Leonard Bernstein’s First “Young People’s Concert” at Carnegie Hall Asks, “What Does Music Mean?”

We’ve writ­ten before about the pub­lic ser­vice Leonard Bern­stein ren­dered the Amer­i­can pub­lic as an ambas­sador of clas­si­cal music. Bern­stein made some appear­ances on an arts and cul­ture pro­gram called Omnibus in the 50s, and in 1972, as the Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Har­vard, he deliv­ered a mas­ter­ful series of pub­lic lec­tures. Through his var­i­ous appear­ances on radio and tele­vi­sion pro­grams, he suc­ceed­ed bril­liant­ly in mak­ing high art acces­si­ble to the aver­age per­son. In Jan­u­ary of 1958, just two weeks after tak­ing over duties as the direc­tor of the New York Phil­har­mon­ic, Bern­stein took up a tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can orches­tras called “young people’s con­certs.”  He would lead a total of 53 such con­certs, even after his tenure at the Phil­har­mon­ic end­ed in 1969, con­tin­u­ing as con­duc­tor emer­i­tus until 1972. The con­certs were first broad­cast on Sat­ur­day morn­ings, but for a few years, CBS—probably in reac­tion to FCC direc­tor New­ton Minow’s 1961 “vast waste­land” speech about the state of television—moved the pro­gram to prime time. Bern­stein made the con­certs cen­tral to his work at the Phil­har­mon­ic, describ­ing them in hind­sight as “among my favorite, most high­ly prized activ­i­ties of my life.”

The first con­cert (above), enti­tled “What Music Means,” begins with Rossini’s “William Tell Over­ture.” While the orches­tra works away with pre­ci­sion, the cam­era cuts to the faces of aston­ished kids react­ing to what they knew at the time as the theme to The Lone Ranger TV show. Bern­stein then stops the piece, the kids cry out “Lone Ranger!” and he deft­ly piv­ots from this dis­arm­ing moment to a fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cus­sion of why music isn’t about “sto­ries,” isn’t about “any­thing, it just is.” He com­mu­ni­cates his for­mal­ist the­o­ry with­out dumb­ing-down or con­de­scen­sion, but with clar­i­ty and pas­sion. Strip­ping away the pop­u­lar notion that every work of art has some inher­ent “mean­ing” (or “hid­den,” or “deep” mean­ing), Bern­stein shows his young audi­ence instead how all art–“high” or “low”–is first and fore­most about aes­thet­ic plea­sure, and appre­ci­a­tion begins with an under­stand­ing of how any giv­en work can only appeal to our emo­tions through the sens­es. Music, Bern­stein insists, is just “made of notes.”

This con­cert, at Carnegie Hall, was the first of its kind to be tele­vised. Lat­er episodes marked the first con­certs to be tele­vised from New York’s Lin­coln Cen­ter. The remain­ing three parts of “What Music Means” are avail­able here (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), and a full ver­sion (with Span­ish sub­ti­tles) can be found here.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.



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