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Bernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

A-OmnibusBernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

   Back in the 1950s, there a program called “Omnibus,” hosted by one Alistair Cook, flourished on television. The purpose of this show was to educate in a way that entertained but did not talk down to its viewers.

It seems that Leonard Bernstein appeared at least eight times to talk about some aspect of music; and E1 Entertainment, as part of their Archive of American Television, has gathered those eight talks in a boxed set of 4 DVDs titled “Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus.” To any one who loves music in any of its aspects, this collection is a must.

There are two talks on each disc. The first is “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” in which Bernstein uses copies of the composer’s original thoughts and reworkings and inserts them into the final version to show how they weaken it. It is both scholarly and accessible and should serve as a model for all such analyses.

It is followed by “The World of Jazz,” in which Bernstein, who was using jazz in his own Broadway shows, explains its elements and attractions. “The Art of Conducting” reveals the skills and insights a conductor must have just to conduct the opening bars of Brahms’ First Symphony.

The segment called “American Musical Comedy” appealed to me the most, since I lecture on that very subject. Here his main thesis is that stage music began with opera and vaudeville at the extremes, with such formats as the revue, operetta and musical comedy in between, and that after “Show Boat” the distinctions began to blur. In short, the (even then) current musicals were tending towards operatic treatment.

“Introduction to Modern Music” is concerned with the new approaches to the older schools of music. Bernstein aims, not to convert his audience to (say) dissonance, but to make them understand what it is, how it is used, and why.

I was happy to learn that many people find a lot of “The Music of J.S. Bach” boring, because I always felt guilty about doing just that. Thanks to the Maestro, I now know why I do so. But now I also feel I have a better understanding of Bach’s music.

Some will find the opening minutes of “What Makes Opera Grand?” a little disappointing, especially since the original telecast did not use subtitle translations for the foreign language lyrics and those supplied by E1 Entertainment do not show any lyrics in any language. But most of the program is given over to the second act of “La Boheme” in a neat format. Some actors speak an English translation of a segment of the act, and then the scene is done again, sung in Italian with full costumes and orchestration. The conclusions are a bit simplistic but the idea is a good one.

The final segment is simply Bernstein conducting the first two parts of Handel’s “Messiah” without any commentaries. It is interesting to watch, but the 1950s sound makes listening a bit of a chore.

Again, this is a set to cherish for many reasons, for which E1 Entertainment is to be thanked yet again.

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