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 Recording of the Week  Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus Broadcasts

Leonard Bernstein was one of the twentieth century’s greatest musicians: a conductor, composer, author, pianist and teacher - in fact there was very little he couldn’t do. This week I’d like to tell you a bit about the last of those – his teaching – as the Archive of American Television has just released a 4 DVD set of his historic Omnibus US television broadcasts from the 1950s, and I’ve spent several enjoyable evenings this last week watching them.

Bernstein on set
Bernstein on set

Hosted by a very young looking Alistair Cooke, Omnibus featured a wide range of programmes about science, the arts, and the humanities, and Leonard Bernstein was a favourite guest presenting the programmes on music. Between 1954 and 1958 Bernstein made seven episodes on subjects ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Conducting and Jazz. They were some of the first television programmes ever made about serious music, and from the very first episode were hugely popular. Bernstein was both passionate and eloquent, and tackled his topics in imaginative and appealing ways.

These Omnibus broadcasts helped make Bernstein a household name and were the forerunner to his famous Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which ran for a remarkable 53 broadcasts during a fifteen year period. The Omnibus programmes were not aimed at young people, and one area where I think they really excel is in Bernstein’s presentation. They are intelligent and musically stimulating for a classical music enthusiast who already knows a lot about music, but still perfectly approachable and understandable by a novice.

The episode on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is particularly interesting as Bernstein seeks to explain how Beethoven crafted the symphony; playing us numerous rejected sketches and using an orchestra to show what the symphony might have sounded like had Beethoven retained them. The conducting episode is equally illuminating with Bernstein successfully conveying the skills and talents required to make a great conductor, and how subtle changes in gesture and nuance can achieve different responses from the orchestral musicians.

Bernstein was one of music’s best ambassadors and this long overdue set provides the opportunity for everyone to enjoy his excellence as a musical communicator. At the same time you can gain a fascinating insight into the subjects covered which, although over fifty years old, are generally just as relevant now. I’ve given you a sample from his broadcast on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to give you an idea. Enjoy!