Bernstein on Teaching and Learning

“A Good Kind of Madness”: Bernstein on Ives, an American Pioneer (Video)

“…To understand Ives, or any adventurer for that matter, we must remember that the spirit of adventure is just another way of saying the spirit of play, the sporting instinct — doing things simply for the fun of doing them.”

To most of the audience at this New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert in 1967, Leonard Bernstein was their first introduction to the wild, adventurous music of Charles Ives (1874-1954).

“Now, if you had heard that rather bizarre piece of music without knowing its title or its composer, what would you have said it was?” Bernstein asked. “Something by a composer from outer space? Or, maybe by a child?”

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic had played this:

Unlike most career composers, Ives wrote music as a side project to his successful insurance business — and as a result, he allowed himself to experiment with sound and rhythm in a way that no other composer of his day had even considered.

“Ives was our first great American composer. All alone in his Connecticut barn Ives created his own private musical revolution, whose rumblings are only now beginning to be understood,” Bernstein said.

And the root of that understanding, Bernstein argued, is fun. Ives mixed traditional folk tunes, wild dissonances, and inconceivable rhythms with pleasure and panache, simply because he enjoyed doing it.

And besides — if you’re not worried about people hearing and subsequently criticizing your music, why not have a little fun with it?

Image 8 of Young People's Concerts Scripts: Charles Ives: American Pioneer [typescript on pink paper plus 3 mimeo on pink & 2 on white, emendations in pencil] / Credit: Library of Congress Music Division
“Just imagine: in those early 1900s what was called “crazy modern music” then consisted of Debussy and Ravel or Richard Strauss — all composers we think of today as pretty stodgy old-timers. And yet, in those very same early years, this salty Connecticut Yankee named Ives was already madly pursuing his own off-beat ideas, writing music that no one could decipher, no one could play, and no one cared to hear. And the more nobody cared, the more he wrote…” / Image 8 of Young People’s Concerts Scripts: Charles Ives: American Pioneer, typescript on pink paper (Credit: Library of Congress Music Division)
Young People's Concerts Scripts: Charles Ives: American Pioneer, pencil on yellow legal pad paper; notes (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)
Bernstein’s handwritten sketch of the script on yellow legal pad paper includes the word, “Fun.” / Young People’s Concerts Scripts: Charles Ives: American Pioneer, notes. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division)

Hear the pieces Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic presented during this Young People’s Concert, from the raucous “Firemen’s Parade” to the inspiration for Bernstein’s Norton lecture series at Harvard, the quietly existential “Unanswered Question”:

Curious about Ives? Explore rare recordings of Ives recently released by Yale University, visit a replica of his home in New York City, or visit the Charles Ives Society online for more.

About this content

Leonard Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. Produced and directed by Roger Englander, “Charles Ives: American Pioneer” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on February 23, 1967. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.

Support provided by:

Newsletter Signup

Get, the premiere classical music digital entertainment experience, in your inbox. Subscribe today!