Sunday, July 22, 2018

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts: “A Tribute to Vienna in 3/4 Time” (CBS-TV, aired December 25, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

TCM showed at least some of the Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concerts” last night and I was able to catch two of them, both from the later stages of the series: “A Toast to Vienna in ¾ Time” from December 25, 1967 (and the fact that they “dumped” this show onto the air on Christmas day is indicative that the American broadcasting industry was already getting restive about the unofficial bargain they had made with the federal government to offer at least some smidgens of high-cultural programming to pay the public back for the huge piles of money they made selling commercials on out-and-out crap shows) and “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” (originally aired May 26, 1968). I remember watching quite a few of the “Young People’s Concerts” when I was in fact a young person just developing my “ear” for classical music — though I’ve often told people my affection for both classical music and jazz comes more than anything else from having heard my mother play records of them throughout my childhood. I’m convinced the reason most young people don’t develop a taste for those sorts of music is simply that they never get to hear them as music, alongside all the other musics out there — and it doesn’t help that classical music is often presented as a sort of aural medicine (“Listen to this, it’s good for you”) and encumbered by elaborate “explanations” of what’s going on moment by moment in a piece that just make listening seem like too much work to be enjoyable. 

Bernstein aimed his “Young People’s Concerts” at this problem and figured he could get kids to like classical music by presenting it in a folksy way, with charming bits of narration that would encompass some of that “music appreciation” stuff but would also present himself as a foxy old grandpa showing off to the kids some old toys from the attic they could have just as much fun with as they could with the new stuff out of the boxes under the Christmas trees. The salute to Vienna was an engaging program and Bernstein built it around an interesting conceit: since Vienna’s most famous contribution to the world’s music is probably the waltz, he would construct his entire program around works written in ¾ time, starting with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Wiener Blut” (he did not mention, surprisingly to me, that the title translates to “Vienna Blood”!) and going into two works by Mozart, an arrangement of an Austrian “Ländler” (the ¾ folk dance from which the waltz emerged) and a far more sophisticated ¾ work, the “Minuet” third movement from Mozart’s final symphony, the “Jupiter.” (Already in this movement, and indeed throughout the “Jupiter,” we can hear Mozart pushing against the limits of the Classical style; Romanticism in general, and Beethoven in particular, are struggling to be born out of that symphony.) After Bernstein made his point about Mozart he then talked about Beethoven, who turned the minuet that was the customary third movement of a symphony before him into a scherzo (which, as he pointed out, derives from the Italian word for “joke”), speeding it up big-time and making it a jolly little interlude between the slow movement and the big finale. His sample was the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which sounds a bit odd out of context but is still one of the most beautiful works in the Beethoven canon. 

After that he introduced his soloists, opera singers Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig, and mentioned that they were a married couple in real life (they were then, though they got divorced later) before having them do three songs from Gustav Mahler’s song cycle based on an old German children’s book of poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). Mahler was virtually an inescapable piece of this concert’s content because he was one of the few people who’d worked as a regular conductor of both the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and since both those orchestras had been formed in 1842 Bernstein was offering the concert at least in part as a 125th birthday celebration to them. He was also inescapable because Bernstein was one of the two conductors (Georg Solti was the other) who were instrumental in spearheading the revival of interest in Mahler in the 1960’s, and it seemed obvious Bernstein’s interest in Mahler stemmed from the fact that they were both composer-conductors of Jewish origin. I’ve never developed a taste for Mahler (and when John Culshaw confessed in his memoir Putting the Record Straight that he didn’t either, I thought, “Aha! Another one! It’s not just me! One of the greatest classical record producers of all time couldn’t stand him either!”) — there are times when he’ll write something that seems profound enough to qualify him as one of the greatest composers of all time and then he’ll blow it with a thoroughly banal tune, though some of those tunes are quotes from old Austrian folk songs and perhaps if I knew them I’d get the same pleasurable jolt I get when I hear Charles Ives, whom I love, quote “Yankee Doodle” or some other similarly familiar piece of American patriotic flotsam. Berry and Ludwig acquitted themselves decently enough given the banality and triviality of what they were singing (and, oddly, the CBS producers did not supply subtitles for the songs so we had only Bernstein’s preliminary descriptions to clue us in as to what Berry and Ludwig were singing about).

Bernstein’s final selection on the Vienna tribute concert was a piece with an interesting history: the “Waltz Sequence” from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in Dresden in 1911. Strauss later arranged two suites from the opera’s music so it could be performed instrumentally, but the “Waltz Sequence” Bernstein conducted was one created by … Leonard Bernstein himself for the New York Philharmonic in 1944. At the time Artur Rodzinski was the Philharmonic’s principal conductor and Bernstein was his assistant; Rodzinski took credit for the arrangement but it was apparently actually Bernstein’s work. In 1971 Bernstein continued his association with Der Rosenkavalier by recording it complete in Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry in his cast. The Rosenkavalier music was exactly the sort of piece needed to bring out the best in Bernstein as conductor at the time: superficially simple, really complex, with lots of interlocking melodic lines and a sense of swing and lilt he captured perfectly — though given my Mahler allergy I couldn’t help but wish he’d had Ludwig and Berry singing music from Rosenkavalier instead of those silly songs from a German kids’ book instead!