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Next entry: Charles F. Kettering on education and inventiveness
Previous entry: Why Gerald Hartup deserves an especially Happy Christmas
Wednesday December 26 2007

The November 2007 issue of the BBC Music Magazine featured Leonard Bernstein on its cover, and contained an article by Humphrey Burton entitled “Bernstein the communicator”, which began thus:

imageLeonard Bernstein was a born communicator.  He talked in well-formed sentence when most infants are still gurgling and cooing and he was hardly into his teens before he was teaching younger kids how to play the piano.  Blessed with inspirational teachers both at Harvard and the Curtis Institute, Bernstein always saw himself as an all-rounder: ‘Playing music, writing it, conducting it, talking about it, they’re all aspects of the same thing.’ So in his passport he noted his professiona as ‘musician’ and in his chose field he could never resist putting himself forward in the role of teacher and communicator.  By his third year at the Tanglewood summer school (1942) he was working as Serge Koussekitzky’s assistant, coaching conductors even younger than he was.  His professional career began the next year and he never stopped talking about music, sharing his passion with anybody would would listen.  When he took over the fledgling NY ity Symphony Orchestra in 1945 his obvious flair for communication quickly won him a place on the radio – every week he did interviews about his concert programmes and took part in a popular music quizz.  His voice had an attractive velvety timbre and a distinctive Harvard accent.  He used it to broadcast vivid reports from the front line when he conducted in the new-born state of Israel and in the early 1950s he displayed it effectively as a professor at the new Brandeis University in Boston, teaching seminars in composition and musical theatre.

Then he discovered television, or rather, television discovered him.  There were just three national networks in America in those days, all very commercial, but by statute they were required to provide a modicum of serious content.  The high-minded Ford Foundation underwrote a weekly cultural series on CBS called Omnibus and in November 1954 Bernstein was invited to do a programme about Beethoven’s notebook sketches for the Fifth Symphony.  He began by showing viewers some manuscript pages of the composer’s scribbled first thoughts, describing them as ‘a bloody record of an inner battle’.  ‘We’re going to use only notes that Beethoven himself wrote.’ By orchestrating the rejected material and pinpointing the weaknesses of earlier versions, he was able to reveal the creative process that lay behind the masterpiece.  As the producer Robert Saudek put it later, a new Bernstein was born: ‘television’s star teacher’.

The picture I used for this posting is to be found here.