Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony has always been something of a meditative experience for me, whether in the concert hall or on the five or six recordings I have collected over the years. The symphony’s long final adagio is especially meaningful, that beautiful poem of transfiguration that soars and plummets through the range of human emotion, and that ends, after 25 minutes or so, not with a bang, but in a gentle dying farewell that is as peaceful, eternal, and cosmic as any death we might hope for.
Last April, on a day I planned to hear the Ninth in concert, I picked up The Washington Post and peeked at the review of the previous night’s performance. It’s something I seldom do, for fear that a critic will prejudice my own responses. I was curious, however, about whether Leonard Slatkin’s National Symphony Orchestra had managed to conquer a score that taxes even the world’s best musicians, so much muscle does it require, so much breath, stamina, and feeling. What I read discouraged me at once—nothing at all about the performance itself, but about what went on before the first notes even sounded: a 20-minute lecture by Slatkin, illustrating several of Mahler’s ideas with musical examples, followed by a 20-minute intermission. Forty minutes elapsed from the time the audience was seated to the point when the symphony began.
It wasn’t just the delay that troubled me. It was the idea of the lecture, the tedium, I imagined, of listening to a prolonged talk when one just longed to hear music. Who wants to pucker up for a dose of medicine when a delicious meal lies so tantalizingly close? Slatkin—who has been the music director of the National Symphony for 10 years and has turned a slightly sloppy regional orchestra into a prestigious ensemble that can play almost any repertoire with power and polish—is known for just these sorts of talks. Perhaps in an earlier, more musically literate age, an explanation of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony wouldn’t be necessary; an audience would recognize the crisp brass gunfire fanfare that heralds the work and know exactly where things went from there. Perhaps such talks are necessary today, to engage an audience increasingly distant from classical music, and to keep the halls filled in future years.
And yet, the thought of hearing a spoken introduction to such a magical, mystical symphony as Mahler’s Ninth—a work that is best entered as one enters a forest filled with both darkness and wondrous, unexpected light, that is, with reverence and contemplation and total awareness—seemed heavy-handed, even crude. So strong was my impulse against the talk, so depressing the prospect of a 40-minute preconcert wait, that I decided not to go.
In recent weeks, I have begun to think that I should have given Slatkin a chance. What has changed my mind is a package of nine DVDs I’ve been watching: 25 of the famed Young People’s Concerts presented by that great explicator of explicators, the man who spoke about music as brilliantly as he played it—another Leonard, named Bernstein. The lectures, given before rapt audiences of children and their parents, first at Carnegie Hall and later at Lincoln Center, began in 1958 and ended 14 years later (though Bernstein’s tradition would be carried on by later conductors). Several of the concerts—each of which consisted of an extended explanation of a basic musical idea, such as “What is a concerto?” or “Folk music in the concert hall,” and which saw Bernstein playing examples from the piano and with the New York Philharmonic—were broadcast on cbs, on Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons, and even, for three years, in prime time. (Imagine any network doing that today!) Thus did an entire generation come of age with Bernstein as its music teacher.
I was born in 1973, the last year of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. And though I learned a fair amount about music from playing the violin, going to concerts, and listening to records, I wish very much that I hadn’t missed out on Bernstein’s lectures until now. Taken together, these edifying entertainments must surely be one of the best entryways into the daunting halls of classical music. Bernstein (1918–1990), who began the Young People’s Concerts only two weeks after taking over as director of the Philharmonic, is a masterful instructor: charming, elegant, clear, concise. There he stands upon the stage, commanding the space with a presence to which one cannot help but be attracted. Carol Lawrence, Maria in the original cast of Bernstein’s West Side Story, once said of the maestro: “His role was as the gentle teacher, the logical, compassionate, caring and articulate teacher, who inspired you so that you wanted to please him more than life itself.” And if his oversized ego comes through on occasion, his humble reverence for all music is never in question—he’ll sing the Beatles or Elvis in his peaty baritone to illustrate a point as readily as he’ll hum Beethoven.
When I was growing up, we had musical programming on television, to be sure—far more concerts and operas than today. But we had nothing like a Leonard Bernstein, no great communicator to explain to us what an interval is, or what sonata form means, or how a canon is constructed, as the conductor charmingly does by dividing his Carnegie Hall audience into four parts and leading them in a rousing version of “Frère Jacques.” Much of what I learned I got by scouring liner notes as recorded music filled my family’s living room. And though I learned, in this way, that Hector Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, for example, is a musical depiction of an opium-drunk fantasy, I got nothing like the education Bernstein might have provided. If I had been fortunate enough to have seen his program on Berlioz, I might have not only been able to identify the idée fixe (which depicts the hero’s beloved) running like a mad obsession throughout the symphony, I might have truly understood its shape, understood how the music was made to rise in romantic despair, then collapse without hope; I would have had a better sense of how it expanded and contracted to convey jealousy and rage, how its notes add up to the embodiment of unrequited love. Reading a record jacket, it turns out, can only do so much.
As I’ve been watching these programs over the last few weeks, with a kind of childlike eagerness, I have become reacquainted with great works of the standard repertory. The pieces that Bernstein dips into are numerous. They include Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Strauss’s Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Ravel’s Bolero, Brahms’s Second, Mahler’s Song of the Earth, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ives’s Second, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, Sibelius’s Second, Shostakovich’s Ninth—the list goes on and on. The revelation for me, however, hasn’t just been the listening, but rather the entirely new way I’ve been hearing many of those works, led as I am by Bernstein’s experienced hand.
To listen to the same pieces over and over for a few decades can make a person jaded. When you’ve heard Beethoven’s Ninth for the 200th time, it’s possible to miss out on all its charms and glories; at a certain point, familiar pieces can just wash over you, like some innocuous background music. Every turn of phrase in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons delighted me as a child. The vivid Baroque palette held me in awe, conjuring up in my ears the sounds of birdsong or a wintry wind. How could music do such things? I used to think. Now, if those concertos come on the radio, I often find myself changing the station. I have simply heard them too many times, I suppose, have lost that sense of wonder and discovery that very young people possess in abundance. The fault is mine, of course, as these lectures of Bernstein’s have proven.
To hear his explanations of certain pieces isn’t just to have one’s aural capacities enhanced; somehow, by sleight of hand or just pure genius, Bernstein makes music tactile and visual, too; you sense its heft, see its contours. I thought I knew Brahms’s Second Symphony fairly well, but when I watched Bernstein guide an audience of children through the first section of the last movement, going from one passage to the next, showing how this great music was made, I began to wonder how I had ignored so many obvious details before. Bernstein uses this movement to answer the question: What makes music symphonic? The answer, the conductor says, is development. And indeed, what I had missed in all the years of listening to the piece was precisely how Brahms develops the entire last movement out of a few raw materials. Beginning with the opening theme, the music mutates constantly, the same basic ideas changing tempo, color, dynamics, rhythm, to achieve a wide array of sensation, to grow organically—an accompanying line is made out of the fragments of a previous theme, textures are built out of counterpoint—creating, in essence, “one great thought,” as Bernstein says, from what has come before. “There is no end to the tricks Brahms uses to make this music grow,” he says. It’s one thing to recognize and admire a building, another to be invited inside, to understand how the edifice was constructed; Bernstein’s joy is clearly to show us the pillars, the masonry, and all the joists. And I realized, as I later listened to the Philharmonic play through the entire final movement, that I had previously engaged with Brahms’s masterpiece only on the most superficial level.
Even pieces that I had played before, as a violinist in youth and college orchestras, were taking on new aspects for me. Orchestral performance should ideally be like chamber music: you play your own lines, but you should always be aware of what’s going on around you—that the French horn has picked up that phrase you just had, or that the flute is now playing your melody in counterpoint, or that the accompaniment in the double basses has been taken up by the tuba. The reality can be quite different. Musicians have a tendency to just do their own thing, play their notes, watch the conductor, count the beats, concentrate on coming in at the right time.
As a consequence, I have often found myself hearing a recording of a particular work that I’ve played and noticing only the violin line. I remember listening to Mahler’s Second one night in college, with a friend who played the viola in our orchestra. At one point, I started to hum along—we had been rehearsing the piece at the time, and the music was in my head. “But why are you singing the violin part?” my friend said. “The melody is in the wind section.”
This narrow-mindedness became apparent when I watched Bernstein talk his way through Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, a piece that I had not only played, but that I had heard quite a bit in my childhood, my father having put it on the record player every Halloween, what with its intimations of witches’ Sabbaths and such. (The program was broadcast in 1973, and there is more than a whiff of then-recent times in Bernstein’s description of the work as “the first psychedelic symphony.”) In illustrating an example toward the end of the first movement, Bernstein asks the oboe to play a brazen, even revolutionary passage, something more akin to the music that would be composed 70 years in the future than what was considered the standard for 1830. Amazingly enough, I’d never really noticed that part before; maybe it was the fact that the melody was stripped bare at first—just the oboe playing the tune, nothing else—that made it seem altogether different. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought Stravinsky or Britten had written it. But then Bernstein has the oboe joined by a canon of “moaning” cellos and violins beneath it, soaring to a hallucinatory climax before the trumpets take over. Though the passage now became familiar, the effect was so complex, so textured, so sublime, that I felt I was encountering it for the first time.
But are the children in the audience, all those well-behaved boys attired in suits and ties, those girls in their best dresses, getting all this? Are they as enchanted as I am by the explanation of the concerto grosso or the dorian mode or the Latin American spirit? You can tell by their faces that they are certainly engaged. They are concentrating, they are learning, they are having a good time. And why shouldn’t they? They are being supremely entertained, but they are never once being condescended to. That, surely, must be Bernstein’s trick. He might use extended metaphors a child is familiar with (comparing Sibelius’s Second, for example, to a mystery story that needs solving, “following our thread of clues,” noting that “three innocent scale notes turn up in a hundred different disguises”), but he never talks down to his youthful crowd.
One of the best discs in this collection contains a program devoted to Mahler. (An indication of how unknown the great symphonist was just 45 years ago is Bernstein’s comment after playing the now-famous opening of the Fourth Symphony: “I’ll bet there isn’t a person in this whole Carnegie Hall who knows what this music is.”) I didn’t come to love Mahler’s music until college; it was music to grow into, I had always thought, a terrain with difficult emotions best suited for the worldly or mature. But Bernstein dispels that notion immediately. Mahler is actually full of childlike feeling; the torment and innocence, the wonderment at the stirrings of nature, the extremes of emotion, the pendulum swing from pure joy to overwrought heartbreak—these are things that children can sense at once, Bernstein explains. “I think young people can understand Mahler’s feelings even better than old people,” he says, transforming those boys and girls from pupils to colleagues, respecting them and their capacity to respond.
How wonderful it must have been to sit in that audience on that February day in 1960, to see Bernstein explain the dualities of Mahler (as Romantic and modernist, as Easterner and Westerner, as wistful child and anguished adult), and to hear him perform the gorgeous “Farewell” movement of The Song of the Earth. As a result, many of those children in attendance, or those watching the program on cbs, would grow up to be interested, engaged, knowledgeable patrons of the arts. But what about my generation? I go to see Wagner’s opera Parsifal, and a sea of gray hair surrounds me. I go to a performance of Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony, and I find the only two young couples in the block of nearby seats talking throughout the performance, as if they were sitting in their living rooms on a Tuesday night, watching television with their feet up on the coffee table. I find, more often than not, a general lack of understanding and appreciation that does not promise good things for the future.
There was once a time, before Bernstein, before television, before radio, when some families had no other choice but to entertain themselves at night by sitting at the piano and singing the popular songs of the day. Mother would have been able to sight-read sheet music, father would have been able to follow along. A certain amount of fundamental musical literacy was required for that sort of activity, no matter if the song being sung was a popular ditty or Franz Schubert. If that family happened to attend a concert, it would have known a little something about chord progressions, changes of key, and tempos—basic stuff, but crucial stuff nevertheless. Those people would have had a leg up, in other words, on so many of today’s concertgoers.
Who sits around the piano after dinnertime anymore? Perhaps that’s why I should have given Leonard Slatkin a chance that day last April, to indulge his desire to fill the gaps in our collective musical understanding. And yet, Slatkin would have been speaking to a hall full of adults, most likely. Adults are impatient. They’ve worked a tough day at the office. They’ve had to put dinner on the table, jump in the car, fight through traffic, pay for parking, get to the concert hall on time. They don’t want to hear a lecture on how the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth signals the end of Romantic music and the transition to modernism. They just want to get on with things, to hear Mahler’s Ninth, or at least listen for half an hour and fall pleasantly asleep. Children—well, children are different. They have a capacity to encounter and absorb new ideas, even the most difficult concepts we might think lie beyond them. They approach the world with a sense of wonder I very much wish I still had. That’s what we missed, my generation, without our own televised Young People’s Concerts: the musical education of a lifetime. We could use a hundred Bernsteins today, though I’d happily settle for only one.
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