A Classical Treasure Trove at YouTube Legendary musicians such as Arturo Toscanini, Maria Callas and Jascha Heifetz might be gone, but their performances are still alive, thanks to YouTube. Commentator Miles Hoffman considers the popular Web site a treasure trove for fans of classical music.

A Classical Treasure Trove at YouTube

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18881714/18905787" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

: YouTube.


MILES HOFFMAN: This particular clip is a clip from 1948 of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven's 9th Symphony. And on YouTube you can find clips of Toscanini. You can find a veritable treasure trove of great old performances by fabulous musicians.

: Sharing YouTube space with Britney and Beyonce and countless recordings of talent shows and grade school recitals are grainy black-and-white clips of Pablo Casals, Maria Callas, Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubenstein, historical jewels posted from all over the world by classical music fans.

Miles and I sat down to view some of these greats together, starting with this film clip of Toscanini.


HOFFMAN: What's interesting to me is the economy of motion that you see. And I think this would be very interesting for young conductors to see, that in a performance you don't have to go into wild gyrations, jumping up and down on the podium. His motions are very, very compact. It's almost more that he's keeping track of things. He doesn't have to put on a big show.

: You know, you're a musician and you're a teacher. When did you discover this?

HOFFMAN: Pretty recently, actually. I have to say it is - well, what's funny is that YouTube itself has only been around since 2005. And what I realized, talking to students all over the country, is that there are so many great artists that they've not seen, they've not heard, and in many cases never even hard of. And you know, I hope that teachers all over the country will give students lists of these links so that they can hear fabulous performers and see them in action.

: Miles, you talk about these being potential learning experiences. I think the one thing that's so different on YouTube than in the past is you can move around very quickly.

HOFFMAN: Yes. I was interested in clips of great violinists who are no longer with us. And I just typed in the name Henryk Szeryng. Henryk Szeryng was a wonderful Polish violinist. And sure enough, up popped a film of Szeryng playing the Brahms Violin Concerto.


HOFFMAN: For young violinists - well, for violinists of any age - to watch Szeryng play, to hear the gorgeous sound he makes, you can learn things. You just see how he uses his arm, what level his elbow is at; I mean at the same time that you're listening to an absolutely gorgeous - of the Brahms Violin Concerto.


: You know, watching this there's the usual commentary that you get on blogs and certainly on YouTube...

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah.

: ...which sometimes, you know, quite nasty, even vicious. And here - at least under this particular one of Szeryng - people are ecstatic.

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. One person says, Such grace and fullness in every note. Another one says, So not boring. I mean, that's great. But you know, you can go to some of these sites and it does get nasty. Actually, when you get into sopranos, it tends to get a little more vicious. People have their favorite singers. And if you go to almost any of the clips that feature Maria Callas, for example...


HOFFMAN: Here's one where somebody says, It would take a complete crackpot to suggest that she was anything but the greatest singer ever heard.


HOFFMAN: And then right below that somebody says, It is an undisputed fact that Joan Sutherland was the greatest coloratura soprano of her generation. So - and again, that is one of the interesting things, Renee. If you just type in the search engine the name of the piece, you can hear the same piece performed by five or ten or fifteen different sopranos or five or ten or fifteen different tenors.

: There is one thing, Miles, though. YouTube has had some issues about copyright infringement on some of the material that has shown up on its Web site. What about in this area? A lot of these are vintage, of course.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I'm not a legal expert, and I think some of these issues are a little murky. What I can tell you is, quoting from YouTube's Web site, from their terms of use. They say that they'll cooperate with copyright holders to identify and promptly remove infringing content.

In practice, I don't know exactly how it works. And some of these clips, which have been viewed thousands and thousands of times, it doesn't seem to bother anybody. But YouTube has had some legal issues, but I would guess that that would be more with contemporary popular artists, where the lawyers are more worried about that sort of thing.

: Miles, what about your favorite? Say you're traveling, you've got your laptop, and you just want to take a peek at it?

HOFFMAN: Well, I know you can't wear one of these computer links out, but if you could I would probably have worn out the link to a duet for tenor and baritone from George Bizet's opera "The Pearl Fishers," sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill. There's really nothing more gorgeous in the world.


HOFFMAN: The one thing that I will say is the danger, Renee, is that you can look up at the clock and find that an awful lot of time has gone by when you've been listening to all these wonderful old clips on YouTube.

: The other thing that one could sort of easily get hooked on are the many types of unexpected performances that you can stumble on.

HOFFMAN: Yes, that's true, too.

: And I have one that'll end this conversation on a smile. It's Luciano Pavarotti with James Brown.

HOFFMAN: James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti. Yes, not quite Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill, but its got its appeal, I'd say.


: I mean, to the side of this are other possible related videos like Pavarotti and Barry White, Pavarotti and Queen.

HOFFMAN: I think Pavarotti sang with everybody.

: Of course he was known for this. He sang with everybody...

HOFFMAN: I was going to say, Pavarotti and Montagne. There we go.


: Miles Hoffman is dean of the School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And he posted a list of his favorite YouTube classical clips at npr.org/music.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.