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A Fugue is like a Ferris Wheel: Bernstein Asks and Answers, “What is Classical Music?” (Video)

What is classical music? It’s a complicated question with an even more complicated answer — one that Leonard Bernstein tackles in his fifth televised Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic.

In this excerpt, introduced by Whoopi Goldberg, Bernstein discusses the Classical era of music, dominated by rules of beauty and exemplified by composers like Bach and Haydn. He compares a fugue from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 to constructing a Ferris Wheel: both the fugue and the wheel are built in sections that are methodically stacked and repeated until they make a complete whole.

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.

[Related: This graphical score can also help visualize the fourth Brandenburg Concerto. While Bernstein didn’t have this technology in 1959, we’re pretty sure he’d approve!]

The concert then takes the audience on an abridged tour of music history. Bernstein discusses Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Spike Jones and Louis Armstrong.

Ultimately, Bernstein settles on this answer to the question of classical music:

…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 lasts 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.

–Leonard Bernstein, “What is Classical Music?”

Young People's Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People’s Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People's Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People’s Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People's Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Young People’s Concerts Scripts: What is Classical Music? (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
About this content

Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. Produced and directed by Roger Englander, “What Is Classical Music?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on January 24, 1959. Complete episode available. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.

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