Masterclass: Leonard Bernstein, ‘The Ageless Mozart’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Today I like to share excerpts of a televised masterclass by the famed American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990). Bernstein’s lecture, entitled ‘The Ageless Mozart’ was given in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, Venice on November 22, 1959. Remarks in parentheses are mine. For the full text of the masterclass, see Leonard Bernstein’s engaging book, The Infinite Variety of Music, Amadeus Press, New York, 2007.

Leonard Bernstein: ‘The Ageless Mozart’

“Mozart is all music; there is nothing you can ask from music that he cannot supply. I wish we could perform for you enough of Mozart’s music to give you the range of his emotional palette – such works as the C Minor Mass, the Requiem, Cosi Fan Tutte, the E Flat Symphony, the G Minor Quintet, and so on. But this being impossible, we are going to play for you part of his great piano concertos…two movements, the second and third, from his marvellous Piano Concerto in G Major. [Note: this concerto’s three movements: Allegro, Andante) and Finale, Allegretto].

If I absolutely had to name my all-time favourite piece of music, I think I would vote for the Andante, combining serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity in one great lyric improvisation. You will hear the tranquillity of a Schubert Lied, the filigree of a Chopin, the brooding of a Mahler. And I would like you to be aware, particularly, of the beauty of the orchestration.

This concerto is orchestrally rather modest, even within the already limited frame of the 18th century orchestra. For instance, it employs neither trumpets nor drums nor clarinets; and yet, wait till you hear the wonders Mozart produce with three solo woodwinds, blending like three glorious voices in an operatic trio. Or the rich pathos he can create with a little inner melody played by the violas. Again, even in his orchestration, Mozart has transcended his time.

[At this point, Bernstein conducts the second movement, after which he ends with a short comment on the third movement].

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) – Composer, conductor, pianist, music educator, author, and lifelong humanitarian.

And now, we emerge from the contemplation and mystery of that almost sacred Andante, into the brilliant light of the Finale. Brilliant – that is the word for this marvellous rococo set of variations. The whole movement is bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness, and enlightenment. It is a perfect product of the age of reason – witty, objective, graceful, delicious. And yet, over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s – the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering – a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all the ages.”

Here is the complete Piano Concerto in G Major played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with maestro Leonard Bernstein as the conductor and solo pianist.

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