Leonard Bernstein

Television's Great Communicator

By Rebecca Paller 

It was a stormy Sunday afternoon in New York City. Bruno Walter had come down with the flu and was unable to conduct the New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall, scheduled for national broadcast by CBS Radio. An announcement was made that his replacement would be the orchestra’s assistant conductor. There were the usual groans from the audience, and then a very handsome—but frightfully pale—young man walked onstage and gave the downbeat for the opening selection, Schubert’s “Manfred” Overture.

From that fateful moment on November 14, 1943, Leonard Bernstein was America’s musical superstar. No other classical musician has ever garnered as much press, as much adoration, or as much controversy…and no other artist has ever attempted to cut across so many musical borders. Besides his legendary conducting career and acclaim as a pianist, he also wrote operas, ballets, Broadway musicals, Jewish liturgical music, and even a mass—which opened the Kennedy Center in 1971.

Throughout the years, Bernstein was never less than a dazzling teacher, whether his “schoolroom” was a television studio or a Harvard lecture hall. He was the first childhood hero of many baby boomers, who sat glued to their living room TV sets during the fifties and sixties while the boyish maestro talked about the lives and music of Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler (and even occasionally ventured into the world of rock). It was Bernstein who was responsible for a resurgence of interest in the works of Gustav Mahler, the “double man” (i.e., composer and conductor) with whom he most closely identified. Bernstein—with his podium pyrotechnics—was never less than a crowd-pleaser wherever he conducted, but it wasn’t until the sixties and his impassioned performances and recordings with the New York Philharmonic of the soul-baring works of Mahler that the music critics were convinced once and for all of his seriousness and his importance as an interpreter.

Of all the twentieth-century composers, only Gershwin and Bernstein have been able to successfully capture the day-to-day pace of New York life in their music—the exuberance, the dissonance, the quirky jazz flavor. In the forties there was the jaunty Bernstein–Jerome Robbins ballet about sailors on leave for the day in Manhattan, “Fancy Free,” which evolved into the musical comedy On the Town. Then came Symphony No. 2 (subtitled “The Age of Anxiety”) and a smash musical about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village—Wonderful Town.                                                                                                   Continues below...

The Brilliance of West Side Story

Bernstein’s supreme achievement as a composer was the 1957 landmark musical West Side Story, about gang fighting in the New York City neighborhood where (ironically) Lincoln Center is now located. From the opening number, when the rival groups—the Sharks and the Jets—literally burst into dance on the stage, Bernstein displayed an uncanny ability to portray the shrill beat of life in the streets. The wonder of it all is that the same composer could then turn around and so beautifully articulate the naïve ecstasy of the doomed young hero Tony upon learning the name of his beloved “Maria.”

Three years before West Side Story arrived on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein wrote and appeared on his first Omnibus telecast, in which he analyzed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, describing the composer’s struggle to create a work of perfection—and “recreating” the composition through his illuminating dialogue and with the visual aid of giant musical notes painted on the floor. It is fitting that this Omnibus telecast was broadcast live on November 14, 1954, exactly eleven years after his sensational Carnegie Hall debut. For the next four decades, Bernstein was an extraordinarily vibrant communicator who spread his love of music via the medium of television—becoming, in large part through his Young People’s Concerts, the most watched conductor of all time.

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Photos: top left: © G. di Majo, Roma; top right: An autographed photo of Bernstein to the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society following his debut at Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1943 (Source: New York Philharmonic Archives); middle, clockwise from the left: Bernstein conducts Young People’s Concert; In this performance, featured in Leonard Bernstein at Harvard, Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (Source: Amberson); Bernstein prepares for a taping at Harvard (Source: Margaret Carson); In December 1972, Bernstein conducts the Harvard Glee Club in “Oedipus Rex” (Source: WGBH); Bernstein talks with author Boris Pasternak following a concert presented by the New York Philharmonic at the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. (Source: CBS Television Network); In December 1972 Bernstein rehearses Ravel’s “Rhapsodie Espagnole.” (Source: WGBH); bottom, clockwise from the left: A rehearsal during the New York Philharmonic’s 1959 tour of Moscow (Source: New York Philharmonic Archives); Bernstein in rehearsal for the Bernstein/Beethoven series; Bernstein at his sixtieth birthday celebration at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts on August 25, 1978 (© 1978 Richard Braaten)