Paralleling Marek’s advice to adults, a textbook for children preached: “It is difficult to study Beethoven, for his genius is colossal, his sublimity so overwhelming that it compels one’s awe and reverence as well as one’s admiration.” Paradoxically, the popularizers fostered a new elitism: to participate in the exclusive aura of Great Music became a democratic privilege.
America’s own music was ignored. One purpose of music education was to inoculate against jazz and other popular forms. Antipathy to modernism, and to contemporary culture generally, deprived the popularizers of living hero composers. Instead, they deified performers, beginning with …
‘Professor Lenny’ July 15, 1993