Question: Walk us through your idea for declassifying
Leon Botstein: The idea of "Classics
Declassified," this series we have at Symphony Space, which we’ve been
doing for a long time in New York. We did Miller Theater and Cooper
Union in years past. Basically the idea is to try to give the audience
an idea of the context and the character of the piece in a way which
would inform their listening without guiding it. There’s a whole
generation of music education videos or programs, Leonard Bernstein
pioneered them with the young people’s concerts. Michael Tilson Thomas’
series with the San Francisco. A lot of those programs tried to explain
the piece—take a Beethoven’s symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and
to... which everybody knows, and try to explain how it’s put together.
So it’s as if you had a video on audio mechanics and someone took the
car apart. They showed you here is the, here are the pistons and here is
the wheel and here is the tire and here’s the starter and here are the
electronics. This is the transmission. And this is how it works, and
teach you some basic physics on why the car moves so that you can learn
something about why the car actually moves and works and how it works.
So that’s one way of doing it.
We don’t do that. What we do is
something different. We don’t try to simplify a complex subject like
music theory and music form, which... a lot of technical vocabulary,
which most people don’t know. Once upon a time everybody went to, you
know, piano lessons in a middle class audience and they knew a little
bit about, could read music sort of and they could play the piano so
they knew the difference between major and minor and you could use some
That’s gone. Most people who grew up with
pop music and rock music, they play, they do it by ear, they improvise.
They don’t know any theory, they don’t know any lingo. So what do you
want to talk to them about? They’re educated people. You want to talk
about the things that they are interested in that connect to music. So
we talk about the politics of the period in which the period the piece
was written. We’ll talk about the relationship to literature; to art; to
the problems in the composition; what the piece did for the composer
biographically; where it comes from in the composer’s lifetime; what
their relationship between music and other issues—they can be
philosophical, they can be political, they can be poetic.
what’s innovative; so in a case of a very well-known piece, like the 5th
symphony, you want to show a little bit how the piece is put together
in order to show why Beethoven is special, what has made this piece so
famous, and what’s the key to his popularity. Why do people think the
piece represents victory? Why do they think the piece represents
something that’s military? Why did Peter Schickele the composer who was a
humorist, narrate a football game using the first movement of the
Beethoven’s Fifth as a soundtrack? Why did the allies use the opening
bars as a symbol of victory? Why did this piece become an icon? So you
do explain a little bit about how the piece is put together.
you talk more about thinking about ways of thinking about the piece,
because you don’t want to tell the audience how to listen. I’m always
offended by program explanations or notes that sort of say, well, here
comes a trumpet tune and then it changes key and then there’s a
variation, so the poor listeners are looking for what someone has taught
her or him to look at. So it’s as if take a boat around Manhattan,
instead of leaving me to look around to see. I might look at the sky; I
might look at the water. But they've told me there’s the Empire State
Building so I’m waiting for the Empire State Building to arrive. Then
they go around the bend and they tell me, well, there’s the United
Nations. I’m waiting for the United Nations to arrive. Well, I might as
well stay at home, you know? I haven’t seen anything on my own.
don’t want to turn music listening to tourism. Tourism is a fraud. You
buy a little guidebook and it tells you to go see the Eiffel Tower in
Paris and that’s all they see. The best thing to do is throw the
guidebook away and just go for a walk. You’ll discover the place for
yourself. So what we try to do is help the person discover stuff and
think about stuff without giving them answers.
Recorded on May 10, 2010