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Collection Leonard Bernstein

Section 2

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 embarrassed, 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.


  1. Published as "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music" in Bernstein's Findings (1982), scheduled to be reissued in paperback by Anchor Books in October 1993. [Return to text]
  2. Here, and elsewhere, I transcribe the actual scripts, not the edited versions in Anchor Books's newly expanded Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, which has Bernstein preach: "Take a tip from Berlioz: that music is all you need for the wildest trip you can take, to hell and back. With drugs you might make it, but you might not make it back." [Return to text]

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