(Library of Congress)

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In writing the text for I Hate Music in 1943, Bernstein had not only imagined a child’s impressions of concerts. He had also expressed some of his own impatience with the way classical music was presented and perceived. In his Young People’s Concerts in Carnegie Hall he was able to address children as an idealized father figure or older brother, while also communicating subliminally that he could still identify with them. An electric current of subversiveness ran through these concerts, as Bernstein seemed almost to reach inside the psyches of his listeners and unlock the barriers between them and music. The concerts created a sense of community, but they were also the exact opposite of “mass entertainment.” They addressed the individual, not the collective. Parents who brought their children to Carnegie Hall and later Philharmonic Hall, hoping that their child would receive an injection of “cultivation” and “fineness,” and somehow emerge more civilized as a result, were instead confronted by someone who was trying to communicate with a deeper, more philosophical, more emotional side of their children than perhaps they were.

The parents in the audience shown in the concerts’ films often look as if they are expecting that Bernstein will explain to their children why classical music is “good.” But for Bernstein, “good” is not the point. He wants the children—and their parents—to feel the power, subtlety, and ecstasy of music, to feel why they need it, and to have their experience of life changed. In this he is immeasurably aided by having the New York Philharmonic standing by to play fragments from any music he chooses, and he makes the most of it. The musical moments soak through his words, like drops of blue ink spreading through a bathtub of water. If parents were expecting that this highbrow conductor would explain to the children why “high art” is “high” and “low art” is “low,” they were in for another surprise. He actually explains that “high” and “low” are permeable distinctions; that each work of music needs to be evaluated on its own terms.

From the first moment of his first Young People’s Concert, “What Does Music Mean?,” given on January 18, 1958, Bernstein is tough on his young people. In 1950s America, classical music was often seen as an accessory to a bourgeois lifestyle. And “music appreciation” lectures tended to present it as an ancillary art—as a pendant to the lives of the composers who wrote it, or as primarily an “expression” of something nonmusical—an impression abetted most famously by Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia, which presented “fine” music as an accompaniment to brilliantly rendered imagery. Bernstein’s opening gesture meets the children on their own turf and dismantles this view. Without a word he turns to conduct the opening of Rossini’s William Tell overture. Then he turns around and asks the Short audience what the music is “about.” Of course they all shout “the Lone Ranger,” to which he answers, “That’s just what I thought you’d say.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you. But it really isn’t about the Lone Ranger at all. It’s about notes—E-flats and F-sharps.” (He pauses.) “You see, no matter how many people tell you stories about what music means”—he holds up his hand like a stop sign—“forget them. Stories are not what music is about at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes— beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them. That’s all there is to it.”

He thus launches into philosophy within the first moments of the show. He compares music to language, as he would in a more detailed (but not necessarily deeper) way fifteen years later in his Harvard Norton Lectures. He says that language conveys “ideas.” “‘Ow—I burned my finger’ conveys that it hurts, that I may not be able to play the piano anymore, that I have a loud voice when I scream.” But notes (here he plays a few isolated notes) can’t be “about sputniks, or lampshades, or rockets.” What are they “about”? Then he plays a few phrases of a Chopin nocturne. “Beautiful, isn’t it? But what’s it about? Nothing.” Then the opening of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata (“it’s not about anything”), followed by a delightfully elaborate strain of boogie-woogie, which startles and delights the audience. “They’re not any of them about anything. But they are all fun to listen to.” At this point he makes the distinction between the image formed in your mind by a word (“When I say … ‘rocket’—bang!—Picture”) and the effect of a given note played loudly or softly, higher or lower, played by the piano, or an oboe, or a xylophone, or a trombone. He explains that composers put together notes according to a plan, using musical means. If a story is attached to a composition it is “extra.” “Whatever the music means, it is not the story.”

He then proceeds to dismantle our associations with William Tell, explaining that Rossini “had never heard of the Wild West,” and that the opera for which the overture was composed actually takes place in Switzerland. Then he discusses the rhythm and orchestration of the work. He has the children sing the opening melody with him to feel the phrase structure, and the way the final phrase rises above the first three and resolves them, “like winning an argument.” He has the strings demonstrate their bouncing bow on the opening chords. It sounds marvelous, and we realize that we hadn’t noticed it before. We begin to realize that we were not listening closely to the overture at the opening of the program—that it had become more of an emblem than a piece. “It’s exciting because it was written to be exciting,” he says. “It’s exciting for musical reasons and for no other reasons.”

All this was a way of saying that music was not a commodity, owned by the keepers of something called “culture,” or by the writers of television shows or movies either, but that it was intangible and wondrously complex. It belonged to each individual listener and musical participant.

The Young People’s Concerts are educational precisely because they take you somewhere that you are not expecting, and they accumulate depth through a combination of what is said, what is implied, and all that is experienced by seeing and hearing the music played. It is impossible to separate the personality of the teacher from the whole enterprise. If the text were delivered by someone other than Bernstein, the experience would not be the same. The viewer has the strange feeling that the teacher actually needs to share his enthusiasm with us; he seems keenly and genuinely interested in how we are receiving what he is saying. Bernstein’s adolescent desire to have “everyone in the world love him” is somewhere in the mix. So is his authentic sense of mission about reaching each person, in the audience and at home, and sharing music with them.

Although there was a performative aspect to the Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein was in his natural element when he was teaching. He had taught his sister and brother; he had taught Sid Ramin; he had taught Shirley Gabis and her mother. At Curtis he had usurped the role of instructor in the counterpoint class with Richard Stöhr to such an extent that he had ended up coteaching it. He had taught at Tanglewood. At home he was explaining music to his own young children. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 23, 1961, Felicia described him as “a marvelous teacher” to young Jamie and Alexander (then nine and six years old, respectively): “He goes straight to essentials and makes everything clear. He gives them tonality and the relationship of chords and all kinds of things children aren’t usually taught. … He likes to make up songs for them, too. When he was about to leave on a trip a few months ago, he wrote a three-voice lullaby for us to sing: ‘Evenings, when it’s booze time, that’s the time we think of Daddy.’” When he emerged as a teacher on the public stage, he was doing in a scripted and highly controlled way what he had a tendency to do anyway. He was still the boy who had delivered his own bar mitzvah speech, twenty-five years earlier, transforming into a quintessential American delivery something of the rhetorical grace he had soaked up at Temple Mishkan Tefila, drawing on the zeal to instruct handed down from his ancestors and communicated through his father’s discourses on the Talmud at the family dinner table.

Continuing “What Does Music Mean?,” he plays the Blue Danube waltz at the piano (“Now maybe the Danube River inspired Strauss to write that waltz. Maybe—but I have my doubts”), then plays Tales from the Vienna Woods and asks why that one couldn’t be called the Blue Danube or for that matter the Tennessee Waltz or the Missouri Waltz. He acknowledges that there are works which purport to “tell a story” or “paint a picture.” As an example of music in the former category, he makes the children complicit in an experiment involving the score of Don Quixote, that challenging work from his Carnegie Hall debut concert in 1944. He asks them to listen to it first picturing a different story than the one that inspired the music, and then with the actual story in mind, demonstrating that their imaginations could make the music seem to fit either scenario. He indulges in a similar experiment with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (“As you know, ‘pastoral’ means anything to do with the country”) and follows this with three movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in the orchestration by Ravel that Koussevitzky himself commissioned). The “Great Gate of Kiev” fills Carnegie Hall with its monumental sound. The eyes of a dark-haired girl in her Sunday dress grow wide, and she takes a big breath and exhales with amazement. “That made you think of a big gate, didn’t it?” asks Bernstein. The children are now hesitant to agree. “Well, did it?” There is a weak assent from the audience. “Right. But only because I told you to think about a ‘big gate’ . … The picture that goes with music goes with it only because the composer says so. But it’s really not a part of the music. It’s extra.”

Now he is ready to shift his audience’s attention to music that has no such “extra” baggage. He has made them attend to notes, bouncing bows, the difference between the same note played on a xylophone and on a trombone, the effect of huge columns of sound filling the hall. But he does not entirely let go of all associations, since he now proceeds to talk about Tchaikovsky’s gift for “describing emotions,” “feelings like pain, happiness, anger, love.” (Ever mindful of the realities of children’s lives, he divides the emotions evenly between the good and the bad, boldly starting right out with “pain.”) “Have you ever had the feeling that you wanted something so badly that you can’t have?” he asks, playing a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony at the piano, to which he sings the words “I want it” again and again, as the sequences climb up and up chromatically, way past the bounds of propriety, finally reaching a climax of anguish—and he stops, saying, “and then something breaks in you, and you cry.” Then he turns to the orchestra and has them play the same intense music, which is not just a lesson in sequences and cadences and chromaticism but, of course, also in the inner torments of both Bernstein and Tchaikovsky. And the children in the audience are looking completely engaged, thoughtful, and calm, at forty minutes into a program on classical music. “Pretty emotional stuff, isn’t it?” he asks them, rhetorically.

He follows with an example of one theme being employed by Tchaikovsky to depict two different emotions. First there is the opening of the Fifth Symphony—the clarinets in their chalumeau registers accompanied by low strings. His face is almost blank while he is conducting it. “Pretty depressing,” he says, his voice trailing off. Then, by only changing a few notes, “what musicians call changing from minor to major—some of you will know what that means,” the same tune played at a brisk tempo by the trumpets at the close of the work makes “it all come out joyful and triumphant, like someone who has just made a touchdown and is the hero of a football game.” The orchestra soars—Carnegie Hall seems to levitate. “Now we can really understand what the meaning of music is,” he says, mopping his brow. “It’s the way it makes you feel when you hear it. … We don’t have to know a lot about sharps and flats and chords and all that business in order to understand music. If it tells us something, not a story or a picture but a feeling, if it makes us change inside—to have all of these good feelings that music can make you have—then you’re understanding it. And that’s all there is to it. Because those feelings aren’t like the stories and the pictures we talked about before. They’re not extra, they’re not outside the music. They belong to music. They’re what music is about. … We can’t always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can, but every once in a while we have feelings that are so deep that we have no words for them, and that’s where music is so marvelous, because music names them for us, only in notes, instead of in words.” And then, no doubt while studio executives were crossing their fingers or praying in the television sound booth, Bernstein plays the tiny, incredibly spare third movement (zart Bewegung) of Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6. It’s a brilliant choice, not only because it is only eleven measures long, but because in the middle the flute and glockenspiel etch out a quiet music-box tune that seems to compress Webern’s entire childhood into one phrase. (Webern once described his entire pre–twelve-tone output as a reaction to the death of his mother.) “It’s so delicate and so deep inside, that you mustn’t even breathe while it’s going on,” Bernstein says. “So you see the meaning of music is in the music … If you like music at all, you’ll find out the meanings for yourself just by listening to it.” Without further discussion, he then closes the concert with a rousing performance of Ravel’s La valse, a work that in its final wrenching and orgiastic pages moves in its own idiom as far past the bounds of courtesy and gentility as Tchaikovsky and Webern did in theirs.

Once he had framed the discussion in his own way, Bernstein could build on the foundation of this first talk in subsequent ones, dealing with musical concepts for their own sake. Sometimes he could seem to backtrack, resorting to a more generically folkloric or narrative approach to describing music, as in his birthday concert for Stravinsky, in which he simply told the story of Petrushka and then performed the work. But he would always return to the more mysterious and detailed musical issues eventually, and the concerts continued to surprise by never answering their questions in the way one expected, and by encompassing linguistic, artistic, and personal issues one could never anticipate.

Within the first two minutes of “What Is Melody?” (December 21, 1962), for example, Bernstein is already showing that the word can mean many different things: “It can be a tune, or a theme, or a motive, or a bass line, or a melodic line, or an inner voice.” In trying to explain why some people find some kinds of music “unmelodic,” he makes the important distinction between a “tune which is complete in itself,” the kind one can imagine singing along with, and a melodic idea open-ended enough to become the seed of a symphonic work. Surprisingly, he immediately demonstrates this distinction with the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a far cry from “Some Enchanted Evening” or whatever music some viewers might have expected to hear in a program called “What Is Melody?” He explicates wonderfully how the two interlocked motives and the chord progressions supporting them at the start of Tristan—mere fragments at the outset—generate an almost endless stream of melody in the body of the opera’s prelude.

He then shows that counterpoint, which some listeners might at first find “unmelodic,” is actually the combination of “many melodies,” demonstrating the point with the “hairraising” climax of the Tristan prelude, in which the rising opening motive is played in canon by the violins and cellos, while the chord progression from the work’s second measure is intoned repeatedly in the brass—again, not exactly what a viewer might have bargained on hearing in the program. “Don’t you ever be scared of counterpoint,” he tells the audience. “It’s not the absence of melody. It’s an abundance of melody.” He illustrates this abundance by taking apart a passage in the development section of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony—always a touchstone work for him. The program continues to explore melodic constructions of all kinds. A high point is his discussion of the unrepeating, ever-unfolding melody of the slow movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he plays on the piano. It is the exact opposite of the kind of song form most of us know best and can remember most easily, but it is certainly the very essence of melody. In the same spirit, he plays a four-minute passage from Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass, in which the strings unfurl a nobly burnished, ever-expanding swath of melody over dark brass chords. “Melody is exactly what a great composer wants it to be,” he concludes.

Likewise in a program on “Humor in Music” from February 28, 1959, he opens up the subject rather than closes it down, managing to play a remarkable range of music—from Rameau to Shostakovich—and to make distinctions, to ten-year-olds, between “satire” and “parody,” among other things. He emphasizes that “music can only make jokes about music.” Extra-musical elements—like the shouting and handkerchief waving in the parade of Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist–can delight or make you smile, but true musical humor takes place within the notes and orchestration itself. He plays Haydn as an example of “musical wit.” Teaching the word “incongruous” to the audience, the composer of Candide demonstrates how Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony combines an old-fashioned gavotte with “incongruous” “modern musical puns,” such as cadences that are prepared in one key but completed in another. Commenting that the essence of humor is “destruction,” he plays the Burlesque movement from Copland’s Music for the Theater (an influence, of course, on his own music for the theater). In humor “something has to go,” he explains; something must be made fun of, someone must slip on a banana peel, logic itself must be violated. In the Copland work, it is the sense of an orderly musical progression that is destroyed. The way that Copland’s trumpet blues keeps getting stuck on its opening phrase is musically funny. His point about the final cadence of Mozart’s A Musical Joke, in which each instrument cadences in a different key (and each is given its own key signature) speaks volumes: “The wrong notes must be next to the right notes” in order for us to laugh. Without rules, there can be no transgression, and therefore no humor. Mozart’s work is actually a lesson in style.

The most surprising moment in “Humor in Music” is when Bernstein introduces “the most incongruous piece of all,” the funeral march from Mahler’s First Symphony. The idea of humor embedded inside something as mesmerizingly sad as Mahler’s minor key canon on “Frère Jacques” is a complex one. But Bernstein has seized on the opportunity afforded by the fact that the children know the round and can understand immediately the “incongruity” of its being used as the theme of a solemn funeral procession.

One of the most remarkable of the Young People’s Concerts, broadcast on December 14, 1965, with the unpromising title “The Sound of an Orchestra,” takes children into the details of performance practice to a degree one might not think possible in such a format. Like “What Does Music Mean?,” there is a bit of educational trickery at the outset, since the program begins, without explanation, with a deliberately poor performance of part of the slow movement of Haydn’s Eighty-Eighth Symphony. Bernstein has once again imagined his little girl from I Hate Music, who surely feels remote from eighteenth century music and has been brought to Carnegie Hall because such music is supposed to be “good” for her. How can he get her to truly hear it and enjoy it, to be on the inside rather than on the outside of it? He takes a big risk. The performance continues for some time before Bernstein signals a cutoff and turns around to the audience. There is weak applause. “Beautiful?” he asks. “Well, it isn’t. I’m not talking about the music, but about the performance. We took an elegant work from the eighteenth century, a graceful monument of the Classical period, and turned it into lush, juicy-fruited music that might have been written a century later by a raving Romantic.” He then proceeds to give a detailed lesson in all the musical choices conductors and performers must make to interpret a particular work by a given composer from a specific period. As he had in his Omnibus “Art of Conducting” presentation for adults, he brings the audience inside the process of preparing a performance. He spends many minutes having string players demonstrate different styles of vibrato. He points to a moment in the “bad” performance where the violin vibrato is “too fast” and the strings are also “in their highest position, where the vibrato shows up most garishly. … Beautiful? Ghastly!” He summarizes the faults of their performance as faults of “exaggeration.” While demonstrating excesses in their execution, he quickly explains dynamic markings and what a sforzando is, shows how the use of a glissando in the violins might be “a perfect technique for the Supremes or for certain opera singers, but not for Haydn,” and demonstrates phrases he conducted with exaggerated rubato. “We’ve turned Haydn into quite a mess, and to what end? Simply to show off the rich sound of an orchestra, instead of the sound of the composer.” He then explains that in his day Haydn probably had at most twenty strings “if he was lucky,” and that his orchestras performed in small halls. A proper adjustment to accommodate the acoustics of Philharmonic Hall and still sound like Haydn would be to reduce the Philharmonic string section of sixty-seven players to about forty. This he proceeds to do, and, picking up the movement where the “bad” performance left off, teaches us how, in this particular idiom, restraint, purity, and subtlety leads to a much more nuanced, expressive, and meaningful performance. Bernstein says that he hopes the listeners have “learned the difference between exaggerated sentimentality and real feeling.”

During the remainder of the program Bernstein continues to demonstrate how winds and strings and even percussion instruments vary their performance techniques (employing different timbres, approaches to rhythmic inflection, and bowing, even playing pizzicato with different speeds of vibrato) to give us the sound appropriate to French or German or American music. The concert ends with a performance of Debussy’s colorful Ibéria and with Bernstein reiterating his credo as conductor, which is that the performer’s role is to try to realize the composer’s intentions and to adapt his sound to the composer’s wishes. Therefore there is “no such thing” as “the sound of an orchestra,” he says, “or at least there shouldn’t be. All that matters is the sound of the composer.”

The Young People’s Concerts were a historical outgrowth of “family matinees” given by the New York Philharmonic in the late nineteenth century, which then evolved into educational programs specifically geared to children during the First World War. Conductor Ernest Schelling had popularized the series starting in the mid-1920s, and even took the programs on national and international tours. They were offered regularly since that time, but Bernstein’s erudition, personality, and commitment to them, along with their dissemination on television, transformed them into a powerful cultural force. The number of people who owed their initiation into the wonders of classical music to these programs must be in the millions.

Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts coincided with the years in which he was the father of three growing children. As they aged, his language and teaching strategies changed with them.1 In the early years, preparation for the noonday concerts could often start at 6 a.m., with an orchestra rehearsal at 8, and a dress rehearsal at 10. The conductor, a night owl by nature and habit, must have been out of synch with his biological clock at the show’s outset. In the mid-1960s, when the issue of the quality of television was a matter of public discussion, they were scheduled in evening prime time. At the end of the decade, they were again offered at midday.

The concerts upended cultural expectations that children require speed and obviousness to remain engaged. Instead of hitting them over the head with platitudes, Bernstein appealed to their intelligence. He gave them depth, beauty, philosophy, and real life, along with fun, and it worked.

Excerpted from Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician by Allen Shawn, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2014 by Allen Shawn. Reprinted by Permission.


Allen Shawn teaches composition and music history at Bennington College. His previous books include Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey and Twin: A Memoir.