Professor Donald Elder” 50 Greatest Americans- Leonard Bernstein

Jun 13, 2015 by

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder” 50 Greatest Americans- Leonard Bernstein

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder – we are going to venture into a slightly different realm today- that of music, composition and the symphony. The name of course is Leonard Bernstein, and while some may disagree- he may be the most prominent name in American music (at least in the last 100 years).  What do we know about his early years?

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918. His birth name was actually Louis Bernstein because his grandmother wanted him named that. His parents, however, referred to him as Leonard, and that was the name he preferred. Indeed, he would legally change his name to Leonard after his grandmother died when he was fifteen.

Bernstein’s parents sent him to the Garrison Grammar School and then to Boston Latin School. In 1935 he was accepted by Harvard University, and graduated cum laude in 1939 with a B.A. in Music. He continued his education for a year at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. In the summer of 1940, Bernstein attended Tanglewood, a summer institute sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This experience landed him a position as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was in that capacity the Bernstein first came to national prominence in 1943.

2. How did he first get involved in music?

Bernstein seems to have been interested in music from an early age, a fascination that his father did not initially approve of. But his father eventually dropped his opposition to his son’s new interest, and in fact helped pave the way for his son’s future success when he bought a piano for the family home. Bernstein soon mastered that instrument, and would retain a love for the piano that would last throughout his lifetime.

3. Leonard Bernstein seems to have worn many hats- composer- arranger, teacher, conductor, etc. What would you say are his MAIN contributions?

Bernstein was clearly one of the greatest musicians that the United States has ever produced. During his life, he excelled in every aspect of music that he pursued. Perhaps his greatest contribution to American music, however, came from a series of television programs that he was associated with starting in 1958. In that year he became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, an entity that performed what were known as the Young People’s Concerts. These were performances of classical music accompanied by lectures to explain the music to the children in attendance. Bernstein saw the potential to reach a much larger audience if these performances were televised, and as a result he approached the Columbia Broadcasting System about televising the next such concert.

The first performance, titled “What Does Music Mean?” aired on CBS on January 18, 1958. Over the next 14 years, Bernstein would host 52 more episodes of this television series. These programs are credited with making classical music approachable to a large portion of the American public, and helped influence a countless number of past and present American musicians.

4. His later years were spent teaching America about music. What were his contributions in this realm?

From the first televised broadcast of the Young People’s Concerts until his death, Bernstein was involved in educating people about music. Many of his lectures are now available on DVD. Bernstein also received an appointment from Harvard University as a Professor of Poetry in 1973. Bernstein also established an educational connection through his establishment of the Bernstein Education through the Arts program, which developed an arts-based curriculum for use in American schools. Finally, he established the Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning, which is associated with Gettysburg College.

5. In your personal opinion, does a musician have a secure place in terms of contributing to American greatness?

One of the greatest documentary series of all time was a BBC production titled Civilisation. The host of the series was the noted art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, and in one episode he stated that:

“At certain epochs, man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways – through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed upon the visible world.”

I totally agree with the sentiment expressed by Clark regarding the human experience. While textbooks extoll the virtues of the political leaders throughout history, I believe that the manifestations of a nation’s culture tell us just as much about what those people regarded as their core values. For this reason, a person such as Leonard Bernstein deserves to be ranked among the greats in our nation’s history.

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