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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