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Young People's Concert

What is Classical Music?

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 24 January 1959

[ORCH: Handel - Water Music]

Now the question before the house today is: "What is Classical Music?" Now anybody knows that that piece of Handel we just played is classical music, for instance. Right? Right. So what's the problem - why are we asking this question? Well, there's a good reason, as we're going to find out today. You see, everybody thinks he knows what classical music is: just any music that isn't jazz, like a Stan Kenton arrangement or a popular song, like "I Can't Give You Anything but Love Baby," or folk music, like an African war dance, or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." But that isn't what classical music means at all. People use this word to describe music that isn't jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn't any other word that seems to describe it better. All the other words that are used are just as wrong, like "good" music for instance. You've all heard people say "I just love good music" - meaning that they love Handel instead of Spike Jones. Well, you know what they mean, but after all, isn't there such a thing as good jazz, or a good popular song? You can't use the word good to describe the difference. There's good Handel, and good Spike Jones; and we'll just have to forget that word.

Then people use the word "serious" music when they mean Handel or Beethoven, but there again, there's some jazz that's very serious, and heavens - what's more serious than an African war dance when the kettle is boiling. That word's no good either. Some people use the word high-brow, which means that only very smart, well-educated people can dig it, but we know that's wrong because we all know a lot of people who aren't exactly Einsteins who'll dig Beethoven the most. Well, what about "art" music? Now there's a word a lot of people use to try to describe the difference between Beethoven and Dave Brubeck, let's say. That's no good either, because just as many other people think that jazz is also an art - which indeed it is. And if we try to use the word symphony music - well, that leaves out all the music written for piano solo, violin solo and string quartet; and certainly all that's supposed to be classical. Maybe the best word invented so far is, of all things, "long-hair". Because it was made up by jazz musicians themselves to nail down all the kinds of music that aren't properly theirs. But we've all seen enough jazz musicians who have long hair on their own heads, so I guess even that word won't do.

Well, since all these words are wrong, let's try to find one that's right by finding out first, what the real difference is between the different kinds of music. The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what's usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing those notes -even the exact number of instruments or voices; and he also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up. Of course, no performance can be perfectly exact, because there aren't enough words in the world to tell the performers everything they have to know about what the composer wanted. But that's just what makes the performer's job so exciting - to try and find out from what the composer did write down as exactly as possible what he meant. Now of course, performers are all only human, and so they always figure it out a little differently from one another.

For instance, one conductor might decide that the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - which I'm sure you all know — you know how it goes? Sing it to me. Right. You haven't got the right key, but anyway that's how it goes.

[PLAY: Beethoven - Fifth Symphony]

Well, let's say that one conductor decides that those four notes

[PLAY: Beethoven - Fifth Symphony]

should get a big extra bang on that last note, the long one like this.

[ORCH: Beethoven - Fifth Symphony]

And then another conductor who is trying just as hard as the first one to figure out what Beethoven really wanted, might feel that it's the first note of those four that should get the strongest accent. Like this:

[ORCH: Beethoven - Fifth Symphony]

Then still another conductor - maybe not quite so faithful to Beethoven as the first two - might decide that the four notes should be played more importantly - slower and more majestically, like this:

[ORCH: Beethoven - Fifth Symphony]

We've all heard that version of it. But in spite of these differences, which come out of the different personalities of these three conductors, they're still all conducting the same notes, in the same rhythm, with the same instruments, and with the same purpose - which is to make Beethoven's printed notes come to life in the way they think he'd want them to. This means that what people call classical music can't be changed, except by the personality of the performer. This music is permanent, unchangeable, exact. Now, there's a good word - exact - maybe that's what we should call this kind of music instead of classical, we could call it exact music. Because there's only one way it can be played, and that way has been told us by the composer himself.

But, on the other hand, if we take a popular song, like for instance, "I Can't Give You Anything but Love Baby" there's no end to the ways in which it can be played or sung. It can be sung by a chorus or by Louis Armstrong or by Maria Callas or by nobody. It can just be played without words by a jazz band or a symphony orchestra or a kazoo, slow or fast, hot or sentimental, loud or soft. It just doesn't matter. It can be played through once or repeated fifteen times, in any key, even with the chords underneath changed. Even the tune itself can be changed and improvised on and fooled around with. For instance, the way the tune goes on the printed sheet is like this:

[PLAY: McHugh & Fields - I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby]

Pretty dull, isn't it? But when Louis Armstrong sings it, it begins to sound something like this:

[SING: McHugh & Fields - I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby]

or if a cool, progressive cat is playing it on the piano at Birdland, it might sound something like this:

[PLAY: McHugh & Fields - I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby]Almost unrecognizable. Or if it were sung by, let's say, the Fred Waring Glee Club it would have a completely different sound. It goes something like:

[PLAY: McHugh & Fields - I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby]

Something like that. But the main thing about all this is that none of those ways is wrong. Each way seems right for those particular performers who are doing it at the time, and right for the particular occasion at which they're doing it, whether it's for dancing; or on a television show; or at Birdland. So now at last we have a better word for classical music — exact music, —and while there may be even a better word for it (which I can't think of at the moment) at least "exact" is not a wrong word; and classical is a wrong word. As a matter of fact, I'm sure that you can all probably think up a lot of other words better than "exact" to describe the music that's usually called classical, and I'd love for you to write me any of the ones you think of that are really good. Who knows? Maybe one of your words will really catch on and become a part of our language, so that we'll never have to use that wrong word "classical" again.

Well, why is the word "classical" a wrong word? Because, you see, while there is such a thing as classical music, it means something very different from what we've been talking about. It doesn't mean long-hair music — it means only one certain kind of long-hair music. For instance, take this well-know musical phrase:

[ORCH: Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherezade]

Do you know what that is? Well, let's hear it. Right -Scheherezade. OK. Next question: is that classical music? It's not. Classical music refers to a very definite period in the history of music, which is called the classical period. The music that was written in that time is called classical music, and Scheherezade simply wasn't written in that time. But this music was.

[ORCH: Mozart - Piano Concerto no. 21]

I'm sure you can tell the difference between Scheherezade and this bit of Mozart we just played. The Mozart is classical music. Now let's see if we can get some idea of when this classical period happened. It lasted about a hundred years - from about 1700 to 1800, which is, as you know, called the 18th Century. But what do we know about this 18th Century? Well, let's take the first half of it, for instance - the first 50 years. We've all learned in school what America was like during those years: it was still being settled; pioneers were exploring new savage territories; there were new frontiers all over the place; we were fighting the Indians right and left. In other words, we were going through a tough time, living a rough life and building a new country from the ground up.

Now this same time in Europe was very different. Over there we find a nice old civilization that had been building for hundreds of years; and so by the time the 18th Century rolled around, Europe was no longer just exploring and nailing logs together, it was already trying to make perfect what it had already built up. And so these same first 50 years in Europe were a time of rules and regulations and of getting those rules and regulations to be as exactly right as possible. This is what makes classicism - this bringing of rules to a pitch of perfection. It makes classical architecture, classical drama and classical music. That's what classical music really means: music written in a time when perfect form and balance and proportion are what everybody is looking for -music which tries more than anything else to have a perfect shape - like a beautiful ancient Greek vase.

Now the two giant musical names of these first 50 years of the 18th Century were Bach and Handel. Especially Bach; because he took all the rules that the composers who lived before him had been experimenting with, and fiddling with - and he made those rules as perfect as a human being can make them. For instance, take that form called the fugue. Now the rules of a fugue are something like the printed directions you get when you buy an Erector set; they tell you exactly how to build a house, or a fire truck, or a Ferris Wheel. You start a Ferris Wheel by attaching one metal section to another on the floor; then you add one exactly four notches higher; then another five notches higher than that; and so on.

The you make the wheel that goes around the whole construction. That's just what Bach does in a fugue; take this one, for instance, from his Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. He lays the foundation for his Ferris Wheel by starting with the viola -that's the first section.

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

Then he adds the second section - by a violin, exactly four notches higher - which means, in musical terms four notes higher, and four bars later:

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

Now the third piece is attached by another violin, five notches higher.

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

Then the fourth piece - by the cello and the bass, way down underneath.

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

and finally, the fifth piece is put into place, by the flute, way up on top:

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

Now the foundation is built, and Bach can start surrounding it with his circular wheel. Now the wonderful thing about that foundation is that it's not just five separate bits, one at a time; they're all joined together; which means that whenever a new instrument is added, the others still go on playing something else; so that by the time the fifth piece is attached - by the flute -you have five different parts all going at once - just as the five different pieces of the Erector set are all joined together at once. Now, listen to it all together.

[INSTR: Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no. 4]

Isn't that marvelous? You see, that's classical perfection.

Now Bach died in 1750, which is very convenient for us, because it just neatly divides the century into two halves. The next 50 years were very different indeed. Everything changed; the new big giants were now named Haydn and Mozart, and their music is completely different from Bach's. But it was still classical music, because Haydn and Mozart were still looking for the same thing Bach was looking for - perfection of form and shape. But not through fugues any more. Now it was all going to be different.

Now, how does such a change happen? Do composers just go to a convention, like the Republicans in Chicago, and decide by voting to change the style of music? Well, not at all; it happens by itself; because as times change, and history changes, people change with it; and composers are people too; so it stands to reason that their music is also going to change.

The people of Haydn and Mozart's time thought Bach was old fashioned and boring with all those fugues and things. And they wanted something new - not so complicated - with pretty tunes and easy accompaniments, music that was elegant and refined and pleasant. And this was right in line with the times; it was a time of elegance and refinement, good manners, proper etiquette; it was a time of lace cuffs and silk suits and powdered wigs and jewelled fans for the lades and gentlemen of the court. So out came lovely, elegant music for them in which the main thing was the tune. The tune had to be good. Now listen to this marvelous tune from a piano concerto by Mozart. Notice there's no Erector set here; only the gorgeous melody, with a simple little accompaniment underneath. Simple, but oh how beautiful.

[ORCH: Mozart - Piano Concerto in C maj.]

Nobody could write melodies like Mozart. But that melody, beautiful as it is, is also full or rules and regulations, just as Bach's fugue was; only they are a whole bunch of other rules and regulations, rules which make the easy, pleasant kind of music that was wanted in those second 50 years of the century. Another thing about this new, easy, pleasant kind of music was that it was fun. Those people in lace cuffs and powdered wigs wanted to be entertained. They wanted amusement and pleasure out of music —beautiful melodies, sure — but also gay, witty, high spirits. Now Mozart was a master of this, too. For instance, here's the overture to "The Marriage of Figaro", an opera by Mozart. A very strict piece, which follows still another bunch of rules and regulations about something called sonata form which we won't go into, but it's as different from a Bach fugue as milk is from orange juice. The main thing about it is not how it's put together, like that old Erector set, but that it's gay and witty and exciting - and - fun. Just listen to it.

[ORCH: Mozart - Overture to the Marriage of Figaro]

Isn't that fun? It's like a ride in a roller-coaster, full of laughing and good humor. It leaves you breathless. It makes you have a good time. It makes you smile.

But when it comes to humor in music - real jokes, - nobody ever beats Haydn. Haydn was the great master of amusement. Now there's one thing you should know about jokes in music: you can never make a musical joke about anything except music. Which doesn't mean music can't be funny: it means only that it can't be funny about "two Martians landed on Earth and said take us to your leader ..." or "there were three Scotchmen sitting on a fence and one said to the other..." E-flats and F-sharps can't tell you anything about Martians and Scotchmen, but they still can make you laugh - and the way they do it is by surprising you. Surprise is one of the main ways of making anyone laugh, anyway as you know, like sneaking up behind someone and yelling "Boo!" or playing an April-Fool joke on somebody, of saying hello to someone when they expect to say goodbye.

In music, composers can make these surprises in lots of different ways - by making the music loud when you expect it to be soft, or vice versa; or by suddenly stopping in the middle of a phrase; or by writing a wrong note on purpose, a note you don't expect, that doesn't belong to the music. Let's try one, just for fun as a matter of fact. You all know those silly notes called:

[SING: Shave and a hair cut, two bits]

All right. You know that? Just for fun, you sing "Shave and a Haircut", and the orchestra will answer you with "2 bits" and you see what happens.

[AUDIENCE & ORCH: Shave and a haircut]

You laughed. But, most people don't laugh out loud about musical jokes. That's one of the things about musical humor: you laugh inside. Otherwise you could never listen to a Haydn symphony: it's so funny that the laughing would drown out the music. You'd never hear it. But that doesn't mean that a Haydn symphony isn't funny, just the same.

For instance, you've all heard over and over and over again the Surprise Symphony by Haydn, where he suddenly bangs out a loud chord in the middle of a soft little piece. Well, we're going to make musical history by not playing the Surprise Symphony today, because you all know it so well from hearing it year after year that we're going to play something else. We're going to take the last movement of the Symphony in B-flat - No. 102 - imagine writing 102 symphonies! - in fact he wrote 104! - well anyway, this last movement of no. 102 is full of surprises and fun. Now, let me show you some of the ways Haydn makes fun in this piece. It starts with this tune, which is fast and gay, and skitters all over the place like a little funny dachshund puppy:

[PLAY: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Did you hear that last little echo in the woodwinds? It's like someone laughing at something you just said: for instance, if you say very seriously

[SING: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

and someone makes fun of you, and goes

[SING: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

you may not like him for doing it, but it's still fun: it's like teasing, which is fun. That's just what Haydn does: the serious old strings just said -

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

and the little piping woodwinds make fun, by imitating and mocking them

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Then, later on, after he's been through some other tunes and jokes, he has to come back to this first tune we just heard. And the way he slips into it is again a surprise; he just sneaks back to it, when you least expect it - as though you thought your kid brother had gone away on a trip, and all the sudden there he turns up hiding under the kitchen table. That's a shock - that would make you laugh. That's just what Haydn does. Listen to how he does it. And remember the first tune we're getting back to is

[SING: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Now listen to how he sneaks back to it.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

See how sneakily he got back to it; sort of while you weren't looking - boom, he's there. Later on he has to sneak back again to the same tune, but in a different way - now it's as though your kid brother suddenly turned up in the bathtub.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

There are lots of other musical jokes he makes in this movement. Like this one - where he pretends to be starting the tune again, and then surprises you by not doing it at all. Pretending, you know, is always fun; it's like a trick - I have a penny in my hand. Whoosh - it's gone. What happened to it? That's what Haydn does.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

And how about that last scale: that's really like yelling "Boo!"

[SING: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Then he goes on making more false beginnings and scaring you with more sudden louds and sudden softs like this.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Now I want to play this whole movement for you - it's not very long; but funny things shouldn't be long anyway. Haven't you always noticed that the shorter a joke is, the more you laugh at it. We all know people who tell jokes badly, and that's usually because they don't get to the punch line soon enough. Well, Haydn does; he's the best joke-teller in the whole history of music.

[ORCH: Haydn - Symphony no. 102]

Now I'm afraid that you're beginning to think that all classical music is supposed to be funny, and I hope not, because it is not true. It can be very serious. All I'm saying is that wit and humor and fun and gaiety are one part of this music of Haydn and Mozart; but it also has elegance, gracefulness, and strength and much more. But most of all it has classical beauty; it sets up its rules and regulations of balance and form just as strictly as Bach did in his fugues; it was looking for perfection. That's why it's classical. Now you may say: if that was the most important thing - perfect form, rules and so on - then where does emotion come in? People always think that feelings and emotion are the main thing in music; it should make you feel something - not just laughter - but maybe sorrow or pain or victory or spiritual joy. But the secret is that Mozart and Haydn do make you feel all those things - even using those strict rules and being so interested in proportions and shapes and all the rest of it. Because the truth is that any great composer, writing music in any period, classical or not classical, will make you feel deep emotions, because he's great - because he has something to say, because he has something to tell you in his music. And because of this, a great composer's music will always last and last, maybe forever, because people keep on feeling emotions whenever they hear it. And that lasting quality is perhaps the most important meaning of the word "classical". A classic is something that last forever, like that Greek vase we talked about or Robinson Crusoe or Shakespeare's plays, or a Mozart symphony. Because Mozart's music makes the people who hear it feel something, feel that classical perfection with that extra something added called beauty. For instance, when we listened to that gorgeous melody of his before, we were moved, are moved, and touched. We feel something. Let's listen again to that same long wonderful line of notes; and see if you don't feel deep feeling -almost sad, but not quite; and yet not really happy either, very special feelings.

[ORCH: Mozart - Piano Concerto in C maj.]

I think maybe that's my favorite melody in the world, but then I always feel that every time I hear a Mozart melody no matter what it is.

Now the classical period we've been talking about came to an end in the beginning of the 19th century with a great composer named Beethoven. Most people think of Beethoven as the greatest composer of all time. Why should this be? Because Beethoven took all those classical rules of Mozart and Haydn and just went to town with them: his music got bigger in every way. Where Haydn made a sweet little joke, to be told in a living room, Beethoven makes jokes that are world-shaking, that have to be told in the middle of a raging storm. Where Haydn made amusing surprises, Beethoven makes astonishing surprises that leave you gasping, instead of smiling. Where Mozart was gay, Beethoven is crazy with joy. It's like looking at classical music through a magnifying glass - it's all much, much bigger. The main thing Beethoven added to classical music was much more personal emotion; his emotions are bigger, and easier to see.

Now that we call romanticism; and that's the name we give to the music, most of it, that was written in the hundred years after Beethoven. It means being very free with your emotions, not so reserved and proper and shy, but telling your deepest feelings right away without even thinking if you should or not. Let's see if I can give you an example. If I'm introduced to a lady named Miss Smith, let's make it a girl named Miss Smith, and I said, "How do you do, Miss Smith? I'm very happy to make your acquaintance" - then I'm being classical; proper, elegant, refined - I'm obeying the rules. But if I say "How do you do, what gorgeous eyes you have, I love you" - then I'm being a romantic. I'm expressing my feelings right away, unashamed; I'm full of fire and passion, and I don't care who knows it. Now see if you can feel some of that in this music of Chopin, for example, who was a real romantic.

[PLAY: Chopin - Fantasy in F minor]

Isn't that romantic? Or listen to this bit by the great romantic composer Schumann.

[ORCH: Schumann - Symphony no. 2]

See what I mean? That's real burning, romantic, unashamed, emotion, real passion right out there for all to see. It's pretty different from Mozart and Haydn, you must admit.

Now again, the romantic composers didn't just hold a convention in Chicago and decide to go romantic: again it's a reflection of changes that happen in history, the way people live and think and feel and act. And it all began, strangely enough, with that greatest classicist of all, Beethoven. You see, he was two things at the same time: He was the last man of the classical period, and the first man of the romantic period, all at once. I guess you could say that he was a classicist who went too far; he was so full of feeling and emotion that he couldn't keep himself chained up in all those rules and regulations of the 18th century; and so he just broke his chains, and started a whole new kind of music. And that was the end of classical music.

So what have we learned today. First of all, that classical music does not mean just long hair music, but certain special kinds of long hair music that were written in the eighteenth century by such people as Bach and Handel, then by Mozart and Haydn, and finally by the great Beethoven. We're going to end by playing Beethoven's wonderful overture to Egmont, which is about as classical as you can get. At the same time it is full of romantic feelings; like mystery, longing, rage, triumph and joy. Of course, it's not yet the big, wild kind of romanticism that will come later in the music of Chopin and Schumann, or Tchaikovsky or Wagner or the rest of them. Beethoven is the beginning of romantic music. Don't forget that he still comes out of the 18th century, even though he lived for about 25 years into the 19th century; but his rules, even though he breaks them, are still classical rules. He was still trying to perfect these rules; and in the best of his music he came as close to perfection as any human being ever has since the world began.

[ORCH: Beethoven - Egmont Overture]


© 1959, Amberson Holdings LLC
All rights reserved.

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