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Crossing the Vast Wasteland

"In peace I have found my image,
I have found myself.
In peace I rejoice amongst men
And yet walk alone"

Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper, libretto for Owen Wingrave

When Britten's Owen Wingrave premiered on television on the same night (May 16, 1971) in England, Canada and the United States its pacifist message was received by a huge audience still reeling from the events of Kent State and the continuing atrocity of Vietnam. A performance of Carmen on BBC television in the 1960's was estimated to have been received by more people than the total number that had ever seen the opera on the stage since its premiere in 1875. Television has long had a tremendous potential for the propagation of classical music. In varying degrees it has shaped the perceptions of generations of listeners and contributed to the education of new audiences. Without question television could do much more, however its many contributions should be appreciated. When the musicians' union ban on live performances for telecasting was lifted CBS responded with the first live broadcast on March 20, 1948, a concert by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 90 minutes later, from studio 8H in Rockefeller Plaza, the NBC Symphony responded with an all Wagner program led by Arturo Toscanini. The maestro became the first regular conductor on TV and the camera loved him. With his leonine hair and animated podium manner, Toscanini brought an element of visual excitement to the presentation of classical music. Although concert programming became an occasional feature on television, other orchestras were broadcast with only a fixed camera showing them in a wide shot and telecasting of musical events on such programs as The Voice of Firestone was considered visually static.
Enter Leonard Bernstein. In November 1954 the young conductor appeared on the program Omnibus standing on a gigantic score of the Symphony #5 of Beethoven and began by pointing to the opening four notes with his shoe. As he explained the creative process and Beethoven's struggles, Bernstein illustrated his talk at the piano and by having members of the Symphony of the Air play passages while seated at their particular line on the huge score with the camera shooting from high in the studio rafters. CBS was impressed and booked this born communicator and his New York Philharmonic to present a series of Young People's Concerts from Carnegie Hall. The series was so successful that it remained on the air until 1973 and had a great influence on the musical education of the baby boomer generation (and their parents). Bernstein discussed sophisticated topics (What is Classical Music? What Does Music Mean? What is Rhythm?) and discovered that by not talking down to his youthful audience he could introduce complex concepts and difficult works that would be immediately intelligible. He presented a lecture on Mahler which included a performance of the last movement of the Symphony #4 (an almost unknown work at the time) and was shown beaming as his children sat in rapt attention listening to the song Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) which is its text. Viewing kinescopes of these landmark concerts today, the listener is struck by the easy sophistication of Bernstein and particularly by his unique ability to communicate his unbounded and infectious love for his subject. He was the most identifiable figure in classical music thanks to his TV persona and fueled the musical controversy about whether the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony #5 is a love song or a dirge when he conducted it as a memorial to the murdered Robert F. Kennedy.
The other successful venue for instrumental music was Sunday mornings. Several shows, most notably Lamp Unto My Feet, Look Up and Live, and Camera Three presented serious orchestral and chamber pieces throughout the 1950's and '60's. Artists such as Wanda Landowska, Glenn Gould, E. Power Biggs and Rosalyn Tureck were featured and new works were commissioned of American composers Robert Ward and George Antheil. Many special events were also telecast. The opening of Lincoln Center in 1962 was graced by a performance of Mahler's Symphony #8 with Bernstein and the Philharmonic. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday afternoon in 1963 newly appointed President Lyndon Johnson decreed that there should be no "entertainment" on television for the weekend. The networks presented several memorable classical concerts for the occasion, including one conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Vladimir Horowitz came out of retirement twice for the TV camera. In 1968 he played a program at Carnegie Hall where, under his strict conditions, he was not featured in close-up. Rather the camera attempted to be an integral part of the proceedings, changing angles only when the music took a different turn, or staying in one long overhead tracking shot when an entire movement of a Scarlatti sonata was played in a long legato style. Horowitz also granted CBS the rights to his return to Moscow in the late 1980's and the program Sunday Morning presented his recital live at 10:00 AM Eastern Time (it was late afternoon in Russia). Concert programming continued on NET (National Educational Television, later PBS) but only sporadically and a disturbing trend of the late 1990's was a virtual abandonment of musical performance in favor of specious programs about celebrity musician's lives and touring habits.
Opera, a more visual medium, has fared better. The BBC presented entire operas on television as early as 1937 and had earlier premiered scenes from Albert Coates' opera Pickwick before its world premiere stage performance at Covent Garden. Going off the air for the duration of World War II (the signal could have been used to guide enemy aircraft), "auntie" returned in 1946 and began to broadcast at least five full opera performances a year, teaming with the Glyndebourne Festival in 1951. In addition to the standard repertoire the BBC encouraged the production of contemporary opera including the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin's Tale of Two Cities, which involved three separate studios and over 200 performers, and commissioned operas written directly for the new medium, such as Sir Arthur Bliss' Tobias and the Angel (1960) and Britten's Owen Wingrave. Television had a direct effect on the composition of Wingrave and its intimate setting (and that of its immediate successor Death in Venice) is due to Britten's understanding of the close-up. Further, Britten writes two scenes going on at the same time, one involving Owen and one featuring his cousin Kate (brilliantly portrayed by Dame Janet Baker), a natural for television but hard to translate onto the stage. Many years earlier Billy Budd was performed on American television and had helped to make the composer's reputation across the Atlantic. Despite the pressures of an experimental production (Britten was the conductor at the live broadcast of Owen Wingrave), the composer was deeply committed to send his message that war was "crass barbarism" to as many listeners as possible and so put up with the frustrations of TV preparation.
Since the Hartt School of Music broadcast the first complete performance of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel) in 1942, opera has been a staple of intellectual programming on American television. One composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, began to create works for the new format almost from its inception. The one-act opera The Medium was premiered in 1948 while the amazingly successful Amahl and the Night Visitors was reprised for many years of Christmas performance after its premiere on the NBC Opera Theatre in 1949. Television quickly became a rich venue for the production of rare opera including Gershwin's 135th Street, Resphigi's Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, and the premiere of William Schuman's The Mighty Casey in 1955. Prokofieff's War and Peace was given its American debut in the 1950's on television as was Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead in the 1970's. Also in the '70's NET commissioned the premieres of operas by Thomas Pasatieri (The Trial of Mary Lincoln), Hans Werner Henze (Rachel, La Cubana) and Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington, who unfortunately died while working on his composition.
The first serious attempt at televised opera in America was presented in 1950 by the great baritone Lawrence Tibbett under the title CBS Opera Television Theater. Tibbett was a man of the theater and realized that opera needed to be adapted to the demands of the new technology. He cast singers who looked like their characters and discouraged them from exaggerated stage gestures, supervised the realistic camera angles (the critic Quaintance Eaton had described the Metropolitan Opera as a troupe of "squinty dwarves" after a telecast of Verdi's Don Carlo two years earlier), and insisted on performances in English whenever possible. However, the series was short lived and gave way to the NBC Opera Theatre which began with a performance of Kurt Weill's Down in the Valley in 1950. After the successes of Amahl and Billy Budd, the series scored another hit with Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and commissioned a new opera by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu entitled The Marriage. Opera singers of the 1950's found many televised venues for their performances on such shows as The Bell Telephone Hour, The Voice of Firestone, the Perry Como Show and the extremely popular Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan was a musical illiterate (Roberta Peters was watching the live show at home one Sunday night when she heard him exclaim "Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Roberta Peters…" and another diva came out to sing) but he was able to induce the cream of opera's crop to appear on his program. Americans were treated to Richard Tucker singing Vesta la Giubba from I Pagliacci, Lily Pons performing Je Suis Titania from Mignon, Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi singing Vicino a Te from Andrea Chenier, and Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill in a duet from La Forza del Destino. Sullivan also presented the only appearance on American television of the greatest prize of all, the legendary Maria Callas. Not satisfied with the theater orchestra, La Divina demanded and received the services of the renowned Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for her electrifying performance of the Vissi d'Arte from Tosca. In hundreds of thousands of cases this was the highest art ever experienced by individual American viewers and had to have had an effect on their perceptions about classical music.
NBC Opera Theatre continued its adventurous programming throughout the 1950's. Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street, Griffelkin by Lukas Foss and a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, featuring a new translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman and choreography by George Balanchine, were some of its highlights. The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc was another triumph and established the close-up as a powerful tool for the presentation of intimate operatic settings. Until its demise in 1964 the Opera Theatre continued to introduce outstanding performances of rarely heard works such as Leonard Kastle's Deseret and The Love of Three Kings by Italo Montemezzi. Its role as innovator was quickly supplanted by NET with its 1965 staging of Luigi Nono's controversial Intolleranza and 1967 production of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden. The NET Opera Theater also broadcast programs from around the world (they were the presenters of Owen Wingrave in America) including a CBC Hansel und Gretel and an NHK production of Yasushi Akutagawa's Orpheus in Hiroshima (1971). In recent years PBS has presented Live From the Met and Great Performances, two programs which have presented many mainstream opera productions as well as controversial ones such as the Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez Der Ring des Nibelungen, with its setting of the Rhinemaidens as occupants of a hydro-electric dam, and the lively presentation of Alban Berg's twelve-tone masterpiece Lulu.
Of course not all appearances by opera singers have been high art. The great Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior was in the midst of a Wagnerian solo when he was hit by a cream pie on the Milton Berle Show. The English tenor Richard Lewis directed a scene from Rigoletto sung by Felix Unger and Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple. And Placido Domingo, a passionate baseball fan, dressed up as a giant sock and entertained the crowd at a Chicago White Sox game for Candid Camera. Some television shows employed classical music as a backdrop. Ernie Kovacs, of Hungarian ancestry, performed an entire surrealistic street scene to the third movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and starred in a weekly live commercial for a cigar company to the strains of an Andante Cantabile from a Haydn string quartet. One TV comedy series used classical music as an emblem of its serious underlying message of the horrors of war. On M*A*S*H the character of Major Winchester, played by real-life conductor David Ogden Steirs, had a loving interest in the classics and attempted to bring some beauty into the cesspool of war-torn Korea. Some episodes of note are Colonel Potter's associations of the music of Wagner with the scourge of the Nazis, a discussion of the aesthetics of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children which Captain Honeycutt calls The Dead Children's Glee Club) and a particularly inspirational episode where a wounded soldier puts his life back together after Major Winchester plays for him the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, written for a soldier, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand in World War I. Mr. Steirs later appeared as the conductor on the series Wings (with a theme song from a Schubert piano sonata) discussing Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht with the waitress/cellist Helen Chapel. Hardly normal sitcom fare.
One of the greatest believers in the power of television was the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Not comfortable as a concert performer, Gould retired early and devoted his energies to the performance of music on recordings, on the radio and on television. He appeared on more programs than any other serious musician and had the advantage of living in Toronto from where many classical programs originated. Gould was a fixture on such shows as Yehudi Menuhin's The Music of Man, Off the Record, On the Record, Telescope, World of Music, and his own series Conversations with Glenn Gould and Music in Our Time. He was also an experimenter in non-musical television, producing his own documentary The Idea of North as well as a television documentary about radio and appearing as host of Glenn Gould's Toronto, a bizarre travelogue which features the reclusive Mr. Gould driving around the city (almost never looking at the road) and trying and failing to find landmarks from his past. The film was shot at 5:00 AM, the end of Gould's nocturnal "day", and includes a scene of him singing Mahler songs to the animals at the Toronto Zoo.
As a musical educator TV has attempted to bridge the gap created by the disgraceful abdication of America's public schools. Fred Rogers features his own little operas on his show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and has had such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma on as guests. Bernstein was of course the great educator of the past, but even entertainment shows such as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson often had classical guests like Itzhak Perlman. The Kronos Quartet and other contemporary groups have appeared on PBS but commercial television of the 1990's is indeed a "vast wasteland" for serious music. One genre of programming remains loyal to the classics. Taking their cue from the great Looney Tunes movies of the 1930's and '40's (such as the all-time favorite "What's Opera, Doc?" starring Bugs Bunny) many cartoon shows feature a background of classical music. The Smurfs were always accompanied by the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Grieg and the same type of soundtrack is a regular feature of the Ren and Stimpy Show (more adult fare of a motivic nature, as for example the use of Russian music for scenes of cold and hunger). One of the most creative uses of classical music in cartoons is that of The Simpsons where Lisa can say that her elementary school teacher showed her "…that even the greatest concerto can be stripped of all of its soul and beauty" and where her school band rendition of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony is one of the most hilarious sequences in television history (especially if you were a member of such an ensemble).
The future of classical music may be brighter with the advent of cable channels that specialize in arts programming. Certainly there has been a positive start in that direction in recent years, however there have been some disturbing incidents. The newly appointed chairman of the Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E) recently stated that he was only interested in the “E”. The otherwise interesting Ovation channel has the terrible habit of slicing their musical programming for the insertion of commercials, having little regard for the effects of the surgery, and persisting in playing a truly annoying saxophone solo as their transition which, by all laws of probability, is almost always in an intrusively dissonant key from its immediate auditory predecessor. Unfortunately the percentage of interested viewers is small and the battle for the ratings dollar fierce, but a dedicated group of courageous programmers can make a great difference in the propagation of this noble art form as we enter the new millenium. Let us hope that they are not all swallowed by rampant commercialism.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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