Bernstein on the Beatles

April 18, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Reader Tim sent me this video because he knows I love the Beatles—the best rock group of all time. Apparently Leonard Bernstein is at least in partial agreement with me, as in this seven-minute lecture he points out the originality and quality of a few Beatles songs as standing out from what he sees as the musical dross of rock and roll.  He is a bit of a snob about rock, but not so snobbish that he ignores it all (he likes “5% of the whole output”, with the rest “mostly trash”).

The songs he mention include “Good Day Sunshine,” “She Said,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “She Loves You,” “Eleanor Rigby”, “Penny Lane,” “Love to You”, and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  The video appears to cut out then, and there may be more; if you find the rest, let me know.

He concentrates on changes in key and tempo, which irks me a bit, as it ignores the lyrical content of the songs and the beauty of the tunes, and concentrates on novelty of rhythm and key (as well as the use of instruments like sitars and string quartets, but that’s okay. He is, after all, a classical musician (but one who wrote the music for “West Side Story”). At least he singles out the Beatles as opposed to the many other rock groups manqué that have been suggested to me over the years for being “as good as the Beatles.” Of course, none of them are.

26 thoughts on “Bernstein on the Beatles

  1. Penny Lane includes my favorite lyrical bit, likely reflecting an influence of transactional analysis. And though she feel as if she’s in a play/ She is anyway.

  2. Lennie’s correct that the triadic and diatonic vocabulary is less complex that a 7th-chord (or 9-th. 11-th, or 13-th chord) vocabulary is, but that criticism is very weak. **It’s what you do with it** that matters more, and, obviously, the Beatles did more with it than anyone had.

    Also, the chromaticism Lennie misses is still there, at least in Paul’s “granny-music” tunes (John’s term) like “Honey-Pie” (recorded after Len’s video?) and others. And that doesn’t include weird effects like the major third over the minor third in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (“I need a fix . . . .”) and plenty of other interesting harmonies beyond the diatonic and triadic.

    Lastly, Leonardo ignores the inventiveness of the Beatle’s chord progressions, how one chord moves to another in sequence. I could write a book, but others already have.

    No disrespect to Mr. B, as his appreciation went much further than many on the classical side.

  3. I recall hearing an interview with Ravi Shankar in which he was asked what he thought of George Harrison’s sitar playing on Norwegian Wood. Shankar said it was terrible. You can find audio of the interview on youtube.

  4. It seems amazing that Bernstein doesn’t seem to “get” rock music. As our host points out, he evaluates the music in only dimensions that concern a classical musician. He must know that rock music can be appreciated on several other dimensions. I get the distinct impression that this is his attempt to damn rock music via faint praise.

    1. However people who like rock music say the bucket stops there and don’t appreciate yet more, or other dimensions that appear in say, electronic music or metal.

    2. “ only dimensions that concern a classical musician”

      Is there a good example of a music dimension not among those?

      I’m sure you are using “classical” in a more general sense (e.g. the USian sense of the word) than the usual, which is basically most European music composed between maybe 1755 and 1800 (or 1825 if you want to include Beethoven). So Baroque, Romantic, twelve tone, etc., even Medieval European, are included.

      1. By “classical”, I mean only the kinds of music Leonard Bernstein is associated with. I have no interest at all in an argument about what is and what isn’t classical music and how it overlaps, or doesn’t, with other genres.

        Each kind of music represents a particular set of conventions and constraints, a language or culture, with its own characteristics on which it is evaluated by its fans and critics. Bernstein evaluates the Beatles music using criteria which are important to him and his kind of music and not those of rock music. Similar to the “What is classical music?” question, naming dimensions important to rock music and not classical would lead directly into you giving me counterexamples. That would be pointless, IMHO.

        1. Popular music is characterized perhaps by three things:

          1/ The lacking of many “dimensions” which occur in other good but not so popular music, though I’m unsure quite what was meant by Paul’s use the word;

          2/ Extreme repetitiveness, with very little variation–“…do it in the road” perhaps 17 times IIRC;

          3/ the sexual attractiveness of its performers.

          That’s probably in reverse order of likely popularity, measured by the amount of money extractable from the general public.

          As I said earlier, I’ve spent plenty of enjoyable time listening to some of it.

          But I’m surprised that Pink Floyd and Roger Waters haven’t been mentioned here. To me they are up there with the Beatles in enjoyability without too much mental concentration while listening.

        2. “Bernstein evaluates the Beatles music using criteria which are important to him and his kind…”

          I think you forget who he was speaking to. There was an older generation at the time, my parents’, that didn’t like (much less “get”) rock music. They thought it unsophisticated, primitive, and a bit frightening. He’s speaking to those people, not to younger folk who grew up listening to it.

  5. The version in comment #1 (thanks, CSchwing!) clarifies that Lenny’s subject was slightly more broad, something like “rock music” or as he seems to prefer to call it, “pop”. But he returns often to The Beatles, so that the version in the main post was not that much shortened after being edited down to only cover the segments when he discusses them.

    Here’s a sort of related clip called “How much music theory did The Beatles know?” from David Bennett. He brings a little excess attitude, but I think forgivable since he does mostly stay relatable.

      1. I loved that bit at the end! And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the Beatles suddenly jump into the beautiful three-part harmony for “Think for Yourself” from just messing around an instant before. It truly impressed me.

    1. David Bennett’s videos are generally really enjoyable…though he makes me feel OLD!! He recently did a video of his 20 favorite albums, and he said he had to include the caveat that there could be only 1 album per band, otherwise it would be almost entirely The Beatles and Radiohead.

  6. Bernstein’s comment about “mostly trash” rock music is an excellent example of Sturgeon’s Law.

  7. I suspect that Bernstein dislikes the formulaic structure of many rock/pop songs arising from their origins in 12-bar (or 8-bar, etc. etc.) Blues traditions. (Of course, the same charge could be laid at the door of the sonata form.) In the end, I guess that creativity comes down to how you mix obeying and breaking the rules and we all draw the lines in different places.

    1. “….the same charge could be laid at the door of the sonata form”

      But it’s all in the examples. An example:

      For me, in a sense there is perhaps more music in the final three piano sonatas of a certain deaf man by the name Ludwig van B….(something or other) than everything else between when they were written, around 1820 IIRC, and 2020, excepting of course a few minor things the same guy wrote before kicking the bucket around 1827.

      Again for me, an exception could be Mahler’s ‘Der Abschied”, final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, e.g. as recorded by Lenny himself with Christa Ludwig.

      I don’t think there’s much concern about tunes– “the beauty of the tunes”–such as the pap that Diabelli wrote once, and the same guy above perhaps exceeded his examples above with his piano variations on it.

      Really, I’m just trying to work into this some stuff I really think is great.

      But “snob about rock”–no, not at all, I’ve listened to and enjoyed many things there since 1955 before early Elvis really, especially when I’d like to turn off the switch for my brain. Beatles really are as good as any other of these for me (except maybe “Why don’t we do it in the road”).

  8. I loved the Beatles from ’62 onwards and Lennon in particular after the breakup; also George in the Traveling Wilburys. But from a strictly musically inventive perspective I don’t think any of the Beatles can hold a candle to Brian Jones of the Stones, viz; – Last Time, Ruby Tuesday, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint it Black. Just my opinion.

    1. Yes, Brian Jones was a sad loss.

      Not in the same league, of course, but I heard Free’s song “Mr Big” on the radio earlier and the DJ commented on the amazing bass playing of Andy Fraser on that track. When Fraser left the band (for the final time, after an earlier bust-up) following their fifth studio album, and having co-written their greatest songs, he was just twenty years old. Jaw-dropping!

    1. Thanks for this. I followed up these guys on YouTube and listened to their magnificent rendition of ‘ Shine on you crazy diamond ‘.
      Never shall I grow tired of discovering new things on YouTube.

  9. I also recall Bernstein commenting that the only drummer in Rock who could maintain rhythm was Ginger Baker of Cream. I think one of the most amusing comments about Rock music was sung by Peter Paul and Mary:

Leave a Reply