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On TV, Bernstein Opened A Gateway To Classical Music For Young And New Audiences

AP Photo

Leonard Bernstein relaxes backstage at New York's Carnegie Hall with some of his autograph-seeking fans November 23, 1961

AP Photo

For two decades during his extraordinary career, Leonard Bernstein also played the role of TV star.

Bernstein wrote and appeared in eight televised lectures for adults and 53 concerts for young people as commentator, piano soloist and conductor. The programs were his attempt to make classical music accessible to all.

Take the opening to Beethoven's fifth symphony:

What can you say about those famous four notes? Here’s Leonard Bernstein’s take:

"People have wondered for years what it is that endows this musical figure with such potency. All kinds of silly music-appreciation theories have arisen—I’m sure that you remember some of them for school, that it’s ’V’ for Victory — oh, there are millions of them — and none of them actually tell us a thing. The truth is that the real meaning lies in all the notes that follow it."

Bernstein’s teaching skills and vivid personality helped convert an entire generation of casual American music listeners into avid music lovers. His genius was his ability to cut to the chase; to somehow poke fun at music appreciation while providing one hell of a music appreciation class himself.

"Many of you find Bach simply dull — no, don’t deny it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, because the boredom comes only from the fact that it’s not very easy music to know — and loving it means knowing it. Maybe the trouble is that you don’t get a chance to know it. You don’t hear much Bach."

Bernstein’s solution is straightforward--engaging listeners with examples of the power of Bach’s music.

Bernstein loved a wide spectrum of music, and he did an entire program on jazz.

"We always speak of ‘playing’ music. We play Brahms, we play Bach — it’s a term perhaps more properly applied to tennis. But jazz is real play. It ‘fools around’ with notes, so to speak, it has fun with them. It is, therefore, entertainment in the truest sense."

Whether presenting Bach, Beethoven or Ellington, Bernstein was made for television—good looking, comfortable in the spotlight, a natural entertainer.

"Bach! A colossal syllable, one that makes composers tremble, brings performers to their knees, beatifies the Bach-lover, and apparently bores the daylights out of everyone else."

Bernstein was a born educator. His 15 seasons of Young People’s Concerts — from the late 1950s through the early 1970s — are fondly remembered as the gateway to classical music for countless music lovers.

Nothing like this had been seen before, and nothing since has come close to this stunning achievement. The programs were dubbed into 12 different languages and syndicated in 40 countries, making Bernstein a classical music ambassador and a cultural icon.

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