Adventure 10: Bernstein On What Makes American Music American

Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts

Here is another hot tip on a fascinating set of DVDs... Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts.

Leonard Bernstein was an accomplished composer and conductor, but if you want my opinion, he really stood out as being one of the world's greatest educators. He began a series of televised educational concerts in 1958 called "Young People's Concerts", and systematically educated America's youth about great music for the next 15 years. Bernstein didn't talk down to the kids. Looking at these lectures today as an adult, there's still plenty for me to learn. It distresses me that there's nothing even remotely like this available to kids on television today. It's a crime in fact.

In this clip, Bernstein sums up how America's melting pot of cultures distilled many different kinds of music into quintessentially "American" music. Too often we try to ignore cultural differences and pretend they don't exist. Pointing out the things that are particular to a group of people is seen as "impolite". I prefer to celebrate all of the ethnic cultures around me here in Hollywood- Hispanic, Asian, Black, Middle Eastern- it's all more interesting to me than the plain old white bread people I grew up around. As a cartoonist, the differences between all of us are much more interesting than the similarities. Viva la difference!

Anyway... In this clip, Bernstein turns over his baton to a guest conductor, composer Aaron Copland. Great stuff!


  1. My music teacher took me to the Young People’s Concerts for years, and I never knew until later just how lucky I was. They still stick in my memory: Tribute to Sibelius. Musical Jokes (beginning with the “Surprise” symphony, continuing with a program including Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, ending with the “Farewell” Symphony). The American Ballet – where Bernstein brought Jerome Robbins’s dancers on stage to perform his own West Side Story suite! His passionate speech trying to rehabilitate Charles Ives in the concert performing the “Holidays” symphony. His wistful musing that Candide had enough musical themes for three operas, making it too much for the audience to take in at one go.

    Thanks for reminding me of all that!

  2. Sorry! I was so busy making sure I got the second “A” in Aaron, I blew it on that invisible silent e. It’s fixed in the post now. The slate on the video is going to have to stand as a testament to my ignorance.

  3. I’ve never even heard of Leonard Bernstein’s talks, i also second your thoughts of something like this that discusses how music is present and even evolving in our current society. It would be extremely educational for both adult and children.

    Our differences is what makes us richer, music highlights these differences and combines them into wholly unique experiences. Current Americans need to embrace this more.

  4. Truly wonderful piece you posted as I too had never heard Mr. Bernstein speak. In our family we had a soft spot for the Classical Kids collection which is a playful romp around and through the work of, yep you guessed it, classical performers with titles such as “Hallelujah Handel” and “Beethoven lives upstairs”. Cheers.

  5. That was wonderful, thanks for sharing. I wonder if there is a better copy of this, it looks to have been filmed off a television.

    There are more recent great musician/educators, the one that springs to mind at this moment is Bobby McFerrin. This first clip is probably the finest piece of audience participation – education I’ve ever seen.

    Here he is showing off his mad skills, and a nod to Mr. Bernstein.

  6. Oh, wow. Lenny’s confidence and intense love for music is always so admirable in these shows. To have been one of those lucky, lucky kids who were actually.

    Actually seeing Copland conduct (my first time) is a real treat. His music is always so accessible, rich, evocative, positive. Along with this work, Appalachian, El Salon and Billy are well worth visiting. Thanks1

    1. Along with Our Town, which I decided will be played at my funeral in lieu of people getting up and saying great things about me. It’s kind of a defensive move, in case those people don’t show up.

  7. America has such wonderful diversity! Well, um, except in this orchestra, which is made entirely of white men. Look at an orchestra today and you’ll see a majority of females and a great deal more racial diversity. Look fast, because orchestras are disappearing faster than glaciers.

    1. It’s amazing to me that most “musical scholars” have either the Euro-centrist or Afro-centrist bias. These gents are clearly in the Euro camp. American music to me is more about how these cultural conflicts play out. Pieces that reflect the rhythmic conventions of African influences with melodic conventions of European influences. These are the principal building blocks of American roots music. Unfortunately we are still bound by our racial biases…on all sides…to admit as much.

    2. Different time, different venue.

      The money sources that enabled full time orchestra musicians has dried up, I guess as the upper middle class loses interest and disposable income.

      The average garage band rock god usually wants instant success and it’s easier to find a broken drum set and a few clapped out electric guitars than it is to equip yourself with acoustic instruments and invest the time or find a mentor to teach you.

      Our local quartet through octet members tend to be of Asian descent with a few older members of European descent. The rock band stuff is mostly European with others mixed in and musical talent in inverse proportion to quantity. The truly diverse segment seems to be people playing jazz/blues or country.

      The better talented soloists and small groups are self-publishing their music, they’re not waiting around to be discovered by the big labels anymore. Probably another reason for the drain of funds away from large organized orchestral venues.

  8. What a cool, inclusive post. Until the uncalled for dig at “plain old white bread people.” I’ve never understood why, to elevate one’s own personal preferences, one must denigrate others. I work at a college, and that attitude is epidemic there, and it’s sad, and, it seems to me, pointless.

  9. In this clip, Bernstein sums up how America’s melting pot of cultures distilled many different kinds of music into quintessentially “American” music. Too often we try to ignore cultural differences and pretend they don’t exist.

    I think you’re talking about too very different ideas here, and I’m not sure where you were going with the second part of your description. This music is about the opposite of that philosophy: The very idea of America as a ‘melting pot’, and the piece presented here, is that of mutual assimilation. It’s not about celebrating cultural differences — but absorbing and combining into a new whole that is American. Not hyphen-American, but American.

    I haven’t see Copeland conduct before either — it is a treat.

  10. I came across these via Jean Kerr’s fall-down-laughing-funny Penny Candy: she and her husband initiated what their four older children (all boys) called “Culture Night,” which included each boy’s reciting a poem they’d learned over the course of the week, followed by some classical music – or, she said, these wonderful programs. They hauled out the movie projector and everything. I haven’t seen them yet, though I’ve wanted to since I read Kerr’s book!

  11. If you love seeing Bernstein teach about music, listen to this. It’s a 15 minute or so lecture from Bernstein about Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Very illuminating stuff.

  12. What a cool, inclusive post. Until the uncalled for dig at “plain old white bread people.”

    I guess you would have to have grown up in Glendale, CA in the 60s and 70s to understand that reference. It was an extremely bland town at that time. I apologize for my ethnic insensitivity against my own ethnicity.

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