There are as many sides to American music as there are to the American people—our great, varied, many-sided democracy. Maybe that’s the main quality of it all — our many-sidedness.
Bernstein taught the audience how to listen for “American qualities” in music, such as syncopation. He and the New York Philharmonic illustrated the concerts by performing excerpts from folk, jazz, and classical music by American composers, including Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Morton Gould, Edward MacDowell, William Schumann, Randall Thompson, and Virgil Thompson. Bernstein said:
There are so many different qualities in our music that it would take much too long to list them; there are as many sides to American music as there are to the American people—our great, varied, many-sided democracy.
Maybe that’s the main quality of it all — our many-sidedness.
Think of all the races and personalities from all over the globe that make up our country; and when we think of that we can understand why our own folk music is so complicated. We’ve taken it all in, French, Dutch, German, Scotch, Scandinavian, Italian, and all the rest, and learned it from one another, borrowed it, stolen it, cooked it all up in a melting pot.
So what our composers are finally nourished on, is a folk music that is probably the richest in the world, and all of it is American, in spirit, whether it’s jazz, or square-dance tunes, or cowboy songs, or hillbilly music, or rock and roll, or Cuban mambas, or Mexican huapangos, or Missouri hymn-singing.
It’s like all those different accents we have in our speaking; there’s a little Mexican accent in the Texas accents, and a little Swedish to be heard in our Minnesota accent, and there’s a little Slavic in the Brooklyn, and a there’s a little Irish in the Boston accent.
But they’re all American accents…
–Leonard Bernstein, “What is American Music?”
Bernstein ended the concert with a “surprise” for the audience: Copland, “the dean of American music,” conducting an excerpt from Copland’s Third Symphony. Bernstein described the piece as a perfect example of “a lot of these American qualities we’ve been talking about—jazz rhythms, and wide open optimism, and the simplicity, and the sentimentality, and a mixture of things from all over the world—a noble fanfare, a hymn—everything.”
Post updated: July 17, 2018
Leonard Bernstein has inspired countless musicians, including award-winning pianist Lara Downes.
In this video for Classical.org, Downes says that Bernstein helps her remember and appreciate the “messy mix” of American music: “Leonard Bernstein broke down so many barriers… I thank Leonard Bernstein every day.”
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About this content
Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. “What is American Music?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on February 1, 1958. Complete episode available. Video and transcripts © 1990, 1993 The Leonard Bernstein Office Inc.