Monday, April 9, 2007

To Infinity, and Beyond!

One of the Dial M for Musicology guys recently asked for suggestions of good music appreciation tools for the grown-up non-student. He mentions the Bernstein Young People's Concert DVDs which, at their best, are fantastic and definitely not just for young people. As it happens, I'd recently been thinking about one of my favorite Bernstein lectures, "The Infinite Variety of Music." (Let's call it TIVOM, to save time.) This talk was originally given on a TV show, Omnibus, the likes of which would be inconceivable on network TV today. I first read the transcript in a book, also called The Infinite Variety of Music. Like The Joy of Music, this book is a loose assemblage of television scripts, imaginary conversations, essays, etc. Both books made an enormous impression on me when I was falling for music, and I especially remember being blown away by the revelations of the TIVOM transcript.

In a way, it's kind of embarrassing now because I understand better the tricks that Lenny had up his sleeve, but I still think it's wonderfully done and it shows him at his inspirational best. His basic device is to take a simple four-note melodic pattern and show how many different famous melodies have been spun from it. (The fun-with-themes starts about 9 minutes in.) It's not accidental that the sol-do-re-mi pattern he chose is such a classic tonal formula, but the fun is to see how different the notes can sound according to context. I had been thinking of this lecture because of my recent posts (here and here) about the wonders of pedal point, a very basic and often-used compositional technique that remains surprisingly fresh.

It's interesting and instructive that he doesn't choose to do vocabulary lessons on terms such as tonic, dominant, and triadic, but keeps the focus on the musical selections he's chosen. When I got my set of Young People's Concerts DVD's, one of the first I sampled was on Concertos, and I found it surprisingly dry, partially because that lecture spent a lot of time defining words like concertino and theorbo. It felt more like a history lesson than TIVOM does. Bernstein is at his best when his passion for the music is at the fore. My own feeling about music appreciation is that encouraging such a passionate connection with the music is by far most important; once it's established, the student will be much more motivated to seek out helpful terminology and historical details.

A few years after first reading TIVOM, I managed to get a boxed set of Bernstein LPs that had the TIVOM lecture on a special extra disc. (Reading the transcripts was always a challenge since they are full of musical examples.) I can't seem to find this audio (or better yet, the original video) anywhere else, so I've posted it myself. I also added stills for most of the musical examples from the book. These were hastily created in Finale, and I'm sure there are little mistakes here and there. They don't make for the most scintillating visuals, but I decided against the PBS documentary technique of overlaying a bunch of Bernstein-in-action stills. That always creeps me out, all those slow zooms in on a person frozen in motion. As in the book, the examples are all notated in C to make comparisons easier. At some point I may try to improve these annotations, but that would take exponentially more time than I've already invested, so for now I post as is. Enjoy!

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