YouTube and Classical Music, 10 of the Most Beautiful Videos from the Archives

Some great classical music moments have been immortalised as videos. Some are available on YouTube; it is a gold mine ready to be explored.

How about a dive into YouTube? Billions of videos to have been posted in the last decade, some are quite forgotten about or hard to find but capture the greatest moments in musical history - Maria Callas close up, Rostropovich in front of the Berlin Wall, Claudio Abbado in the last years of his life, Yo-Yo Ma being presented by Bernstein at the age of 7… So, here are some archive videos it is high time you (re)watched. 

1939 – The Victory of Contralto Marian Anderson 

Marian Anderson was the fist African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. But to get there the contralto had to fight discrimination throughout her life. In April 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (a patriotic, traditional society) denied her access to the Constitution Hall for a concert. 

Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, immediately resigned from the group, which was accused of racism, and, with the help of the Secretary of the Interior, organised an outdoor concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the singer to perform. Marian Anderson performed America, O mio Fernando (an air from Donizetti’s La Favorite) and Schubert’s Ave Maria, in front of a crowd of almost 80,000 people. 

1944 – Richard Strauss Conducting his Work 

Videos of 19th century composers are rare but there some precious archive footage of Richard Strauss conducting his music in 40s does exist. These are controversial years for the German composer, who was close to the Nazi regime. 

Richard Strauss accepted the role of President of the Reich Music Chamber in 1933, largely to be allowed to continue working with music and to defend his friend Stefan Zweig, who was of Jewish origin. He also composed works for events supported by Hitler’s regime such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

1958 – Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistakh Playing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins

Last year Yehudi Menuhin would have celebrated his 100th Birthday, while David Oistrakh would have had 108 candles on his birthday cake. In 1958 the two violinists played Bach’s Concerto at the Salle Playel in Paris with the RTF Chamber Orchestra. This concert was immortalised in video, so we can admire two major figures of the 20th century.

1959 – The Pure Genius of Glenn Gould 

There are many videos of the pianist Glenn Gould but this is one of the most popular as it captures his character. Taken from a documentary this video shows the musician in an apartment working on Bach’s second Partita. You can hear him whispering, as was his tendency, about the music. You see him make mistakes, and stop and start. 

The video slightly humanises the genius. It allows us a precious glimpse of the artist who in 1964 at the age of 32 stopped playing in public, to focus only on recording. 

1962 – Leonard Bernstein Presenting Yo-Yo Ma 

In 1962, at the age of 7, cellist Yo-Yo Ma was invited to play with his sister Yeou-Cheng Ma at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in front of the American President and his wife. The young musician was already regarded as a prodigy at this time, this is clear as Leonard Bernstein presented the future cello star not only to the public but also to many important figures, Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn and Benny Goodman, who were there that day.

The memory of that day obviously remained engraved in Yo-Yo Ma’s memory, as a few years later he wrote to the conductor saying – 

“Dr Mr. Bernstein,   Do you still remember me? Now I am ten years old. This year I learned with Prof. Leonard Rose three concertos: Saint-Saëns’, Boccherini’s and Lalo’s. Last week my sister and I played in a Christmas Concert in Julliard School. We are invited to give a joint recital in Brearley School on January 19th, 1996 at 1:45pm.
If you have time, I would be glad to play for you.   Yo-Yo Ma”

1964 – Maria Callas in Interview: “I am not an idol” 

In 1964, Maria Callas gave a lengthy interview to music critic Bernard Gavoty, in Paris. She responded without holding back to the, often personal, questions he posed. We are shown not just the singer but also the woman. She describes herself as a “simple” woman who “likes to see television, to read nonsense, to listen to pretty things, to read, to do intellectual things which I am not because I have just never had the time”. 

She gave this interview a year before her last stage appearance, playing Tosca (on July 5th 1965), her emblematic role. She talks about her career with a maturity that is quite different to her diva image, “I am not an idol, I am human. That’s why I’m not always perfect. Sometimes I sing well and sometimes less well”. 

The 60s and 70s – The Unique Relationship of Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pré

It would be wrong to list the most beautiful archive videos without including a love story. In the history of music, Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré’s relationship is legendary. It is difficult to choose just one video to represent it, as each video they appear in is moving. 

The talented cellist met the pianist and conductor in 1966. They had both a romantic and musical love affair. They got married just a few months later in Jerusalem. They played and recorded together until Jacqueline Du Pré is crippled by Multiple sclerosis at just 27 years old. Her health progressively deteriorated. She died in London in October 1987. 

1989 – Rostropovich Plays in front of the Berlin Wall 

A historic moment and a historic video; on November 11th, 1989, two days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mstislav Rostropovich flew in, came to Check Point Charlie and played his cello. He created a makeshift concert playing Bach to Berliners in front of the then partially destroyed wall. 

The Russian cellist and conductor was very politically engaged, strongly believing in freedom of expression. In 1970 he defended the political dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which provoked retaliation from his native country. He was forced to go into exile in the United States and eight years later was stripped of his Russian citizenship as a result of his “acts that systematically damaged the prestige of the Soviet Union”. 

2011 – Riccardo Muti sets the  Rome Opera Alight 

This video is not about silence. This recording of a performance at the Rome Opera House on March 12th 2011 is full of the audience’s cries, and the voices of Riccardo Muti and the “chorus of slaves”. A performance of Verdi’s Nabucco was held that evening in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Italian Unity (the 1861 proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy). 

During the 3rd Act the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves takes place. It is very popular in Italy, at the time it was composed, in 1842, the country was under Austrian control, this chorus sounds like a cry for freedom. On the night of the performance in question the crowd was very agitated as many political figures were present in the audience, some of whom were accused of cutting the budget for culture. On that night the chorus sounded like a cry of distress. The Napolitan Conductor Riccardo Muti heard cries of “encore” and “Viva l’Italia” which rang round the room. He turned and addressed the room, saying – 

“I’m no longer 30, I’ve lived my life but as an Italian who has travelled the World I am ashamed of what is happening in my country. So I agree to your encore request for the chorus. It’s not only for the patriotic joy that I feel, but because tonight, as I conducted the chorus singing “O my homeland, so beautiful and lost” I thought that if we continue this way we will kill the culture on which the history of Italy is built. In which case, our homeland itself would indeed be “so beautiful and lost”.”

At the request of the conductor, the audience stood and sang with the choir while pieces of paper, with the words “Italy, stand up to defend heritage and culture”, fell into the hall. 

2012 – The Magic Silence of Claudio Abbado 

When we hear Mozart, the silence that follows is still Mozart”, this famous quote by Sacha Guitry perfectly illustrates the moving scene in this video of Claudio Abbado. The conductor led Mozart’s Requiem in 2012, two years before his death, at the Lucerne Festival

This 2-minute video shows the conductor weakened by illness. After the last note he slowly centres himself in complete, enduring silence. This moment is finally broken by warm applause. Claudio Abbado managed to create a similar, profound silence in 2010, in the same room, after conducting Mahler’s 9th Symphony