Leonard Bernstein’s “The Joy of Music”

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” is a two-year worldwide celebration of the life and career of the composer, with more than 2,500 events on six continents. There are many possible descriptors for Bernstein, including musician, educator, author, cultural ambassador, conductor and humanitarian. In Bernstein’s wide-ranging career, he found time not only to educate the public through television broadcasts of the programs “Omnibus” and the “Young People’s Concerts,” but also through books, such as The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Findings and The Unanswered Question.

As part of this major celebration, it seems pertinent to revisit some of Bernstein’s works, beginning with The Joy of Music (Amadeus Press, 2004). The first half of the book includes a series of imaginary conversations among characters including Younger Brother, Lyric Poet, Bernstein himself, Broadway Producer and Professional Manager, addressing topics of “Why Beethoven?”, “What Do You Mean, Meaning?”, “Whatever Happened to that Great American Symphony?”, and “Why don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?”.

Bernstein’s many different roles in life led him to come to a wide variety of revelations about music. His background as a music educator informed his thoughts about music history. These include the ideas that, “All music must begin in the theater, historically speaking. … Music first arises attached to words and ideas. There is no folk music, to my knowledge, that is abstract. It is music for working to, or for dancing to, or for singing words to. It is always about something” (44). Music originated as folk music for various functions in people’s lives, including praying, life cycle events including weddings, other celebratory events, for healing, and for working.

The development of music included operas growing from small to large, and church motets becoming cantatas and large requiems. “Now musical idioms have become familiar; and the procedures of Western music are enough alike so that the music can be separated from the words or the ideas or the concepts – that is, from the theater- and can exist for the audience in its own right” (45). Now, we have different forms of music: not only operas by Mozart, but also symphonies, and not only Passions by Bach, but also his preludes and fugues. Certain types of music developed into others. Bernstein called the church, “the greatest theater of them all” (44), concluding that, “in short, the audience had grown up with the music in the theater, and had reached the point where they could relate to the music without the theater” (45). In other words, the churchgoing audience itself developed from a group that expected music to include lyrics, to one that also became interested in and receptive to instrumental music outside of houses of worship.

This brief overview of folk and church music is only a taste of the topics Bernstein included in The Joy of Music, some of which are discussed here. 

Tune in next time for a comparison of the music of George Gershwin and Bernstein.