Bernstein Explains Beethoven's Fifth - Part 3

NOTE:  Due to its age, the first few seconds of this clip are grainy.  Be patient ... things are back to normal immediately thereafter.

It hardly seemed likely that important news would come out of Carnegie Hall on that Sunday afternoon.  It was the 14th of November, 1943, and World War II was still raging.

As David Ewen relates, in his biography of Leonard Bernstein:

The world was at war. . . Surely, if some piece of news would arrest the interest and  the excitement of the American people when they opened their favorite newspaper on Monday morning, November 15, it  would come out of some field of battle.

Except ... the big news of the day came from New York City and a Carnegie-Hall concert which took place the day before.  A fill-in conductor (replacing Bruno Walter) had led the New York Philharmonic in a majestic performance:

But what the Philharmonic audience in the hall (and the radio public throughout the country) did not know until concert  time was that Bruno Walter was sick in bed and that a last-minute substitute had been called in hurriedly. This replacement was no familiar veteran of the baton. He was a young American of twenty-five named Leonard Bernstein, who had just that season been appointed assistant conductor of the Philharmonic.

Inside Carnegie Hall, the audience saw a strikingly handsome youth looking more like a college undergraduate than  a full-fledged maestro stride vigorously, if also somewhat self-consciously, across the stage. He was wearing an ordinary gray business suit instead of formal attire. There was no baton in his hand as he lifted it over the orchestra for the first down-beat. He presented a picture of informality, almost as though he were about to direct a high-school orchestra in an assembly instead of one of the world's greatest orchestras in one of the world's most renowned concert auditoriums.

The opening three chords of Schumann's Manfred Overture pierced sharply through and shattered the expectant hush that had flooded the hall. The young man's supple, expressive hands seemed to shape the tones in midair as if they were a piece of clay being molded into a statue. As the overture progressed he revealed himself as a musician who knew what he was about.

The beat was efficient, exact, precise. The cupped hand vibrated eloquently near his heart. The graceful motions of both hands continually suggested changing shades of color and nuances. Here was a conductor who, as the saying goes, did not have his head in the score but the score in his head. He hardly glanced at the printed page before him. Indeed, his eyes were closed; the mobile, eloquent face reflected sensitively all the moods and emotions of the music; the body moved with suppleness.

Not a moment of doubt, not a suggestion of uncertainty or confusion entered into his conducting for the remainder of that program. He seemed to know precisely what he wanted, both from the music and the musicians, and his demands were fulfilled almost as if in reflex action.

It did not take long for that audience in Carnegie Hall (or the nationwide radio public either) to recognize that they were in the presence of that rara avis in music, a "born conductor."  This young man knew his scores, could completely dominate the musicians under him, and was able to charge the atmosphere about him with magnetic sparks and transmit currents of electricity throughout the auditorium.

When the concert ended, the cognoscenti gathered in little groups outside Carnegie Hall. Some lingered on for a while in the street. Some gathered for cocktails at the Russian Tea Room a few doors down, Some dropped in for a cup of coffee in the drugstore on the corner. All the talk everywhere in or about Carnegie Hall seemed to concentrate on the exciting youngster who had just made such an impressive debut.

By now the word had circulated swiftly that before that day Bernstein had never conducted a major orchestra. More wonderful still, he had directed the exacting program of that afternoon on less than twenty-four hours' notice, without the benefit of a single rehearsal! Some people surmised that probably he was the youngest man ever to direct the Philharmonic, which actually was the case. Others, in a somewhat more flippant mood, remarked that another fact had set this concert in a class by itself: surely nobody before had led the august Philharmonic dressed in a business suit!

Thus was born the public career of one of Beethoven's most respected modern interpreters:  Leonard Bernstein.

See, also:

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 1

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 2

Bernstein Explains Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Part 4

Media Credits

Video clip of Bernstein explaining Beethoven, online via YouTube.

Quoted passages from the prelude of Leonard Bernstein:  A Biography for Young People, by David Ewen.

All of Bernstein's historic broadcasts for the Omnibus program were released on DVD in January of 2010.  Copyright, Omnibus, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the production.


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"Bernstein Explains Beethoven's Fifth - Part 3" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Oct 22, 2019.
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