Essential Bernstein

Bernstein Rehearses Copland at Tanglewood: Rare Footage

By Cathy Fuller

What do you listen for when you know that this footage is so rare, so sublime, that you want to savor every beat? is pleased to share with you for your exclusive viewing a Leonard Bernstein rehearsal video described as “deeply moving” by Michael Cooper of The New York Times: Bernstein rehearsing Copland’s 3rd Symphony with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (TMCO), just days before his final concert with the TMCO on August 14, 1990.

Part 1 of 3: The 2nd Movement

In this first of three extended excerpts, you see Bernstein conducting the 2nd movement – after noting to the Tanglewood Fellows that he apologizes for having missed the rehearsal of the 1st movement (“I feel like Job… if it isn’t one thing, it’s another) [00:00:14].

It is true: it’s impossible to watch the video without some sense of tragic distraction — knowing that Bernstein would be gone in just two months. And Copland would be gone in four.

But Bernstein’s resilient spirit shines through. He lovingly chips away at the details to unlock the euphoria that his friend’s symphony delivers, from the speed of the violin bows [00:11:55] to a particular thump from the triangle [00:26:20].

Bernstein and Copland

In 1940, Bernstein had been part of the first Tanglewood season as a student, with Aaron Copland as administrative head of the school.  The day they’d met three years earlier was one of the great days of Bernstein’s life. He thought of Copland as the one who would “lead American music out of the wilderness.” As they grew close they would read Copland’s newly finished scores together at the piano, like Billy the Kid, An Outdoor Overture, and the Third Symphony.

Copland’s Symphony No. 3

There could hardly be a more appropriate piece for Bernstein’s last work with Tanglewood students than Copland’s Third. It was commissioned by Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky, who, after receiving the score, said, “There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest American symphony. It goes from the heart to the heart.”

Dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky’s wife, Natalie, the Symphony No. 3 is the composer’s most expansive and idealistic work. It mirrors the spirit of America at the close of World War II, when Bernstein himself was coming into his own.

By the summer of 1990, Bernstein’s illness had reined in the extravagance of his gestures. You’ll see a focused kind of economy in this rehearsal. And he doesn’t overcompensate with extravagance of words or metaphor.

The whole thing is a loving workout on Aaron’s music, with an equally affectionate focus on the incredible talent of these young players. The wisdom of his experience gives Bernstein’s musical demands a kind of quiet urgency that fires off sparks in these musicians. The result is stunning.

What to listen for

Listen for Bernstein describing the main tune as “cowboy-ish” and “lopin’-along.”  To tap into its American character, he throws out a lyric, “Because I’m leavin’ Cheyenne!” and it becomes a motive throughout the rehearsal for instant recognition of the sensibility Copland was after. And Bernstein lets us in on something: “I’ve always wanted to make a Tanglewood hymn out of this tune,” he says, “and if I could ever think of the words, maybe I will. Maybe even this week. We’ll all sing it in canon!” [00:24:05]

Later, during a radiant passage for the strings, Bernstein coaxes something fragile and ravishing from the orchestra.  As he rehearses a few bars of the section, you’ll hear him tell the orchestra, almost under his breath:  “It’s very important to us — Aaron and me — that place” [00:34:15].  And that quiet remark speaks volumes.

There are, of course, the necessary adjustments that are less easy to swallow. But Bernstein delivers his message with respect. When the first violins have a pretty serious tuning issue, he talks about it by saying, “We won’t talk about that, will we?”  And then the zinger: “You really do have to look at where your fingers are going” [00:29:40]. But then he brings back the lyric motive to keep the need for character above all things: “Because I’m leaving Cheyenne! Think of words! It’s sung, this stuff![00:30:10].

Bernstein’s conducting illuminated music in wondrous ways: including through his teaching and coaching. This rare video illuminates how Bernstein, the educator and the conductor, achieved magical results that were the hallmark of his performances.

About this content

This previously unpublished footage is part one in a three-part exclusive. Subscribe to email for updates. This post was updated with a link to a related article in The New York Times.

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