The Joy of Music Essay - Critical Context

Leonard Bernstein

Critical Context

The Joy of Music, in particular the Omnibus scripts, was an immense success. Many people who later became professional musicians made their career decisions as a result of watching Leonard Bernstein on television in the 1950’s. He did not talk down to his audience, and he analyzed music with contagious enthusiasm. Moreover, he did not exhaust his topics. Each show served as an introduction, a glimpse of infinite possibilities for further exploration. Bernstein’s next television series, his Young People’s Concerts, was translated in 1962 into the more easily studied book-and-record form. More than a decade later, in 1973, Bernstein again reached a tremendously large international audience with his six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Entitled “The Unanswered Question,” after a composition by American composer Charles Ives (1894-1954), the series is a vindication of tonal as opposed to atonal music.

Bernstein was a pianist, composer, conductor, and brilliant music analyst. Most of his prodigious output was in composition. Many people know him for the memorable tunes in the Broadway show West Side Story (1957) and for the more serious Chichester Psalms (1965), commissioned for Chichester Cathedral in England. Bernstein did much for music in America. His Fanfare I (1961) was written specially for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Bernstein also conducted the New York Philharmonic to capacity audiences from 1958 to 1969.

The Joy of Music was the first manifestation of his rare ability to convey extraordinary analytical insights to large audiences from the general public. In a tribute written for the occasion of Bernstein’s seventieth birthday in 1988, Humphrey Burton, former head of Music and Arts for the BBC, said The Joy of Music “should be on every music lover’s bookshelf.”