Judge Jim Thomas doesn't ride the Omnibus; he has his own Omnicar.
And a one-a, and a two-a…
One of the early forays into educational television was Omnibus, which was broadcast, somewhat sporadically, from 1952 until 1961. The show, hosted by Alistair Cooke, wanted to bring great diversity to its audience. The first installment, for instance, featured Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; William Saroyan narrating an adaptation of his short story "The Bad Men"; and the first images of X-ray movies: an inside look at the working human digestive system.
When the producers wanted to do something with classical music, they approached Leonard Bernstein, who in his mid-thirties was already making a name for himself as a composer and a conductor. Bernstein did seven episodes of Omnibus; Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus: The Historic Television Broadcasts includes all seven:
• "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" (1954)
His first episode, on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, is easily the strongest of the lot. Actually, the subject isn't even the Fifth Symphony, but only the first movement. Narrowing the focus event further, Bernstein goes into Beethoven's notebooks and gets some of the themes and motifs that Beethoven had composed for the symphony, but eventually rejected. Bernstein plays the motif on piano, then has the orchestra play the section with the motif worked in, and then he talks about why Beethoven probably rejected that material. By working those rejected motifs back into the symphony, Bernstein effectively demonstrates how the symphony works. The episode also has some great visuals, including the symphonic score painted on the floor so that Bernstein can walk around the score pointing things out, instead of pointing to a cramped score.
Stuff like that make the episodes work; he uses some charts to illustrate how J.S. Bach's music works as well, but sadly, they don't go to the Score on the Floor again; that would have been fun.
Bernstein tends to wander into quicksand with the broader topics, though. "The World of Jazz" in particular is just a bit more than can be covered in a little over an hour. Bernstein lays out the technical differences between classical music and jazz nicely (I now know what a "blue note" is); but the more ephemeral differences fall by the wayside. The problem of scope also hampers the episode on modern music, but he takes a more linear approach that presents modern music part of a natural progression.
Of all the episodes, the hardest sell is certainly "What Makes Opera Grand?" Bernstein claims that opera is populist because it is so direct. Well, yes and no. It certainly was in the time of, say Mozart and Strauss, because they wrote their opera for the languages of their times and places. When those same operas face an American audience, the language barrier, by definition, makes them less direct. That's an issue Bernstein never quite manages to finesse. He ultimately claims that the sheer power of operatic music allows it to transcend the limits of language, so that you only need to have a rough idea of what is happening. In the best of operas—say, Mozart's Don Giovanni—I might be convinced, but that's more a function of the composer's genius than the operatic form itself.
The episode on musical comedy is rather odd in that it spends a lot of time discussing the difference between a musical comedy and operetta, to the point that one could argue that the musical comedy is getting the short end of the stick. Bernstein's fascination with the operetta is understandable, though, when you realize that at the time, the premiere of Bernstein's operetta Candide was only months away.
Trivia: A young Carol Burnett is one of the singers in "American Musical Comedy."
Bernstein himself comes across as a fairly likable guy; he wants to help us understand music better, and clearly spent a lot of time considering how to present the material. At times he comes across as a bit self-serving, particularly in the episode on conducting. It's an odd episode in general, as it's as much an intro to music as it is to conducting. It's funny that he spends a fair amount of time demonstrating how to conduct the various time signatures, particularly since his demonstration bears little resemblance to his own flamboyant conducting style. Once he gets into the meat of conducting, though—that is, the process of interpreting the score—it's quite fascinating, if all too brief.
Video…sucks (but then, you probably figured that out from the screen shots). Granted, we are talking about fifty-plus-year-old video, but it's still pretty bad: blotchy, soft, inconsistent. Audio is somewhat pinched but relatively clear—though there are occasionally patches of static, particularly in the episodes on modern music and opera. As a bonus, the disc includes an Omnibus Christmas performance of Bernstein conducting Handel's Messiah. It's just the performance, without any analysis or commentary, which is why it's considered an extra. Be forewarned—there is a quick panning shot from the orchestra to the chorus that will leave you scrambling for Dramamine.
This is a curious collection. On the one hand, the educational value may be marginal, and it is, shall we say, technically challenged. On the other, it has a fair amount of historical value—as an important piece of the golden age of television, as an artifact of Bernstein's early career, and as the precursor to the broadcasts of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Even in the weaker episodes, Bernstein's passion for the music—and for sharing that passion—comes through with the force of a Mozart aria.
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