This series of concerts is a truly wonderful achievement. It must surely rank among the finest treasures of the television medium.
Bernstein aside from being a brilliant musician is a wonderful teacher. To think that these concerts were conceived for children. In today's context this would probably be more suitable for the general adult music lover, someone with at least a modicum of musical knowledge. I'm not sure how today's children would respond to them, especially with their dated look and relatively dry subject matter.
The concerts technically are not concerts at all but music appreciation classes, led by a brilliant maestro, full of passion for his subject and backed by a superlative orchestra. The topics covered range from the disarmingly simple like "What is a Melody?" to the simple yet profound, "What does music mean?" Does music have meaning? He covers standard music subjects like sonata form, symphonic music, concerto form and tries to define what is classical music. In all these subjects, he is never anything less than compelling. He also explores little discussed topics like the significance of intervals and the concept of modes. One drawback of the TV broadcast format is that he is limited to a mere one hour to explain each topic. By the end of the session on musical modes he is so pressed for time he can only zip through the the remainder of his notes. In the episode on Folk Music, he touches on the relationship between language and music, a theme he would pursue in far greater depth and length in his Harvard Lectures of 1973. The other aspect of the concerts is the introduction of lesser known composers to his young audience. Particularly treasurable is the episode on Mahler. Bernstein, the long-time champion of Mahler, spends the entire hour introducing his young audience to the then obscure composer's works, this at a time when even regular concert-going audiences were unfamiliar with them. The other episode among this group that stands out is his tribute to Aaron Copland in "What is American Music?". Bernstein proclaims Copland as the greatest living American composer and has the man himself conduct exerpts from his Third Symphony. Unfortunately Kultur has omitted another episode devoted entirely to Copland, "Aaron Copland Birthday Party" which discusses Copland's lesser known works and has the composer himself conduct his famous El Salon Mexico. Among Bernstein's many guests, are the great soprano Christa Ludwig and the baritone Walter Berry, featured in the 125th joint anniversary of the New York and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras - "A Toast to Vienna" (Christmas 1967). Other guests include the Israeli soprano Netania Devrath singing Villa Lobos' haunting Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. My favorite surprise appearance was by Marni Nixon, the unjustly uncredited singing voice behind Hollywood's greatest musicals (she was the singing voice for Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King & I). Here we get to see her in the flesh, singing exerpts from Canteloube's achingly beautiful Songs of the Auvergne. The series fittingly ends with Beethoven's operatic paean to freedom, Fidelio.
On the technical side, much leeway has to be given because the picture quality varies from downright poor to above average (for its period). The earliest concerts have problems with lens distortion which create an effect similar to looking through a goldfish bowl. One must understand that when these concerts began, way back in the Fifties, television broadcast technology was relatively primitive. There was no such thing as videotape. To record a live concert broadcast for later transmission or for posterity, they used a primitive technology called kinescope recording. Essentially this entailed putting a film-based motion picture camera in front of a TV screen and capturing the moving images from the TV screen onto film. That was their version of the videotape. Hence the poor quality of the initial few episodes. However, quality gets progressively better until eventually color is introduced in the Nov 1967 concert. Only the last six concerts are actually in color. Still, you're not buying this set for how beautiful the picture looks. Soundwise, it is mostly in mono but helpfully remixed to 2.0 and 5.1 surround. A pleasant surprise is that the final two concerts are actually recorded in native dual-channel stereo - and pretty effective stereo at that. Overall, the sound is not great but more than acceptable for its purpose.
My only regret with this set is that it contains just 25 out of the total of 53 Young People's Concerts that Bernstein actually gave. Here is a listing of the episodes contained in the set:
1. What Does Music Mean?
2. What is American Music?
3. What is Orchestration?
4. What Makes Music Symphonic?
5. What is Classical Music?
6. Humor in Music
7. What is a Concerto?
8. Who is Gustav Mahler?
9. Folk Music in the Concert Hall
10. What is Impressionism?
11. Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky
12. What is a Melody?
13. The Latin American Spirit
14. Jazz in the Concert Hall
15. What is Sonata Form?
16. A Tribute to Sibelius
17. Musical Atoms: A Study in Intervals
18. The Sound of an Orchestra
19. A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich
20. What is a Mode?
21. A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time
22. Quiz-Concert: How Musical Are You?
23. Berlioz Takes a Trip
24. Two Ballet Birds
25. Fidelio: A Celebration of Life
Some episodes not found on this set include:
Anatomy of a Symphony Orchestra
Charles Ives: American Pioneer
Farewell to Nationalism
Holst: "The Planets"
Liszt and the Devil
Modern Music from All Over
Overtures and Preludes
The Genius of Paul Hindemith
The Road to Paris
The Second Hurricane
Thus Spake Richard Strauss
Hopefully Kultur will release these and the remainder soon.
For those who may be interested, the transcripts for most of these concerts are available online either from the Library of Congress (Leonard Bernstein Collection) or Leornard Bernstein's official website. The LoC has high quality color scans of all the handwritten manuscripts and typewritten transcripts bequeathed to it by the Bernstein estate, complete with Bernstein's barely legible scribblings and annotations.