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Collection Leonard Bernstein

Section 3

Generally, Bernstein's earlier shows are pedagogically the most ambitious, and the most concerned with issues of American identity. They are likely to consider such general subjects as "What Does Music Mean?," "What Is Classical Music?," and "Humor in Music." The later shows incorporate fewer contemporary or American works. Bernstein is more likely to play and discuss a single big piece from the week's subscription concerts. "Berlioz Takes a Trip" is one example; others examine Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, Liszt's Faust Symphony, and— Bernstein's final Young People's Concert, telecast March 26, 1972—Holst's The Planets.

By this time, Bernstein's best television work was behind him. I refer not only to the early Young People's Concerts but to the programs he wrote and hosted for Omnibus, Ford Presents, and Lincoln Presents between 1954 and 1962 (and which are not at this writing destined for the home video market). 4 Bernstein's debut studio telecast, "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" (November 14, 1954), demonstrates a more elaborate, more creative use of the medium than the Young People's Concerts (all of which were concert hall presentations for a live audience). Bernstein stands on a huge reproduction of page one of Beethoven's score and admires its famous four-note motto underfoot. To illustrate the twelve different instruments Beethoven employs, Bernstein has a dozen musicians stand on the appropriate staves; to illustrate how the conductor's eye must "follow all the instruments simultaneously," he has the musicians walk slowly across the page.

Partly because he need not present himself as an orchestral conductor, Bernstein in the studio explores an even more catholic range of subjects than he does for young people. His most personal investigations are of musical theater: the linked worlds of Broadway, operetta, and opera. An ingenious example is "The American Musical Comedy" (October 7, 1956). At the age of thirty-eight, Bernstein on television is suave and yet a neophyte; his slightly fidgety excitement—a restless cigarette dangles from his mouth—complements a touching innocence. "The glittering world of musical theater is an enormous field that includes everything from your nephew's high school pageant to Götterdämmerung," he begins.

And somehow in that great mass of song and dance and drama lies something called the American musical comedy—a magic phrase. We seem to be addicted to it; we pay enormous sums to attend it; we discuss it at breakfast and at cocktail parties with a passion otherwise reserved for elections and the Dodgers. We anticipate a new musical comedy of Rodgers and Hammerstein or of Frank Loesser with the same excitement and partisan feeling as Milan used to await a new Puccini opera, or Vienna the latest Brahms symphony. We hear on all sides that America has given the world a new form—unique, vital, inimitable. Yet no one seems to be able to tell us what this phenomenon is. Why is Guys and Dolls unique? What makes South Pacific different? Why can't Europe imitate Pajama Game? Is My Fair Lady a milestone along the road to a new form of art?

Carried away by the audacity of such sincere hyperbole, Bernstein pokes fun at Europe. In a musical show, he explains, dialogue would impart that "Chicken is up three cents a pound." In opera, where everything is sung, this becomes the business of recitative—and Bernstein sings, à la Mozart, "Susanna, I have something terrible to tell you. I've just been talking to the butcher, and he tells me that the price of chicken has gone up three cents a pound! Please don't be too depressed, dear." There follows a pocket history of American musical theater, a polemic of New World promise and achievement anticipating "What Is American Music?" some sixteen months later. Bernstein starts by sampling "You Naughty, Naughty Men" and other primitive ditties from the first American hit musical, The Black Crook of 1866. Offenbach, Johann Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan led Americans toward operetta; one result was Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta, Eileen, and The Red Mill—in Bernstein's opinion, shows achieving "a new level of musical accomplishment," and yet "fancy and somewhat remote from the audience's experience."

Meanwhile, "just across the street," the revue was a more vernacular entertainment infused with jazz. This "childhood" stage of American musical theater ripened to adolescence in the 1920s, whose composers, a "sensational array," included Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Gershwin. A decade later—"young manhood"— Broadway began to fuse operetta and popular song. Here Bernstein and his singers contrast the similarly plotted first act finales of The Mikado and Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing, switching back and forth, episode by episode, to argue an equivalent technical mastery. Finally, the high/low synthesis, and American specialty, is consummated by Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, and Kurt Weill—as well as by Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose South Pacific, according to Bernstein, attains a "new sophistication" in the sung introduction—a sort of double soliloquy, neither song nor recitative—to "Some Enchanted Evening." All this conditions Bernstein's culminating hyper-claims—that "for the last fifteen years we have been enjoying the greatest period our musical theater has ever known," that "a new form has been born," that

We are in a historical position now similar to that of the popular musical theater in Germany just before Mozart came along. In 1750, the big attraction was what they called the Singspiel, which was the Annie Get Your Gun of its day, star comic and all. This popular form took the leap to a work of art through the genius of Mozart. After all, The Magic Flute is a Singspiel; only it's by Mozart. We are in the same position; all we need is for our Mozart to come along… And this event can happen any second. It's almost as though it is our moment in history, as if there is a historical necessity that gives us such a wealth of creative talent at this precise time.

(A mere second later, the following August, West Side Story—another Bernstein version of the American melting pot—opened on Broadway.)

An inspired sequel to "American Musical Comedy" is "The Drama of Carmen," for Ford Presents (March 11, 1962). Bernstein juxtaposes the interpolated dialogue of the original score with the recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet's death, and universally adopted by opera houses in Europe and the United States. Guiraud, as Bernstein demonstrates, simplified details of plot and characterization. Unlike Guiraud's prissy Don José, Bizet's José has murdered a man. And Bizet's Carmen, more complex than Guiraud's, is a "true beatnik" who "sees life as a drama." What is more, Bizet's way of moving from speech to song—"I won't say a word," Carmen tells Zuniga by way of launching a wordless chanson—opens a creative synapse. The subtext of Bernstein's exercise, of course, is that the real Carmen is not grand opera, but a near cousin to American musical comedy. Its use of dialogue furnishes expressive possibilities foreclosed once the alternation of speech and song is abandoned. By way of appreciating French opéra comique, Bernstein celebrates Broadway.

And yet his final television classroom, eleven years later, reveals a different Bernstein: embattled, self-conscious, ambivalent. Enchanted evenings of Rodgers and Hammerstein seem long forgotten. Mahler, once a symbol of "pure emotions," now symbolizes death. In the intervening decade, Bernstein had changed; and so had his America.


  1. Scripts for twelve of these may be found in Bernstein's books The Infinite Variety of Music (1966, and just reissued by Anchor Books) and—a superior collection—The Joy of Music (1959, to be reissued by Anchor Books in February 1994). The programs themselves, as well as Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, may be viewed at New York's Museum of Television and Radio. [Return to text]

(Article reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books External. Copyright © 1993 NYREV, Inc.)