Lenny and me: memories of Bernstein

He made his name with West Side Story, but Leonard Bernstein was also one of the 20th century's greatest music teachers. This, says his friend and colleague Humphrey Burton, is his greatest legacy

Half a century ago, in May 1959, the Monitor studio at London's Lime Grove was buzzing. Leonard Bernstein was to appear that night along with the cast of his new musical, Candide. The BBC's arts flagship was in its second season; I was the junior director in the production team, and, as the only one with musical training, I was assigned to look after the already legendary "Lenny".

I had seen kinescope recordings of his early Omnibus shows for US television, and had marvelled at his skill in mixing plain talk with musical insight. He'd already been in charge of the New York Philharmonic for a year but was better known as the brilliant composer of the jazzy West Side Story, which had taken London by storm the previous autumn.

On air, and "live" – as everything was in those distant days – Bernstein was angry as hell with the Sunday Times theatre critic (Harold Hobson) who had had the temerity that morning to write that Candide's co-author, playwright Lillian Hellman, lacked a sense of irony. Bernstein was merciless in his derision: "Gutter press," he growled. He was also put out when the interviewer suggested that perhaps success had come to him too easily. Nothing was easy for him, he responded. "I'm extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time."

I can vouch for the truth of that. Although he cracked Jewish jokes like a standup, he never stopped thinking about music: playing it, writing it, teaching it. It was all one thing for him, all part of being a musician – the word he used to describe himself on his passport.

Maybe because he liked the way I argued the toss with him, I was invited to visit Bernstein, his wife and their young family in New York. Over the next 30 years, while the rest of my working life veered between ITV and the BBC, I directed more than 200 TV projects with him, ranging from the Verdi Requiem in St Paul's Cathedral to the 1989 Freedom concert in Berlin celebrating the reunification of Germany.

Bernstein's grandfather was a rabbi, so the urge to teach was in his blood: he called it a "lurking didactic streak", and occasionally it took centre stage, as in the famous Young People's Concerts and the Norton lectures at Harvard. His father wanted him to go into the family hairdressing business and refused to pay for fancy piano lessons, so young Lenny raised the cash he needed by teaching piano to neighbourhood kids at $1 an hour. But teaching as a career was never going to satisfy him, and at Harvard, he discovered his true metier: composing and conducting.

He headed the conducting school at Tanglewood from the 1940s onwards and taught graduate classes at the newly founded Brandeis University in Boston. He provided musical analyses for a Recording of the Month club and even appeared as a panellist on radio quiz programmes. But his fame and influence expanded dramatically when, in 1954, Omnibus – a regular weekly cultural series – hired him to deliver a TV lecture (with a symphony orchestra in the studio) about the creative process revealed by Beethoven's sketchbooks.

"We're going to perform a curious and rather difficult experiment," he told his viewers, who were numbered in millions, since there were then only three TV networks. "We're going to rewrite the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Now don't get scared: we're going to use only notes that Beethoven himself wrote." The studio floor was painted with the first page of the score. The camera craned down to the V for Victory motif, which he pointed out with an elegant black shoe. "Three Gs and an E flat!" he exclaimed. "Almost every bar is a direct development of those opening notes."

Television was his natural medium, and not just for performance; Lenny talked to the camera as to a friend. For children's concerts, he would sometimes use Beatles songs as illustrations, demonstrating musical ideas such as modes. And for a grown-up essay about music, style and language, he improvised cod recitative (concerning the rising price of chicken) in the style of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. I never had a more inspiring teacher.

When he took over the New York Philharmonic in 1958, Bernstein expanded his television appearances to include more basic musical education in the form of Young People's Concerts, a somewhat fusty format which he re-energised. Thanks to his celebrity as a TV pundit, he could write those concerts into his contract as music director: there were to be four a year, live on Saturday mornings at Carnegie Hall, and shown to the nation via network TV. Over the next 13 years he tackled a host of subjects, from the most basic – the very first was titled What Does Music Mean? – through to sonata form, tonality, modes, orchestration.

Bernstein's flair for vivid, uncondescending language had a lot to do with the fact that he had small children of his own. Jamie was born in 1952, just a year after he married Felicia Montealegre; their son, Alexander, followed in 1955. Nina was born in 1962. Her intimate and revelatory film about her father, A Total Embrace, will be screened on Sunday at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the Bernstein project.

At the age of 50, Bernstein retired from the Philharmonic, intending to concentrate on composition – but teaching was still in his blood. He went back to Tanglewood every year to work with young conductors and composers. When he signed up with German TV to film all of Mahler's symphonies, each production included rehearsal footage for study and analysis. His grandest educational venture came in 1973, when Harvard invited him to deliver the Eliot Norton lectures, previously given by such luminaries as Stravinsky, Hindemith, Eliot and Auden.

Inspired by Noam Chomsky's book Language and Mind, he went back to the subject of his first Young People's Concert: what does music mean? The six lectures were flamboyant one-man shows lasting all evening, in which he played, sang and conducted, with a grand piano on stage. "All my life," he told the undergraduates (and TV viewers around the world), "I have been haunted by the notion that there is a worldwide inborn musical grammar comparable to Chomsky's idea of an inborn set of rules for creating and responding to language." Borrowing from Charles Ives, he called the talks on musical semantics The Unanswered Question.

Lenny could be an infuriating collaborator, insisting on rewrites up to the last minute before transmission. I told him more than once that he had a whim of iron, but in the end he always found the mot juste. Perhaps the most moving of all documentaries about him is the last, Sharing, filmed in Sapporo when he inaugurated the Pacific music festival a few months before his death. He told the audience: "I have decided to devote most of the energy and time the Lord grants me to education, sharing as much as I can with younger people." Pale and wavering of voice, he spoke of education as a way of finding one's self, "knowing who you are and doing the best possible job". Not a bad epitaph for a great teacher.


Humphrey Burton

The GuardianTramp

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