As often as Leonard Bernstein tackled nigh-impossible abstract concepts in his Young People’s Concerts, like humor or beauty or the definition of music itself, he also embraced the minutiae of musical terminology. The seventh televised Young People’s Concert answers a fundamental question about classical music: what is a concerto, anyway?
He starts by analyzing the meaning of the word “concerto.”
“The original meaning of the word ‘concert’ is the idea of things happening together: a football team performs in concert; the players make a concerted effort to win the game. As a certain magazine would say, it means ‘togetherness,’ which is a lovely idea but rather an ugly word. Well,
In music the word ‘concert’ means the ‘togetherness’ of musicians, who come together to play or to sing in a group.
So ever since music began to be written for audiences like yourselves, composers have used the word Concerto to name their pieces.”
Then, Bernstein discusses the different forms concertos can take — from the orchestral concerto grosso to concertos that highlight a soloist at the expense of an interesting accompaniment to everything in between.
Listen to the concertos by Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Bartók that Bernstein references during this Young People’s Concert:
In the video clip above, Bernstein asks the New York Philharmonic’s concert master, John Corigliano, to play an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s fiery Violin Concerto.
The performance illustrates a particular type of concerto that features a flashy solo part and an interesting orchestral accompaniment.
We’re going to play you an example of a great violin concerto by Mendelssohn. We’re going to play you the last movement. Now here at last stands the virtuoso star in all his solitary splendor, in the person of John Corigliano, who has been working very hard today. What you will hear is music that makes a perfect combination of the ‘violinistic’ element, the flash and all the rest, and serious, great, music. The orchestra, as you see, is by now practically full size, and they have much more interesting things to do than simply accompanying the big shot, but then the soloist has such difficult, fancy things to do himself that it evens out the balance.
~ Leonard Bernstein, “What is a Concerto?” (1959)
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 a Concerto?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on March 28, 1959. Complete episode available. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.