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 Arturo Toscanini, whose repertoire fortuitously replicated the music appreciation canon.

Whatever the pedagogic deficiencies of music appreciation, it succeeded admirably, and not so incidentally, as a marketing strategy. Concentrating on reputation and personality—the Great Composers, the Great Performers—it broadened the grounds for popular appeal and amassed a permanent catalog of durable merchandise. Its commercial strategies were nakedest at David Sarnoff’s National Broadcasting Corporation, whose Radio Corporation of America commanded both the nation’s largest radio network and the leading record label for classical music. NBC/RCA, whose employees eventually included Marek and Toscanini, was an eager purveyor of educational materials keyed to Victor artists and recordings. The popular Victor Book of the Symphony (1934) included “A List of Modern Victor Recordings of Symphonic Music”; Victor’s Form in Music (1945) incorporated a “Minimum List of RCA Victor Records.” But Sarnoff’s most prestigious, most influential music-educational undertaking was NBC’s Music Appreciation Hour, a weekly daytime radio series begun in 1928 and said to reach seven million students in 70,000 schools by 1937. Its host, Walter Damrosch, was the quintessential music appreciation broadcaster.

Damrosch came to the US from Breslau with his father, Leopold, a gifted conductor who helped to introduce Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. When Leopold died in 1885, Walter, aged twenty-three, vied to take his place. Though at best a pedestrian musician—it is unlikely that he could have sustained a major career in Europe—he capitalized on his entrepreneurial vigor, German origin, and good looks. An advantageous marriage allied him with the socially powerful and well-to-do. When the Met lost interest in him, he was able to form his own Damrosch Opera Company. When the New York Philharmonic passed him by, he reorganized his own New York Symphony. When in 1928 the New York Symphony was absorbed by the Philharmonic, he was hired by Sarnoff, who called him “America’s leading ambassador of music understanding and music appreciation.”


Damrosch’s grandfatherly persona—he was eighty when the Music Appreciation Hour ended in 1942—made him the perfect embodiment of “serious music.” He began his lessons by intoning “Good morning, my dear children!” His repertoire was a lot more varied than Toscanini’s—but only up to a point. Leopold Stokowski, who knew how to excite children, proposed broadcasting “modernistic” music so they could “develop a liking for it.” Damrosch issued a press release “deeply deploring” the plan. “Children should not be confused by experiments,” he wrote.1

Leonard Bernstein, at twenty-three, was already Serge Koussevitzky’s assistant at Tanglewood the year Damrosch’s lessons went off the air. A year later, in 1943, he replaced Bruno Walter on short notice with the New York Philharmonic, and his conducting career was launched. Between 1944 and 1953 he also composed Fancy Free, On the Town, The Age of Anxiety, Trouble in Tahiti, and Wonderful Town. The Serenade for violin, strings, harp, and percussion was finished in 1954—the year of his first telecast for Omnibus (then television’s most important cultural showcase, hosted by Alistair Cooke). He was young, irreverent, eclectic—as “American” as Damrosch was “European.” He swiftly established a pedagogical agenda that swept aside what Virgil Thomson called “the music appreciation racket.” Far from sanctifying famous music, he dismantled it to see how it worked, or juxtaposed it with popular music, which he adored. He campaigned for modern music and American music.

The diversity of Bernstein’s curriculum, pursued through fifty-three televised Young People’s Concerts, twenty-one programs for Omnibus, Ford Presents, and Lincoln Presents, and six televised Norton lectures given at Harvard, was not wholly unprecedented. Olga Samaroff, once Stokowski’s wife, had endorsed “modern creative music” in her 1935 Layman’s Book of Music. In 1939 Aaron Copland, in What to Listen for in Music, had taught that “real lovers of music are unwilling to have their musical enjoyment confined to the overworked period of the three B’s.” But Bernstein, who only first heard an orchestral concert at the age of fourteen, and who once, as Lenny Amber, had supported himself arranging pop songs and transcribing jazz improvisations, was far fresher, more varied in scope and resource.

And yet Bernstein’s achievement as an explainer of music was short-lived. No master educator has taken his place. His “young people” have not musically inculcated their young. Nor has any American public or cable television network agreed to rebroadcast Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, as they are today rebroadcast in Europe and Japan. Bernstein the teacher already seems an anachronism. His video lessons help to explain what happened.


Bernstein’s second Young People’s Concert, “What Is American Music?” broadcast February 1, 1958, is a natural starting point. It poses a problem: compared to Poland, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Hungary, or Russia, countries whose music Bernstein briefly samples, the United States lacks a common folk music. “Don’t forget, America is a very new country, compared to all those European ones. We’re not even two hundred years old yet!…We’re still a baby.” Bernstein answers the problem with a spunky polemic, a schematized history based on his Harvard Bachelor’s thesis of nineteen years before.2

The first “really serious” American music, he explains, began about seventy-five years ago. “At that time the few American composers we did have were imitating European composers, like Brahms and Liszt and Wagner…. We might call that the kindergarten period of American music.” Bernstein here conducts a snatch of George Chadwick’s Melpomene Overture—“straight European stuff.” Next, around the turn of the century, “American composers were beginning to feel funny about not writing American-sounding music.” Dvorák’s New World Symphony (1893) proposed seeking African American and Native American source materials. But the result sounded Czech, not American. “In spite of this Dvorák made a big impression on the American composers of his time, and they all got excited, too, and began to write hundreds of so-called American pieces with Indian and Negro melodies in them. It became a disease, almost an epidemic.” This “grade school” period is exemplified by Edward MacDowell’s Indian Suite—“I still can’t say that it sounds very American to me!”—and Henry Gilbert’s New Orleans vignette, Dance in Place Congo.

After World War I came “high school.” By this time, “something new and very special had come into American music…. Jazz had been born and that changed everything. Because at last there was something like an American folk music that belonged to all Americans.” Even serious composers couldn’t keep jazz out of their ears. Bernstein illustrates with bits of Copland’s Music for the Theater and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—and also, by way of demonstrating jazz’s transatlantic reach, of Stravinsky’s Ragtime. But Copland and Gershwin remained in high school: they “were still being American on purpose.” Only in the Thirties was the jazz influence integrated, so that Americans “just wrote music, and it came out American all by itself.” This was “college,” and its students included Roger Sessions, whose Chorale Prelude for organ incorporates syncopated accents no European could have written.


“Mature” American contemporary concert music, Bernstein continues, embraces certain personality traits. One is youth: “loud, strong, wildly optimistic”—as in William Schuman’s American Festival Overture. Another is rugged “pioneer energy”—as in Roy Harris’s Third Symphony. A third is a kind of loneliness, evoking “the great wide open spaces that our big country is full of”—as in Copland’s Billy the Kid. “Then there’s a kind of sweet, simple, sentimental quality that gets into our music” from hymn-singing—as in Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All.

Finally, “we have another kind of sentimentality…that comes out of our popular songs, a sort of crooning pleasure, like taking a long, delicious, warm bath”—as in a tune from Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, “almost like a song Perry Como sings.” In fact, America’s strength is its “many-sidedness.” “We’ve taken it all in: French, Dutch, German, Scotch, Scandinavian, Italian, and all the rest, and learned it from one another, borrowed it, stolen it, cooked it all up in a melting pot. So what our composers are finally nourished on is a folk music that is probably the richest in the world, and all of it is American.” The hour ends with the final pages of Copland’s Third Symphony, conducted by the composer himself.

While not every Young People’s Concert considers American music, Bernstein typically draws on contemporary culture, high and low. Dealing with Beethoven or Gershwin, Stravinsky or Simon and Garfunkel, he is of his own time and place: the America of the Sixties. Partly because he came relatively late to classical music, he feels challenged to mediate between Old World and New. The urgency of his need to place himself as an American classical musician reinforces the energy of his delivery. One can disagree with how he answers this need—to my mind, he underrates Chadwick and other kindergarten composers, and overpraises such college graduates as Schuman and Harris. He fails to account for the “pre-college” achievement of Charles Ives. He succumbs to a naive enthusiasm for his own enthusiasm. But his communicative passion is virtually irresistible; in the heat of engagement, what he says matters—and mattered to his young people, even when his ideas sailed over their heads—because we feel sure it matters to him.

This is one way of suggesting that Bernstein is never a patronizing or sanctimonious teacher. It also suggests the degree to which his style is self-referential—and that this is a strength. The music appreciators were sensitive to how America looked to European eyes. Bernstein, who cannot be embarassed, directly and familiarly engages composers from other countries. For him, the United States is the place to be: young, versatile, breathless with possibility.

Music appreciation ranked the masterpieces of Mozart and Beethoven in order of holiness. Bernstein’s canons, by comparison, are purposely unholy. Investigating “What Makes Music Symphonic?” (December 13, 1958), he illustrates sequential progression with Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Gershwin, and Elvis Presley. In “What Is a Mode?” (November 23, 1966), his examples include plainsong (as sung by the New York Philharmonic), Sibelius’s Sixth, “Along Comes Mary,” and “Secret Agent Man.” Exploring “Folk Music in the Concert Hall” (April 9, 1961), he offers the finale of Ives’s Second Symphony. Examining “What Is Orchestration?” (March 8, 1958), he tests the sound of a trumpet in a flute solo by Debussy and has a viola play a Gershwin clarinet riff; he illustrates the woodwinds in the “wonderful cool colors” of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments; he contrasts “America the Beautiful” on the violin’s D string versus the G string (“richer and fatter”); and he tops off the hour with Bolero, whose tune he likens to “high-class hootchy-kootchy music.” In “The Sound of an Orchestra” (December 14, 1965), he juxtaposes the “absolute clarity, like a perfect photograph,” of the “Royal March” from Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale—a “sort of pop art,” “like a comic strip”—with the “direct, strong, and yet casual” trumpet solos of An American in Paris, and the “free-wheeling, easy” fiddling of the “Hoedown” from Copland’s Rodeo. He devotes a program to “Jazz in the Concert Hall” (March 11, 1964), and another to “The Latin-American Spirit” (March 8, 1963), in which he broadens his embrace of American diversity.

Part of Bernstein’s identification with America, his insistence on juxtaposing an American presence beside Old World art, is his identification with American youth. His admiration for pop and rock—from “All Shook Up,” which he bellows, to “Eleanor Rigby,” which he croons—is not even ironic. In “Bach Transmogrified” (April 27, 1969), he sympathetically considers the “new Bach rage”: a “switched-on” synthesizer performance framed by the New York Rock ‘n’ Roll Ensemble’s sung adaptation of the Fifth Brandenburg, Lukas Foss’s nightmare vision of the E major Violin Partita in Baroque Variations, and Leopold Stokowski’s technicolored orchestration of the “Little” G minor Fugue, conducted by Stokowski himself.

“Berlioz Takes a Trip” (May 25, 1969) presents the Symphonie fantastique as “the first psychedelic symphony in history,” an opium dream not “very different from modern days.” Movement one, “Visions and Passions,” is “the portrait of a nervous wreck.” Where the idée fixe, the theme of the beloved, growls in the low strings while woodwinds and horns “are heaving a series of heartbreaking sighs,” the result is “a perfect picture of the agony of jealous rage.” Where, in movement three, following a nightmare of panic and terror, a piping shepherd is answered by hollow distant thunder, the result is “a dramatic picture of the pain of loneliness that has probably never been equaled, not even by the most neurotic composers of our century.” Trip’s end, “Witches’ Sabbath,” is not melodramatic but documentary: “Berlioz tells it like it is…. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”3

This teaching style—Bernstein as the mirror of Berlioz, the Sixties as the measure of all things—is not an irritant because Bernstein’s excess seems unfeigned; we do not feel hectored. Another, more enduring, more self-revealing portrait is “Who Is Gustav Mahler?” (February 7, 1960). Mahler’s uniqueness, Bernstein argues, is his ability to “recapture the pure emotions of childhood,” oscillating between extremes of happiness and gloom. Mahler is at the same time Romantic and modern. He is both conductor and composer. He is rooted yet marginal. Torn between East and West, he is Jewish, he is Austrian, he absorbs Slavic and Chinese influences. Mahler is an exuberant and depressive manchild, a twentieth-century American eclectic.


Generally, Bernstein’s earlier shows are pedagogically the most ambitious, and the most concerned with issues of American identity. They are likely to consider such general subjects as “What Does Music Mean?” “What Is Classical Music?” and “Humor in Music.” The later shows incorporate fewer contemporary or American works. Bernstein is more likely to play and discuss a single big piece from the week’s subscription concerts. “Berlioz Takes a Trip” is one example; others examine Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, Liszt’s Faust Symphony, and—Bernstein’s final Young People’s Concert, telecast March 26, 1972—Holst’s The Planets.

By this time, Bernstein’s best television work was behind him. I refer not only to the early Young People’s Concerts but to the programs he wrote and hosted for Omnibus, Ford Presents, and Lincoln Presents between 1954 and 1962 (and which are not at this writing destined for the home video market).4 Bernstein’s debut studio telecast, “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” (November 14, 1954), demonstrates a more elaborate, more creative use of the medium than the Young People’s Concerts (all of which were concert hall presentations for a live audience). Bernstein stands on a huge reproduction of page one of Beethoven’s score and admires its famous four-note motto underfoot. To illustrate the twelve different instruments Beethoven employs, Bernstein has a dozen musicians stand on the appropriate staves; to illustrate how the conductor’s eye must “follow all the instruments simultaneously,” he has the musicians walk slowly across the page.

Partly because he need not present himself as an orchestral conductor, Bernstein in the studio explores an even more catholic range of subjects than he does for young people. His most personal investigations are of musical theater: the linked worlds of Broadway, operetta, and opera. An ingenious example is “The American Musical Comedy” (October 7, 1956). At the age of thirty-eight, Bernstein on television is suave and yet a neophyte; his slightly fidgety excitement—a restless cigarette dangles from his mouth—complements a touching innocence. “The glittering world of musical theater is an enormous field that includes everything from your nephew’s high school pageant to Götterdämmerung,” he begins.

And somehow in that great mass of song and dance and drama lies something called the American musical comedy—a magic phrase. We seem to be addicted to it; we pay enormous sums to attend it; we discuss it at breakfast and at cocktail parties with a passion otherwise reserved for elections and the Dodgers. We anticipate a new musical comedy of Rodgers and Hammerstein or of Frank Loesser with the same excitement and partisan feeling as Milan used to await a new Puccini opera, or Vienna the latest Brahms symphony. We hear on all sides that America has given the world a new form—unique, vital, inimitable. Yet no one seems to be able to tell us what this phenomenon is. Why is Guys and Dolls unique? What makes South Pacific different? Why can’t Europe imitate Pajama Game? Is My Fair Lady a milestone along the road to a new form of art?

Carried away by the audacity of such sincere hyperbole, Bernstein pokes fun at Europe. In a musical show, he explains, dialogue would impart that “Chicken is up three cents a pound.” In opera, where everything is sung, this becomes the business of recitative—and Bernstein sings, à la Mozart, “Susanna, I have something terrible to tell you. I’ve just been talking to the butcher, and he tells me that the price of chicken has gone up three cents a pound! Please don’t be too depressed, dear.” There follows a pocket history of American musical theater, a polemic of New World promise and achievement anticipating “What Is American Music?” some sixteen months later. Bernstein starts by sampling “You Naughty, Naughty Men” and other primitive ditties from the first American hit musical, The Black Crook of 1866. Offenbach, Johann Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan led Americans toward operetta; one result was Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, Eileen, and The Red Mill—in Bernstein’s opinion, shows achieving “a new level of musical accomplishment,” and yet “fancy and somewhat remote from the audience’s experience.”

Meanwhile, “just across the street,” the revue was a more vernacular entertainment infused with jazz. This “childhood” stage of American musical theater ripened to adolescence in the 1920s, whose composers, a “sensational array,” included Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Gershwin. A decade later—“young manhood”—Broadway began to fuse operetta and popular song. Here Bernstein and his singers contrast the similarly plotted first act finales of The Mikado and Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, switching back and forth, episode by episode, to argue an equivalent technical mastery. Finally, the high/low synthesis, an American specialty, is consummated by Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, and Kurt Weill—as well as by Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose South Pacific, according to Bernstein, attains a “new sophistication” in the sung introduction—a sort of double soliloquy, neither song nor recitative—to “Some Enchanted Evening.” All this conditions Bernstein’s culminating hyper-claims—that “for the last fifteen years we have been enjoying the greatest period our musical theater has ever known,” that “a new form has been born,” that

We are in a historical position now similar to that of the popular musical theater in Germany just before Mozart came along. In 1750, the big attraction was what they called the Singspiel, which was the Annie Get Your Gun of its day, star comic and all. This popular form took the leap to a work of art through the genius of Mozart. After all, the Magic Flute is a Singspiel; only it’s by Mozart. We are in the same position; all we need is for our Mozart to come along…. And this event can happen any second. It’s almost as though it is our moment in history, as if there is a historical necessity that gives us such a wealth of creative talent at this precise time.

(A mere second later, the following August, West Side Story—another Bernstein version of the American melting pot—opened on Broadway.)

An inspired sequel to “American Musical Comedy” is “The Drama of Carmen,” for Ford Presents (March 11, 1962). Bernstein juxtaposes the interpolated dialogue of the original score with the recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s death, and universally adopted by opera houses in Europe and the United State. Guiraud, as Bernstein demonstrates, simplified details of plot and characterization. Unlike Guiraud’s prissy Don José, Bizet’s José has murdered a man. And Bizet’s Carmen, more complex than Guiraud’s, is a “true beatnik” who “sees life as a drama.” What is more, Bizet’s way of moving from speech to song—“I won’t say a word,” Carmen tells Zuniga by way of launching a wordless chanson—opens a creative synapse. The subtext of Bernstein’s exercise, of course, is that the real Carmen is not grand opera, but a near cousin to American musical comedy. Its use of dialogue furnishes expressive possibilities foreclosed once the alternation of speech and song is abandoned. By way of appreciating French opéra comique, Bernstein celebrates Broadway.

And yet his final television classroom, eleven years later, reveals a different Bernstein: embattled, self-conscious, ambivalent. Enchanted evenings of Rodgers and Hammerstein seem long forgotten. Mahler, once a symbol of “pure emotions,” now symbolizes death. In the intervening decade, Bernstein had changed; and so had his America.


Bernstein’s six Norton lectures, delivered at Harvard University in 1973, were televised three years later and are now available on video cassette. The collective title, borrowed from Charles Ives, is “The Unanswered Question”—which to Bernstein means: “Whither music in our time?” His answer incorporates an overview of music history from Mozart to Schoenberg and Stravinsky. A second component of the lectures is an exercise in “musico-linguistics,” applying Chomskyan language theory to the phonology, syntax, and semantics of symphonies and tone poems. And, thirdly, there are big chunks of music in performance, with Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony and (in one instance) the Berlin Philharmonic. Otherwise, the setting is intimate: a piano, a desk, a roomful of Harvard students and faculty types.

Never before or after did Bernstein appear so uncomfortable on screen. It is only partly because the lectures were prepared helter-skelter, from one meeting to the next. Bernstein struggles visibly toward his accustomed aplomb: repeatedly, he scratches his ear, musses his hair, pinches his nose. A new style of address, laced with fancy phrases (“the diatonic containment of chromaticism”), sits awkwardly beside a more colloquial, more “American” mode. Affirming belief in “mind, heart, and spirit,” Bernstein feels the need to apologize for such “old-fashioned words.” “Why am I doing this?” becomes a recurrent refrain—another unanswered question. “What’s the relevance of all this musico-linguistics?” begins lecture two. “Isn’t it a flagrant case of [intellectual] elitism?” Bernstein here argues that the analogy to language potentially furnishes “a way of speaking about music with intelligent but nonprofessional music lovers who don’t know a stretto from a diminished fifth.” On other occasions, he contends that structural linguistics illuminates music in new ways for professional and nonprofessional alike.

In previous public incarnations, Bernstein seemed fortified by his versatility and eclecticism, secure in his identity as an American classical musician-cum-Broadway composer. His new uncertainty is a distraction, not a charming self-effacement: he strains for intellectual credibility as an original thinker. Chomsky is his Harvard calling card. The terminology of structural linguistics spreads a scholarly patina. And Chomsky’s belief in a universal and innate linguistic grammar leads in a direction Bernstein wants to go—toward a universal and innate musical grammar grounded in tonality, whose gravitational pull he considers irreplaceable.5

Bernstein plunges in courageously. A note, he suggests, can be equated with a phoneme, a motive with a morpheme, a musical phrase with a word, a musical section with a clause, a musical movement with a sentence. But he stumbles when, in music, “words” overlap as they cannot in speech. Another attempt: a musical motive (Bernstein uses “Fate” from Wagner’s Ring) is a noun phrase whose notes are like letters, and whose chordal and rhythmic modifiers resemble adjectives and verbs. On further consideration, however, language possesses both communicative and aesthetic functions, whereas music is only aesthetic. Ordinary sentences, therefore, lack musical equivalents, the linguistic parallel to music being poetry. This inference, patiently pursued, yields results so complicated they parody Bernstein’s intention to explain music to nonprofessionals. That the first melodic downbeat of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony falls on a “weak” bar, a professional insight the Bernstein of Omnibus might have imparted with sleight of hand, in the heavy hands of Professor Bernstein becomes an observation of numbing complexity, requiring charts with pyramids and terms like “deep structure” and “syntactic truth.”

As the lectures progress, Bernstein in fact jettisons Chomsky. The less he strives for originality, the more authentic he becomes. He observes that, after Mozart, the increasingly chromatic language of Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, and Debussy creates heightened possibilities for a delightful or menacing ambiguity. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde keeps the listener guessing—is it tonal or atonal, anchored or unmoored? The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is—like the Mallarmé poem that inspired it—a “last ditch stand” of tonal and syntactic containment. Bernstein’s instructive analyses of these pieces, of the controlled ambiguities arising from a dialectic of chromatic deviation and diatonic repose, are purely musical, with Chomsky laid on afterward as intellectual icing.

The strongest of the six Norton lectures is the fifth, “The Twentieth Century Crisis.” Here Bernstein is most in his element and furthest from Harvard. To solve the crisis of fading tonality, Schoenberg logically proceeded to atonality, which he systematized by employing twelve-tone rows. But this was an “artificial language.” In fact, Schoenberg constantly reverted to an explicit or implied tonality; he “loved music with such passion” he could not overthrow its necessary foundation. A “nostalgic yearning for the deep structures” of diatonic music, Bernstein claims, haunts such works as the Opus 23 Piano Pieces and Third String Quartet, with their melodic fourths and fifths and covert tonic/ dominant harmonic gestures—qualities that crucially contribute to making this music “beautiful and moving.” It could actually be said that all music “is ultimately and basically tonal, even when it’s nontonal.”

Even so, Schoenberg’s implicit “tonal” practice embodies ambiguities that exceed our intuitive grasp. The truly emblematic twentieth-century composer is Mahler, whose attempts to relinquish tonality are reluctant and incomplete, and whose nostalgia for past practice is overt and tragic. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, his “last will and testament,” shows “that ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet.” That is the “real reason” Mahler’s music suffered posthumous neglect—it was, Bernstein says, “telling something too dreadful to hear.” The Ninth Symphony embodies three kinds of death—Mahler’s own, which he knew was imminent; the death of tonality, “which for him meant the death of music itself”; and “the death of society, of our Faustian culture.” And yet this music, like all great art, paradoxically reanimates us.

Bernstein’s final Norton lecture considers Stravinsky, whom he admires for his sustained (if ultimately abrogated) allegiance to tonality, for his eclecticism, and for the nourishment he drew from vernacular sources, including jazz. For Bernstein, Stravinsky’s embarrassed response to direct emotional expression achieves a paradoxical Romantic poignance, “speaking for all us frightened children.”

While Bernstein concludes by prophesying a more wholesome musical future, a “new eclecticism” grounded in tonality, his once boyish optimism seems freighted with Old World gravitas and gloom. Even without the strained appeal to Chomsky, his sanguine rhetoric is strained, and so are its interpretative props. His readings of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, both of whom are shown to gain power from an inadvertent Romanticism, are impossibly tendentious: he exaggerates the place of poignance—of poignant tonal yearnings, of poignant reticence—in their emotional worlds. And the Mahler-equals-Bernstein equation this time fails to convince: we know at a glance that the Twentieth-Century Crisis of the fifth lecture is also Bernstein’s crisis, with an offstage American history of its own.

In 1964–1965, on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein had experimented with serialism, and, by his own account, wrote “a lot of music, twelve-tone music and avant-garde music of various kinds,” only to discard it. As a theater composer, he never repeated the success of West Side Story. The early Serenade for violin, strings, harp, and percussion remained his most successful concert work. Writing in The New York Times in 1965, he mulled “the ancient cliché that the certainty of one’s knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience,” pondered “the present crisis in composition,” asked if tonality were forever dead, and worried that orchestras would “become museums of the past.” A 1967 television interview in conjunction with the Philharmonic’s 125th birthday revealed a spent and disillusioned Bernstein; he had recently announced that he would relinquish his music directorship as of 1969. Thirteen years later, addressing the American Symphony Orchestra League, Bernstein complained of the “apathy and joylessness” of orchestral musicians.

Bernstein’s mentor Koussevitzky had forecast: “The next Beethoven vill from Colorado come.” But neither Bernstein nor anyone else wrote the Great American Symphony. Meanwhile, the Broadway that Bernstein had exuberantly praised, whose stellar practitioners he had compared to Puccini in Milan and Brahms in Vienna, had not proved the boulevard to greatness he had predicted. American popular music—not only jazz, but Sixties and Seventies rock, which he loved for its vitality and inventiveness—had in his opinion also lost its way. A new popular culture, with which he could not identify, erased the high-culture berths once reserved for classical music on commercial television. “Mediocrity and art-mongering increasingly uglify our lives,” he complained in the Norton lectures. Outside music, the demise of the Kennedy White House, in which he had been a frequent guest, tarnished his dreams for America. His famous 1970 fund-raising party for the Black Panther defense fund, savagely ridiculed by Tom Wolfe as “radical chic,” again caught him out of step.

On Omnibus, in his Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein had excitedly chronicled the growing up of American classical music and musical theater. “All we need is our Mozart to come along.” It could “happen any second.” It never did.


Bernstein’s relative disillusionment might have signaled the relative derailment of his career. Nothing of the kind occurred. Rather, his career was rerouted in the only possible direction: Europe. In particular, Vienna—the city of Beethoven and Mahler—exerted an ineluctable pull. In Vienna, he led Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier, Fidelio, and his own A Quiet Place. The Vienna Philharmonic supplanted the New York Philharmonic as the orchestra with which he most often toured and recorded. And he was lionized in Vienna as Americans—or Viennese—would never have revered one of their own.

Visiting the Soviet Union in 1959 with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein had discovered America in Russia and Russia in America. At a Moscow concert beamed to the United States, he juxtaposed Copland and Shostakovich and discovered a common heroism, humor, and candor. A decade later, in Vienna, Bernstein no longer championed America. Bernstein the composer and public educator dropped from view. On television, he turned up on a different kind of program: not sui generis Omnibus specials, Young People’s Concerts, or Norton lectures, but symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler—the same routine Great Performances associated with Karajan.

Bernstein’s new identity was international. All his major concerts were videotaped or filmed. Jetting between Vienna, London, Tel Aviv, Rome, New York, he trailed a cornucopia of CDs, cassettes, souvenir books, and coffee mugs. The more ubiquitous he became, the more elusive became the American Lenny of yesteryear. He increasingly acquired a reputation for eccentricity.

The retrenchment to Great Performer worked for Bernstein because he happened to retrench into a great conductor. Perhaps the cradling traditions of the Vienna Philharmonic and its Musikverein taught and inspired him as the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center had not. Perhaps he had merely needed to grow older, or to concentrate his talents more narrowly. In any event, his later recordings thrive on a Furtwänglerian mastery of long-range harmonic tension and release—an interpretative largesse hardly apparent in the Young People’s Concerts of the Sixties.

Bernstein never abandoned his pedagogic gift. He continued to teach young musicians in Fontainebleau, Sapporo, Schleswig-Holstein, and Tanglewood. But, aside from sometimes introducing his own television performances, he stopped teaching laymen and their offspring. He last appeared at a Lincoln Center children’s event on March 14, 1984—the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. He conducted but, incongruously, did not speak. A member of the Philharmonic’s staff confided afterward that, since Bernstein was “crazy,” he could not be trusted to address an audience of children. “We would have no control over what he might say.”

Another bizarre Bernstein occasion was a sublime performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall in April 1987—a concert confused by its denouement. Lauren Bacall stepped to a microphone to present Bernstein with the “Albert Schweitzer Music Award.” The popping flashbulbs of this rude ceremony epitomized the artist upstaged by his own celebrity.

The teachings of Leonard Bernstein chart a process of disengagement from the America which shaped him, and in which he had placed great confidence. They help to explain, I think, why the memorial concerts held in New York in the wake of Bernstein’s death seemed so charged with the bewilderment of personal loss. Most of the mourners could not have known Bernstein the man. What they sensed, however subliminally, were the damaged hopes of this most American of classical musicians.

This Issue

June 10, 1993