In this musical essay, Leonard Bernstein recollects and relives his experiences with the music of the great Viennese composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Bernstein filmed all of Mahler's ten symphonies for Unitel as well as Das Lied von der Erde and the Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The vocal soloists of these productions, Dame Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Edith Mathis, Lucia Popp and Walton Groenroos, underscore Leonard Bernstein's elucidations with appropriate music examples. The recordings with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra were made in Tel Aviv, those with the London Symphony Orchestra in the Cathedral of Ely and those with the Wiener Philharmoniker in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, in which Gustav Mahler himself conducted.
The Little Drummer Boy illustrates the fundamental concepts of Leonard Bernstein's interpretation of Mahler's works, and exposes not only the building material and framework of Mahler's brilliant structures, but also the tensional pulls within them. Searching for the musical roots and the hidden truths guiding the composer, Leonard Bernstein discovers the key to Mahler's music in the composer's repressed Jewishness. Starting from the song Der Tambourg'sell (From Des Knaben Wunderhorn, written in 1899), Leonard Bernstein spans a broad arch over all the symphonies and concludes with Mahler's last and greatest song, the Lied von der Erde (1910).