I was fortunate to spend a summer long ago at a Loomis School program in biochemistry, where I had the opportunity to hear the Boston Symphony perform at their Tanglewood facility. While Seiji Ozawa conducted, an extraordinary thing happened: Leonard Bernstein strolled by our seats, attempting to make his way forward towards the stage. As heads turned and recognition set in, he was immediately surrounded. I still vividly remember the reverence and admiration of those who crowded around him.
At the time, I filed this away as an interesting experience, but missed the opportunity to understand at a deeper level why Bernstein was so admired. Decades later, I have come across a wonderful set of lectures that Bernstein gave at Harvard in 1973 while he was in residence as Norton Professor. These lectures made two things clear to me: 1) Bernstein had very important things to say about the nature of music and poetry, and that 2) my musical education was sadly lacking.
So let me strongly recommend to musicians interested in a deeper understanding of the nature of their art that they acquire the DVD collection of these lectures:
The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein
You’ll need to dedicate a significant amount of time to absorbing what Bernstein has to say, but the reward will be great. In fact a brief section of lecture #1 has been described by some as “the greatest five minutes in music education”. It clearly describes the origin of our tonal system, and should be part of every early music education class. It was one of those “if only I’d seen this when I was starting out” moments.
The most important aspect of the lectures for me was a completely new way of appreciating musical composition. In lecture #3, Bernstein challenges you take Beethoven’s well known 6th symphony and listen to it in a different light. This should be difficult given the ingrained popularity of “pastoral” interpretations (ex: Fantasia), but Bernstein has so clearly described his linguistic analysis technique that we can use it readily to achieve a deeper understanding of Beethoven’s genius.
It happens that this year marks the beginning of the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100 birthday (https://leonardbernstein.com/at100). To join in this celebration, get a copy of these lectures and treat yourself to the depth of Bernstein’s teaching, which goes well beyond the few highlights I’ve described here.