Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein © Getty  /  New York Daily News Archive

Five lessons about music by Leonard Bernstein that we must never forget

Conductor, composer, pianist, author…and pedagogue! Alongside his legendary compositions, timeless recordings and performances, one must not forget Bernstein the teacher, keen to ignite a musical passion in future generations. Here are five important lessons from Bernstein to always remember.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, legendary conductor and famed composer of works such as West Side Story, Candide, and the Mass, to name but a few, it is also important to remember the wise music lessons he sought to share with his audiences. As the host and presenter of fifty-three televised shows entitled the “Young People's Concerts”, he used this wide-reaching platform to broaden musical tastes and increase awareness of classical music amongst the younger generations. Ranging from all-encompassing questions such as “What does music mean?” to detailed analyses of composers from all periods and nationalities, these concert lectures, “terribly important” to Bernstein, are full of ideas that ring true to this day, almost 60 years later.

Leonard Bernstein (1958)
Leonard Bernstein (1958) © Getty  /  CBS Photo Archive

“Music is never about anything. Music just is.” (from "What does music mean?" – 18 January 1958)

As an opening to his Young People’s Concerts series, Leonard Bernstein asks the most fundamental and universal question there is: 'What does music mean?' A question that has obsessed composers and philosophers alike for centuries... And one with no definitive answer. Bernstein nonetheless dives in head-first and seeks to explain to his young audience what it is that music - and its composers - are trying to tell us.

No matter how many times people tell you stories about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what the music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them, and that's all there is to it.

Though a composer may attach a title, an image or even a story to his work, Bernstein explains that these are extra-musical and not really part of the music: “A Strauss waltz by any other name is still just a lovely waltz”, as he so eloquently puts it. His most important lesson teaches us that music is about feeling; it is a way of expressing emotions: “We can't always name the things we feel […] every once in a while we have feelings so deep and so special that we have no words for them and that's where music is so marvelous; because music names them for us”.

“An important part of a composer’s job is to choose his instruments and to choose them right” (from "What is Orchestration?" - 8 March 1958)

In this particular Young People’s Concert, Leonard Bernstein tackles an essential element of the art of composition: orchestration. He even reveals an important element of his own musical personality, one which allows for a far greater understanding of Bernstein the composer: “I don't know if you see colours when you hear music, but lots of people do. I know I always do. So with all these millions of colours to choose from, the composer really has a tough job”. By disclosing such a personal detail, Bernstein confirmed to audiences worldwide that he had synesthesia, a condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to unexpected secondary stimulation of a second sense: in the case of Bernstein, a musical sound became a coloured spectral shape in his field of vision, known as chromesthesia.

Many composers are known or believed to have been synesthetes, chromesthetes to be precise, most notably Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Duke Ellington, Olivier Messiaen, Jean Sibelius, and György Ligeti. These composers used their condition as a source of unique inspiration, literally capable of seeing the result of their own music: they composed with colours (or perhaps they painted with sound?).

Upon describing the various textures and timbres available to a composer when orchestrating, Bernstein mentions “musical colours”, revelatory of his unique method of composition and approach to music. Though not everyone in his audience would have been able to appreciate the spectacle of coloured shapes as Bernstein did, his description nonetheless allows for audiences to understand the process of orchestration as a blending of “colours” (better understood as musical pitches and timbres), mixed correctly to produce beautiful shades, much like an artist painting a landscape. “The right music played by the right instruments in the right combinations at the right time: that’s good orchestration”.

“Modes have provided composers with a fresh sound, a relief from that old, overused major and minor.” (from "What is a Mode?" – 28 February 1959)

My fourteen-year-old daughter Jamie happened to ask me one day why a certain Beatles song had such funny harmony; she couldn't seem to find the right chords for it on her guitar. And I began to explain to her that the song was modal; that is, it was based on what is called a mode. […] She said: "Why not tell all this on a Young People's Program? Nobody ever heard of modes!" […] So here goes, and you can blame it all on Jamie.

Unsurprisingly, the composer of West Side Story was not only fascinated by classical music (or "long-hair" music as he called it). Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts extended far beyond classical borders, revealing to his young audiences the roots and origins of many of the contemporary pop and rock songs. In his ambitious attempt to explain musical modes to non-musicians, Bernstein uses familiar songs to explain the basic principles of modes, including The Association’s Along Comes Mary (Dorian mode), and Afro-Cuban music, You Really Got Me by The Kinks, and Norwegian Wood by The Beatles (all examples of the Mixolydian mode).

I don't want to give you the idea that this mode produces only jazz and pop music. It's still to be heard as much in churches as in discotheques. And, in fact, our old friend Debussy, when he wanted to suggest a Cathedral rising out of the sea (in that famous piano piece of his called The Sunken Cathedral) used this same Mixolydian mode.

Though a conference-concert about modes may seem dense and inaccessible for many, Bernstein teaches us that even the world of pop and rock music, a world often criticised for being seemingly vapid and void of any serious musical matter, has in reality a strong and learned connection to the world of "learned" music, a connection that Bernstein was keen to point out. For him, no music was better or more respectable than another...music is music.

“There are as many sides to American music as there are to the American people” (What is American Music? – 1 February 1958)

The origins of American music are not easily explained, even by Leonard Bernstein. Despite the fact that, at the time, the United States was barely two hundred years old, its eclectic roots and influences have made American music a rich tapestry. Bernstein preaches an all-inclusive vision of the American musical heritage, reminding the importance of embracing and incorporating the variety and differences of one’s culture into one’s music, notably the strong jazz influences felt throughout America in the 20th century:

Think of all the races and personalities from all over the globe that make up our country; and when we think of that we can understand why our own folk music is so complicated. […] So what our composers are finally nourished on, is a folk music that is probably the richest in the world, and all of it is American, in spirit, whether it's jazz, or square-dance tunes, or cowboy songs, or hillbilly music, or rock and roll, or Cuban mambas, or Mexican huapangos, or Missouri hymn-singing”.

In another Young People’s Concert [Folk Music in the Concert Hall – 9 April 1961], Bernstein further explores the subject of folk music, describing it as “the heart of all music, the very beginning of music”. Even Latin music was included in Bernstein’s scope: “A lot of my music does show Latin American influences, but the music of West Side Story is particularly Latin, which is only natural since the story of this show is in great part about Puerto Ricans” [The Latin American Spirit - 8 March 1963]. At a time of strong racial injustice and growing xenophobia, Leonard Bernstein preached tolerance and showed young audiences the wealth and diversity of American culture through their own music. “America means much more than only the United States—that North America, South America, and Central America are, or ought to be, a solid united hemisphere”.

“What have teachers got to do with music? The answer is: everything” (Tribute to Teachers – 29 November 1963)

Leonard Bernstein's Young Person's Concerts influenced countless generations of musicians and composers, amongst which the soprano Angela Cheorghiu, and Thomas Martin, former principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra: “We could understand music from these talks – he made it real and made it live for everyone. He understood it in a way few people have and he put that across, which was amazing. These shows astounded America.” But who developed Bernstein's own passion for music? In one of the last Young People's Concerts, Bernstein chose to focus not on music itself, but rather on praising the efforts of those who share it with future generations, as well as his own teachers. 

Teaching is probably the noblest profession in the world — the most unselfish, difficult, and honorable profession. It is also the most unappreciated, underrated, underpaid, and underpraised profession in the world. [...] You see, teaching is not just a dry business of scales and exercises; a great teacher is one who can light a spark in you, the spark that sets you on fire with enthusiasm for music, or for whatever you are studying.

Bernstein pays tribute to his own teachers, detailing their influences upon him as a young student, notably Serge Koussevitzky,  founder of the Tanglewood Summer School and the man that ignited the spark that set Bernstein "on fire with enthusiasm for music". Of his many teachers during his career - "I'd guess roughly there have been 60 or 70" - Bernstein singles out those who had a profound impact on his life, including Walter Piston, and Fritz Reiner ("my greatest living teacher, also probably the greatest conductor in the world today").