Saturday, October 1, 2016

Omnibus: How a Great Symphony Was Written (CBS-TV, November 14, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, on the last evening Charles and I had together, we watched a couple of programs about classical music and a feature film. One of the classical music programs was the legendary November 14, 1954 CBS Omnibus broadcast dealing with the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — one of those ubiquitous pieces even people who don’t know much about classical music would recognize from its famous dum-dum-dum-daah “three G’s and an E-flat” opening. Omnibus was a CBS cultural program that aired Sunday afternoons and occasionally ran such high-culture items as this and the only time John Coltrane ever appeared on American commercial television, as part of the Miles Davis group (the same unit that recorded Kind of Blue, but without Cannonball Adderley) playing “So What,” following which the show brought on the Gil Evans orchestra to play three of their band arrangements with Miles. The November 14, 1954 show was Leonard Bernstein, looking shockingly young with thick black hair and a skinny bod and baby face (by the time of the Young People’s Concerts I watched regularly as a kid he’d already gone grey-haired and his face was beginning to take on the leathery appearance he’d have for the rest of his life), showing the process of “How a Great Symphony Was Written” by going over the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, using some of the sketches Beethoven wrote for that movement but decided not to use, and essentially demonstrating the rightness of Beethoven’s choices.

For his demonstration Bernstein conducted an orchestra called the Symphony of the Air, which was actually the final incarnation of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony; when the symphony’s sponsor, General Motors, decided to cancel their sponsorship once Toscanini announced his retirement at the end of the 1953-54 season, the orchestra members decided to continue on their own, organizing as the Symphony of the Air, forming their own nonprofit to raise money and run the business end, and recruiting Bernstein as their first regular conductor. The orchestra did O.K. for the next few years (among other things, they recorded a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concerti with Artur Rubinstein as soloist and Josef Krips conducting for their old label, RCA Victor) but ultimately disbanded in 1963. An Web entry on them,, attributes their quick fall from grace to McCarthyite blacklisting, which began with “character assassination by disaffected orchestra members, including one who was fired for drunken and immoral actions on the first tour and others who objected to the orchestra’s hiring Black and women players.” The schtick of this program was that Bernstein took the two surviving sketchbooks of Beethoven’s that contain elements used in the Fifth Symphony and picked out the sketches that had apparently been intended for the first movement but not used, and plugged them into where Bernstein guessed Beethoven would have put them. The idea was that Beethoven, more than any other composer in history, had a special knack for knowing “what the next note has to be,” but he put himself through the tortures of the damned trying to figure out what that was and he didn’t know it himself until he actually wrote it down and saw whether or not it would fit. (I say “saw” rather than “heard” because by this time Beethoven was almost completely deaf and he had to rely on his aural imagination to tell him what a piece of music — his own or anybody else’s — would sound like from the handwritten or printed score.)

Both Charles and I knew this material from the LP Bernstein later re-recorded of it, though the writing of his narration was tighter and more insightful on the record than it was on this earlier TV version, and some of the things he said on TV required the visual medium to back them up. One of the most telling points he made was that Beethoven’s manuscripts reveal the torment of his inner journey; they’re hastily scribbled and full of cross-outs, and at one point he ran out of room on his music paper for the final version of a passage he’d crossed out several times and wrote the one he wanted at the bottom of the page “as a sort of footnote, leaving his copyists to figure out what he meant,” Bernstein said. “I admire and pity those copyists.” Then Bernstein showed a page of a Stravinsky score, written meticulously and flawlessly — he could have used Wagner as well; with his typical egomania, Wagner seems to have treated his scores as if they would be museum pieces one day, and it’s obvious that both he and Stravinsky made their fair copies themselves instead of entrusting the task of figuring out what they really meant to those admirable and pitiable copyists. Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated by this presentation since I heard it on LP (coupled on the back side with Bruno Walter’s mono New York Philharmonic recording of the complete Beethoven Fifth; the Omnibus presentation ends with Bernstein leading the Symphony of the Air in a start-to-finish performance of the first movement as Beethoven ultimately determined it; there’s a CD edition of the recording but it’s not as useful as it could be because Bernstein recorded the narration in German, French and Italian as well as English, and since the recording was mono the people who produced the CD decided to run each version as a separate mono track, which means that unless your stereo can separate the channels perfectly you can’t hear any one version without getting cross-talk from the other), and actually seeing it was a treat, even though we’d got so used to the old, grizzled Bernstein it’s a shock to see him here and realize that once he really was that young.