Before you click on the above video–which is actually an audio track a bit more than an hour long–you should know a little about what you’re going to hear. The audio was recorded 53 years ago today, on April 6, 1962, during perhaps the most unusual concert ever of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This was one of the later performances in the 1961-62 season for the Philharmonic, their last season performing at Carnegie Hall before they moved to the new Lincoln Center that next fall. That evening, April 6, was supposed to be a presentation of Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms, a staple of classical performances. The piano soloist, however, was Glenn Gould, a brilliant but very eccentric pianist from Canada. Legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein was conducting. Before Gould came out to play Brahms, however, Bernstein made…this speech. You’ll find it on the video beginning at 0:27 and continuing until 3:48, after which the music begins. This is not a reenactment, but actually what the audience sitting in Carnegie Hall heard that spring night.
The gist of Bernstein’s speech was essentially to warn the audience that Gould’s interpretation of Brahms was a little…weird. Gould was a noted eccentric with many odd habits–for example, he hummed along with music he played, and would only perform while sitting in a special chair that his father made for him–and naturally his interpretation of certain musical pieces was unorthodox. You can gather from Bernstein’s comments that he disagreed strongly in an artistic sense with how Gould planned to play the piece. Yet he went ahead and conducted anyway, citing both Gould’s eminence as a musician and that music should, on occasion, answer a “sportive element” and a spirit of adventure. In other words, he was curious to see what would happen.
In the world of classical music, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often. Indeed, the high-culture press of New York was astir the next morning, not about Gould’s interpretation of Brahms, which was quite unusual and much longer (53 minutes) than Piano Concerto No. 1 should have lasted, but about Bernstein’s comments before the performance. Was he out of line? Did he cut down Gould or embarrass him in front of a packed crowd at Carnegie Hall? Who really is in charge of a live performance–the musician, the conductor, or is it a collaborative effort, and if it is, what happens if they fundamentally disagree? Bernstein’s rant brought forth all these fascinating questions, but resolved none of them. This is perhaps why the story of the April 6, 1962 concert continues to resonate in the history of modern classical music.
Aside from enjoying it greatly, I know little about the world of classical music. Yet I was intrigued by the story of this curious concert, and also excited to be able to hear, through the magic of YouTube, exactly what the audience heard that night. It’s not quite “Stravinsky in space,” but it’s still a pretty interesting little anomaly from the history of music. Gould died in 1982, Bernstein in 1990; the “controversy” over what happened that night lives on.