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Leonard Bernstein Talks About the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot and the Tape Recorder

In one of his 1960 “New York Philarmonic Young People’s Concerts,” Leonard Bernstein talks about the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot, and the Tape Recorder. They’re all new instruments producing new sounds, he says, but the most important is the Tape Recorder. Then he presents to the young audience a Concerto for Tape-Recorder and Orchestra by Luening and Ussachevsky. What if he had thought that the Theremin was the most important? Maybe we could now have a 1960 video of Clara Rockmore playing at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Philarmonic. (Valerio Saggini)

Leonard Bernstein with his sister Shirley in the Green Room at Carnegie Hall after a performance with the Israel Philarmonic, March 1951
Bernstein with sister Shirley in the Green Room at Carnegie Hall after a performance with the Israel Philarmonic, March 1951.

So far, we’ve heard some pretty interesting sounds, old and new ones, but nothing really brand new. After all, the usual instruments of our modern orchestra have been around for a pretty long time; and even those funny percussion instruments we heard in the Brazilian train piece aren’t exactly new instruments, even if they’re unusual: they’re folk instruments that have also been around for a long time.

But what are really new instruments? The saxophone? No – it’s been around for a hundred years or so, even before jazz was invented. The mellophone you hear in school bands? No – that’s just another kind of French horn. No, the really new instruments are electrical ones, or rather electronic ones. I’m sure there are lots of you who understand what that word means. There have been hundreds of experiments going on in our time, trying to invent an electronic instrument that will make a sound unlike anything ever heard before.

Young People’s Concerts TV Series

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic stand among his greatest achievements. These televised programs introduced an entire generation to the joys of classical music. Bernstein conducted his first Young People’s Concert on January 18, 1958, just two weeks after becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Such programs were already a Philharmonic tradition when Bernstein arrived, but he made them a centerpiece of his work, part of what he described as his “educational mission.” Looking back on the concerts years later, he referred to them as being “among my favorite, most highly prized activities of my life.” When he took a sabbatical season from the orchestra in 1964-65, he still came back to lead the Young People’s Concerts. He continued to lead these programs until 1972, even though he had stepped down as director of the Philharmonic in 1969. Bernstein led a total of fifty-three Young People’s Concerts during those fourteen years, and covered a broad range of subjects.

[Source: Amazon.com ]

And since composers are always wanting to make new sounds never heard before, some of them have tried doing it with these new inventions. There’s one such instrument called the Theremin which is used a lot in movie music, especially when they need a spooky effect, or someone is losing his mind. I’m sure you’ve heard it: it has sort of ghostly, trembling sound; and that sound is made electronically, without even touching the instrument with your hands.


Then there’s an instrument with a keyboard called the Ondes Martenot, which also makes pretty spooky sounds (…). [Pencil deleted in the typescript]

But the most important thing that’s been done for new sounds these days is, of all things, the tape-recorder. Imagine an instrument called a tape-recorder! But it is an instrument; only it doesn’t need to be played with a bow or a stick or by blowing into it or hitting it; all you do is push a button and it’s on its own.

It’s amazing how many millions of sounds you can put on tape – a whole new world of sounds.

Anything you want.

There are two ways of putting sound on tape; one is by recording real sounds, like a bottle breaking, crash, tinkle, tinkle – and then play it backwards, so that you hear the tinkles before the crash itself. It’s a weird new sound.

Or you can take that same sound and play it faster or slower or higher or lower, again making a new sound.


Now you can do these things with any other sound: talking or singing or stamping or coughing. Then the second way is to make artificial sound: in other words you don’t record a real sound and then change it; you actually record pure tone that is made by a thingamajig called an oscillator. This is all a very hard scientific business, and I don’t know too much about it myself; but I’ve heard a lot of the sounds and they’re really new and exciting.

Now I warn you, it’s way out. It’s also pretty scary but don’t be frightened by it – it’s only music (…).

That’s what’s called pure tone, not made by any instrument except an oscillator.

Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening while examining some magnetic tapes
Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening.

Now we’re actually going to play for you a whole piece using this strange instrument: A Concerto for Tape-Recorder and Symphony Orchestra. The music is by two composers – that’s pretty unusual in itself. I guess one composer writes more for the machine and the other writes more for the human players, and then they get together and make a single piece out of it. Mr. Ussachevsky is the one who is the tape specialist (…) and he will be operating the machine; and Mr. Luening is the other composer, and I guess he’ll just be listening. (…) This is really new music; in fact it’s never been heard before anywhere because it was especially written for the New York Philarmonic to play on this program. Now I warn you: it’s way out. Here it is – Concerto by Luening and Ussachevsky for Tape-recorder and Orchestra.

[Excerpt from the “Young People’s Concerts Scripts: Unusual Instruments”, March 27, 1960. The Leonard Bernstein Collection, ca. 1920-1989. Copyright the Estate of Leonard Bernstein]

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