By Isaac Mervis
In terms of the lasting impact that Leonard Bernstein has had on American music, the importance of his Young People’s Concerts cannot be overstated. A part of the longest-running series of family concerts of classical music in the world, Leonard Bernstein’s televised concerts with the New York Philharmonic placed him in the living rooms of families across the country for over a decade.
Through his trademark “Bernstein Method,” he was able to introduce and break down complex, abstract concepts into analogies and metaphors digestible by the American youth. The objective of the concert would be stated in the form of a question and answered in stages throughout. He was able to engage the audience through questions, call and response, and by seamlessly transitioning to the piano to illuminate his arguments. Determined to keep the focus on the music, Bernstein gave classical music great exposure by both beginning and ending with a performance.
This format introduced the American youth to the music of greats like Shostakovich, Hindesmith, Holst, and Ives; featuring guests like Aaron Copland; and introducing the world to talented Young Performers like André Watts and Jung Ja Kim. Of all his numerous accomplishments, Bernstein called the Young People’s Concerts one of “the most highly prized activities of his life.” Carrying over from his piano teaching days, his passion for education beamed through the television screen. He wrote every word of every concert, often meticulously making changes up until the live performance in order to find the most fitting metaphor or illuminating phrase.
Starting with his first performance on January 18th, 1958, Bernstein led 53 Young People’s Concerts over 14 years. These concerts were all telecast on CBS and syndicated in over 40 countries, dubbed in 12 different languages. Two books of scripts were also published. Eventually shown during primetime, his programs became as popular as “The Flintstones” and were referenced in popular culture such as the cartoon strip Peanuts.
Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts solidified his role as classical music ambassador for the American youth by using his charisma, insight, and didactic methods to inspire a generation of young musicians, composers, and conductors, and help create a shared American musical identity.
Isaac Mervis is a senior music and education double major at Davidson College from Indianapolis, IN.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series.
Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.