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

Question: Walk us through your idea for declassifying rnclassics. 

Leon Botstein: The idea of "Classics rnDeclassified," this series we have at Symphony Space, which we’ve been rndoing for a long time in New York. We did Miller Theater and Cooper rnUnion in years past. Basically the idea is to try to give the audience rnan idea of the context and the character of the piece in a way which rnwould inform their listening without guiding it. There’s a whole rngeneration of music education videos or programs, Leonard Bernstein rnpioneered them with the young people’s concerts. Michael Tilson Thomas’ rnseries with the San Francisco. A lot of those programs tried to explain rnthe piece—take a Beethoven’s symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—and rnto... which everybody knows, and try to explain how it’s put together. rnSo it’s as if you had a video on audio mechanics and someone took the rncar apart. They showed you here is the, here are the pistons and here isrn the wheel and here is the tire and here’s the starter and here are the rnelectronics. This is the transmission. And this is how it works, and rnteach you some basic physics on why the car moves so that you can learn rnsomething about why the car actually moves and works and how it works. rnSo that’s one way of doing it.

We don’t do that. What we do is rnsomething different. We don’t try to simplify a complex subject like rnmusic theory and music form, which... a lot of technical vocabulary, rnwhich most people don’t know. Once upon a time everybody went to, you rnknow, piano lessons in a middle class audience and they knew a little rnbit about, could read music sort of and they could play the piano so rnthey knew the difference between major and minor and you could use some rntechnical vocabulary. 

That’s gone. Most people who grew up with rnpop music and rock music, they play, they do it by ear, they improvise. rnThey don’t know any theory, they don’t know any lingo. So what do you rnwant to talk to them about? They’re educated people. You want to talk rnabout the things that they are interested in that connect to music. So rnwe talk about the politics of the period in which the period the piece rnwas written. We’ll talk about the relationship to literature; to art; torn the problems in the composition; what the piece did for the composer rnbiographically; where it comes from in the composer’s lifetime; what rntheir relationship between music and other issues—they can be rnphilosophical, they can be political, they can be poetic. 

Also rnwhat’s innovative; so in a case of a very well-known piece, like the 5thrn symphony, you want to show a little bit how the piece is put together rnin order to show why Beethoven is special, what has made this piece so rnfamous, and what’s the key to his popularity. Why do people think the rnpiece represents victory? Why do they think the piece represents rnsomething that’s military? Why did Peter Schickele the composer who was arn humorist, narrate a football game using the first movement of the rnBeethoven’s Fifth as a soundtrack? Why did the allies use the opening rnbars as a symbol of victory? Why did this piece become an icon? So you rndo explain a little bit about how the piece is put together.

Butrn you talk more about thinking about ways of thinking about the piece, rnbecause you don’t want to tell the audience how to listen. I’m always rnoffended by program explanations or notes that sort of say, well, here rncomes a trumpet tune and then it changes key and then there’s a rnvariation, so the poor listeners are looking for what someone has taughtrn her or him to look at. So it’s as if take a boat around Manhattan, rninstead of leaving me to look around to see. I might look at the sky; I rnmight look at the water. But they've told me there’s the Empire State rnBuilding so I’m waiting for the Empire State Building to arrive. Then rnthey go around the bend and they tell me, well, there’s the United rnNations. I’m waiting for the United Nations to arrive. Well, I might as rnwell stay at home, you know? I haven’t seen anything on my own.

Yourn don’t want to turn music listening to tourism. Tourism is a fraud. You rnbuy a little guidebook and it tells you to go see the Eiffel Tower in rnParis and that’s all they see. The best thing to do is throw the rnguidebook away and just go for a walk. You’ll discover the place for rnyourself. So what we try to do is help the person discover stuff and rnthink about stuff without giving them answers.
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Jessica Liebman