Top of page

Collection Leonard Bernstein

Section 1

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 seventy thousand schools by 1937. Its host, Walter Damrosch, was the quintessential music- appreciation broadcaster.

Damrosch came to the U.S. 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.


  1. For a history of the music appreciation movement, see my Understanding Toscanini—How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music (Knopf, 1987), pp. 189-213. I am also indebted to Paul DiMaggio, of Princeton University, for sharing with me his perusal of music-educational materials. [Return to text]

(Article reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books External. Copyright © 1993 NYREV, Inc.)