“He loved to educate – to learn himself and pass it on.”
TV director Humphrey Burton reminisces about Leonard Bernstein
Humphrey Burton, a friend and colleague of Leonard Bernstein for thirty years, is a noted British television director and host who has won many international television awards, including four Emmies and three British Academy awards. He directed the vast majority of Unitel’s Bernstein productions and wrote what is considered by many as the definitive biography of Leonard Bernstein (Doubleday, 1994).
What are your thoughts about Mr. Bernstein’s early television productions?
I think that the Omnibus programs he made between 1954 and 1958, as well as the programs he made with the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1962, are among the most important arts programs made by anybody anywhere. I suggested that he do them again, but he said no, they were a young man’s work, and he wouldn’t do them the same way. One of his secrets was that he liked talking to the camera. He didn’t talk to some invisible interviewer, he’d talk into the lens.
Aired on CBS from 1958 to 1972, the Young People’s Concerts were very successful and have won many new friends through recent re-broadcasts throughout the world and the release in video cassette of 25 programs selected from the series. Did Mr. Bernstein ever consider redoing them today?
As far as doing the Young People’s Concerts again, I think he felt he was too old. He was never very interested in doing things more than once. That’s why he didn’t like opera all that much. It involved so much going back over the same thing the following year. He very rarely did the revival of any of the productions he was involved with. He did revisit symphonic music, but he found it very hard to accept opera productions, which always entail months, or at any rate weeks of preparation. He was impatient with repetition.
What were some of the film projects Mr. Bernstein still wanted to realize?
We spent some years working on a project about Wagner. Bernstein was trying to reconcile why he loved to conduct Wagner, yet knew that as a Jew he ought to be hostile towards Wagner because of his anti-Semitism. He actually arranged to have himself filmed on the couch in the Freud Museum. But in my opinion, the project was never finished because Bernstein could not reconcile the irreconcilable. He was desperately trying to find a way to square the circle.
I also think he wanted to do a film on music in Bali. I think he’d known one of the Americans who’d been to Bali before the war. He had a strong interest in musical anthropology while he was at Harvard; and he went to Japan and loved playing the instruments there. His essays also attempt to draw in other musical languages. As a young man, he was also fascinated with Indian music, for example, but he never gave himself time to get to know a great deal about it.
Are there any projects he particularly regretted not doing?
I think it was one of the great sadnesses in Bernstein’s professional life that he was never able to realize his concept for a feature film in which music would play the dominating role. He only wrote the music for one film, “On the Waterfront”. He was approached once or twice more, and got as far as talking with Franco Zeffirelli about a film on St. Francis of Assisi, which ultimately became the film “Brother Son and Sister Moon”, but not with Bernstein’s music. Bernstein used the music he had already composed for this for his Mass in 1971.
In the 40s, he wanted to go to Hollywood and make a feature film in which he would both act and write the music as well as the dialogues. He was fascinated by movies, and I think he would have loved to have a dominating role in one. There was talk of a Tristan film, I think with Visconti, just before Visconti died. And there was talk of a cartoon film of Candide, which I think he would have found interesting.
Was Mr. Bernstein fond of experimenting with new filming techniques?
He didn’t care much about experimenting with the filming of music. He was not interested in finding other images than those of the concert hall. He may have paid lip service to the idea, but if you’re a serious musician, you don’t want to have someone’s imagination intervening between yourself and the music. I don’t like any other form of video except that in which you see the artist. This is simply restoring the personal contact which was a matter of fact in musical performance until the recording industry began.
A final word on Bernstein the author and orator?
He was very eloquent. He cared about language as much as he cared about music. He would correct any statement, and even in his last days he was correcting the proofs of the statement about his withdrawal and retirement from the concert platform. He was re-drafting it and trying to make it better. All his texts are full of his delicate handwriting, improving and polishing, searching for the right phrase, the right image, to make something graphic. He cared about words enormously. And he loved to educate – to learn himself and pass it on.
The interview was conducted by Roger Clement.
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