Leonard Bernstein: The Greatest 5 Minutes in Music Education

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten about one of Leonard Bernstein’s major works, The Unan­swered Ques­tion, the stag­ger­ing six-part lec­ture that the mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary artist gave as part of his duties as Har­vard’s Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor. Over 11 hours, Bern­stein attempts to explain the whith­er and the whence of music his­to­ry, notably at a time when Clas­si­cal music had come to a sort of cri­sis point of atonal­i­ty and anti-music, but was still pre-Merzbow.

But, as Bern­stein said “…the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the con­text of anoth­er dis­ci­pline,” and these six lec­tures bring in all sorts of con­texts, espe­cial­ly Chomsky’s lin­guis­tic the­o­ry, phonol­o­gy, seman­tics, and more. And he does it all with fre­quent trips to the piano to make a point, or bring­ing in a whole orchestra—which Bern­stein kept in his back pock­et for times just like this.

Jok­ing aside, this is still a major schol­ar­ly work that has plen­ty inside to debate. That’s per­ti­nent a half a cen­tu­ry after the fact, espe­cial­ly when so much music feels like it has stopped advanc­ing, just recy­cling.

The above clip is just one of the gems to be found among the lec­tures, some­thing that one view­er found so stun­ning they record­ed it off the tele­vi­sion screen and post­ed to YouTube.

In the clip, Bern­stein uses the melody of “Fair Har­vard,” also known as “Believe Me, If All Those Endear­ing Young Charms” by Thomas Moore—recognizable to the young’uns as the fid­dle intro to “Come On, Eileen”—as a start­ing point. He assumes a pre­his­toric hominid hum­ming the tune, then the younger and/or female mem­bers of the tribe singing along an octave apart.

From this moment of musi­cal and human evo­lu­tion, Bern­stein brings in the fifth interval-—only a few mil­lion years later-—and then the fourth. Then polypho­ny is born out of that and…well, we don’t want to spoil every­thing. Soon Bern­stein brings us up to the cir­cle of fifths, com­press­ing them into the 12 tones of the scale, and then 12 keys.

Bern­stein can hear the poten­tial for chaos, how­ev­er, in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of “chro­mat­ic goulash,” and so ends with Bach, the mas­ter of “tonal con­trol” who bal­anced the chro­mat­ic (which uses notes out­side a key’s scale) with the dia­ton­ic (which doesn’t). (It all comes back to Bach, doesn’t it?)

And there the video ends, but you know where to find the rest. And final­ly we’ll leave you with this oth­er, more explo­sive, ren­der­ing of “Fair Har­vard.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Glenn Gould Plays Bach on His U.S. TV Debut … After Leonard Bern­stein Explains What Makes His Play­ing So Great (1960)

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces the Moog Syn­the­siz­er to the World in 1969, Play­ing an Elec­tri­fied Ver­sion of Bach’s “Lit­tle Fugue in G”

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

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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  • Larry Larson says:

    He was such a great teacher, but this is mis­lead­ing. He men­tions well-tem­pered notes, but elides over the fact that the har­mon­ic series does not lead to the chro­mat­ic scale. The har­mon­ic series needs to be over­rid­den for it to work.

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