“In addition to all his scholarship, Leonard Bernstein had a magnetism that is just undefinable,” says Robert Saudek, who produced the Omnibus program on which Bernstein made his television debut on November 14, 1954. “He was a genius. He had boundless energy and lots of chutzpah.
“Put all those characteristics together and you begin to see a little of what he was like. But what he was really like was beyond description. He was an extraordinary person, a one of a kind.”
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25,1918, Bernstein graduated cum laude from Harvard University before beginning postgraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Eleven years to the day before his Omnibus debut, Bernstein, as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was called upon to conduct a concert that by coincidence was also broadcast nationwide by NBC radio. His performance created a sensation, and for the first time Bernstein was in the musical spotlight.
At the time of his Omnibus debut, Bernstein had established a solid reputation as a conductor, composer and pianist. His compositions included the symphonies Jeremiah and The Age of Anxiety and the musical scores for the ballet Fancy Free, the Broadway musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town, and the feature film On the Waterfront.
“Lenny used television as an instrument for serious music and thought, instead of just for a news or an entertainment outlet,” says Saudek. “He gave insight into music to a cross-section of Middle America that couldn't even spell ‘Bach.’”
Bernstein’s appearances on television made him a star in the music world and in 1957 led to his being named music director of the New York Philharmonic, which he conducted in over 400 concerts during his 11-year tenure in that post.
“Lenny was a very theatrical person,” says Saudek, “and from the start we viewed Omnibus as a theatrical event. When he was asked how he happened to be chosen as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lenny said, ‘Television.’”
From 1958 to 1962, CBS broadcast 14 Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic programs. Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, a series of Saturday-afternoon programs, also began in 1958 and continued until 1972. Bernstein was nominated for 12 Emmy Awards, and won seven.
Roger Englander, who produced and directed Young People’s Concert, says, “CBS Chairman William S. Paley engineered that program completely. Part of the deal that made Bernstein music director of the New York Philharmonic provided that he conduct the Young People’s Concert and that the series be televised. One of Bernstein’s tenets was that nothing could be done for the television audience that wasn’t done for the audience in the hall. There was nothing done specifically for television. Everything you saw in the hall was seen at home with a frame around it. That had a great deal to do with the program’s honesty and success. People felt like they were there.
“Lenny made you do more and do it better than you thought you could. The first shows were done live, and Lenny was always very aware of what was going on. He always knew which camera was on, even when it was positioned at a long distance. He wrote all the scripts himself. Whenever we suggested that anybody else work on a script, he would say, ‘Well, I’m saying the words, and I can’t say other people’s words.’ He didn’t say it in a preemptive sense. That was just the way he operated best.”
Englander says that Bernstein’s experience as a teacher at Brandeis University reflected his interest in future generations of music lovers: “He was an incredible teacher because he never condescended to the audience and always made the kids reach. That’s the great secret of being a teacher, and he was an incredible teacher. He used to kiddingly call himself ‘rabbi,’ which means ‘teacher.’ He thought that was the highest achievement that anyone could reach for.”
When Bernstein left the New York Philharmonic in 1969, he announced that he would continue to appear on the televised Young People’s Concert because, he said, “it is among my favorite, most highly prized activities of my life.”
Michael Tilson Thomas, who took over the Young People’s Concert after Bernstein’s last appearance on the series on March 26, 1972, says, “All through his life, Lenny was breaking down categorization in music. Music is only good or not good. How people categorize it is not interesting. Lenny put this idea forward in a much more universal way than anyone had ever presented it.”
Thomas, now principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, says, “When I began to study pieces with him, I recognized what a wealth of ideas and associations he had. It was all the more remarkable to realize that his scripts for the Young People’s Concert were not simply story lines that had been researched, developed and scripted. They were the kinds of things that would pour out of his brain spontaneously.
“When he was teaching, he re-experienced the joy of discovery that he himself felt when he first encountered a piece of music. He so loved to share that with people. He spoke to the camera in a very caring and focused way, as if he were speaking to some very prized student.”
Having first seen Bernstein on Omnibus as a child, Thomas’ appreciation for him grew as they continued their association. “As I saw him work, I appreciated more and more how powerful and amazing he was. At first I thought, ‘Nobody could be this articulate or this special or this energetic or this spontaneous. He is just too good to be true.’ But in the end, I discovered that it was absolutely true. The way he appeared on television was no different from the way he was in real life. He was a colossal figure of energy, erudition and commitment to the best things in culture.”
In 1971, Bernstein signed a contract with Unitel, a German production company, assuring him that nearly all of his future public performances would be filmed. During the 1970s and 1980s, more than 100 Bernstein appearances were filmed by Unitel and aired on The Public Broadcasting Services’ Great Performances series. In 1992 and 1993, a collection of Bernstein’s greatest performances will be issued on videocassettes.
Speaking in 1985 of his work on television, Bernstein said, “The great benefit, for me, is the educational value, not only in the pedagogical sense, but in the best sense of acquainting people with new stuff they can come to love. Bringing music close to people: That has always been my lifelong desire and goal. And I think there is nothing that comes near to television for that purpose. This is the best communicative means and, after all, communication is what television is about.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Leonard Bernstein's induction in 1991.