When Leonard Bernstein’s funeral procession drove through the streets of New York, in October of 1990, Construction Workers along the route were said to have removed their hats, and yelled, “Goodbye Lenny.” Bernstein would have loved that.
Bernstein was, without a doubt, the most recognized American conductor of the 20th Century. He was the first conductor of a major American orchestra who was educated entirely in the United States. He was also one of the most revered classical composers of the 20th Century. He was also one of the most revered Broadway composers of the 20th Century. He was also one of the most admired TV personalities of the 20th Century, having been present in the living rooms of millions of homes with two TV shows centered around teaching adults and children about music.
LENNY AS TEACHER
It was his role as educator that made Leonard Bernstein a household name. Television was still relatively new, when the young, dynamic conductor of the New York Philharmonic realized that television had the potential to do some good. The Young People’s Concerts which aired on CBS on Sundays from 1958-1972, was, for many Baby Boomers, the gateway drug to a lifelong addiction to classical music. His charisma, charm, and inspired interest in his subject matter kept us engaged. He was well aware of the music that kids were listening to on the radio, and wisely used Rock and Roll themes to demonstrate points of rhythm or even show how some popular tunes were representative of the Mixolydian Mode. The looks of astonishment on the faces on the kids in the audience were priceless. They thought they had to get dressed up and sit in a theatre for something boring.
But Bernstein was NEVER boring. He was just too much in love with the subject matter not to be excited about sharing it, and we caught that excitement.
Sometimes someone is a great teacher because they were a great student. I think that was the case with Bernstein. His parents were none too happy when he announced to them that he wanted to be a musician. So, at the age of 13, Lenny decided to find himself a piano teacher and pay for the lessons himself. He gave his first public performance one year later. In 1934, at the age of 16, he made his first appearance as a concerto pianist, and that led to a 1937 introduction to his first great mentor, Aaron Copeland. They held an intense friendship that lasted nearly a half a century. (Copeland and Bernstein died less than two months apart in 1990)
More on Bernstein to come.
Celebrations to honor Bernstein’s 100th birthday have been going on all around the world and while 2018 is nearly behind us, there are still some wonderful opportunities to celebrate this remarkable man and his work.
Youtube has a collection of his Young People’s Concerts and his Omnibus series, as well as the Norton Lectures, which is a series he presented while teaching at Harvard in the seventies.
Here is his show on Modes which aired in 1966. Enjoy!