Leon Botstein
President, Bard College & Music Director, American Symphony Orchestra

Giving Context to Classical Music

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Leon Botstein explains why his "Classics Declassified" is akin to discovering a new city by wandering around.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is a conductor and academic known for his innovative programs and interest in contemporary and neglected repertory. He was a violin student of Roman Totenburg and studied conducting with James Yannatos, Richard Wernick, and Harold Farberman. He pursued dual careers in academics and music and became a teaching fellow in general education at Harvard University from 1968 to 1969, and then a lecturer in the department of history at Boston University in 1969. Meanwhile, he began conducting and from 1973 to 1975, and he was the principal conductor of the White Mountain Music and Arts Festival. In 1975, he became president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a position he still holds today.
Question: Walk us through your idea for declassifying classics. 

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 technical vocabulary. 

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. 

Also 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.

But 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.

You 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
Jessica Liebman
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