Leonard Bernstein’s fourth televised Young People’s Concert explores the techniques composers use that make their music symphonic. It all comes down to one simple — but still complex — concept: development.
Development is really the main thing in life, just as it is in music; because development means change, growing, blossoming out; and these things are life itself.
“But what does development mean in music? The same thing as it means in life; great pieces of music have a lifetime of their own from the beginning to the end of any piece; and in that period all the themes and melodies and musical ideas the composer had, no matter how small they are, grow and develop into full-grown works, just as babies grow into big, grown-up people.”
In the excerpt above, introduced by John Lithgow, Bernstein describes how musical ideas — such as four simple notes — blossom into a beautiful symphony, using the example of Mozart’s “Jupiter”.
Throughout this concert, originally aired in 1958, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic use excerpts from various symphonies — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 — and the traditional French folk song “Frere Jacques” to show how composers expand upon simple musical ideas to create something larger, more complex, and more beautiful.
Among these symphonic and folk examples, Bernstein sings a popular tune — Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” — to explain sequences:
Now what have we learned so far? We’ve learned that the basis of all development is repetition, but the less exact the repetition is, the more symphonic it is. We’ve also learned that all music to some degree or other depends on development, and the more it develops, again, the more symphonic it is. So now what we have to find out is – how do composers use this not-exact repetition to develop their themes into big symphonic pieces?
Well, the first way we’ve already seen – variation. But there are different ways of making variations and one of the most common is — now watch out for this hard word! — sequences. …
Don’t let the word scare you; it’s a very simple trick, really. All a sequence does is to repeat any series of notes at a different pitch. That’s all. For instance, I could make sequences out of almost anything – like you remember a number Elvis Presley used to sing called “All Shook Up”. Well, let’s take a phrase from that.
Now we’ll make a sequence out of it.
And so on. That’s a sequence. It’s easy and you can see right away how useful this is in building music; because it’s a way of developing, of piling up bricks, higher and higher.
As Bernstein continues to teach, he describes one composer as the master of symphonic musical development: Brahms.
You see, anyone can take a tune and turn it upside-down, or play it backwards, or twice as fast, or twice as slow — but the question is — will it be beautiful?
That’s what makes Brahms so great; because with him music doesn’t just change, it changes beautifully.
The trick is not just to use all these different ways of developing music, but to use them when it’s right to use them, at the moment so that the music always makes sense as musical expression, as feeling, as emotion.
That’s hard to do and that’s what Brahms could do like nobody’s business.
–Leonard Bernstein, “What Makes Music Symphonic?”
Young People’s Concerts Scripts: What Makes Music Symphonic? [typescript of “Music Cues”] (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 by Roger Englander and directed by Charles S. Dubin, “What Makes Music Symphonic?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on December 13, 1958. Complete episode available. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.