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Chapter 3 : Spectacular Sound: -Shawn VanCour


Clips from premiere episode of Meet the Masters (NBC, February 24, 1952), starring violinist Jascha Heifetz. Courtesy: Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina.

  • Video Example 3.1a: Sponsored by the Lees Carpet Company, this program was unusual in its ability to secure both critical praise and commercial support. The opening sequence for the inaugural episode announces the sponsor and explains the series premise, previewing performers who will be showcased in subsequent episodes.

  • Video Example 3.1b: After the opening commercial announcement, the episode includes footage of the entrance to Pomona College, where Heifetz will perform for a group of music students. Scrolling titles profess the producers’ commitment to using the new medium of television for cultural uplift, enabling all members of society to enjoy the universal pleasures of classical music performed by the world’s greatest artists.

  • Video Example 3.1c: The episode’s closing commercial links fine carpets with good books and good music as part of a tasteful home and wholesome family life. While the opening message of the series insists on the universality of classical music, these advertisements catered to a distinctly upper middle class sensibility and avoided the crass commercialism for which much popular programming was criticized.


Clips fromepisode of Meet the Masters starring pianist Artur Rubinstein (NBC, March 23, 1952). Courtesy: Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina.

  • Video Example 3.2a: The episode’s opening act is set in a recording studio, embedding its initial performances within a larger dramatic frame story of Rubinstein’s efforts to complete his new record. At the end of this studio scene, a film producer approaches Rubinstein and tries to interest him in making a motion picture. The producer promises Rubinstein that his proposed screen production will forgo the usual dramatic conceits and focus exclusively on the performer’s music.

  • Video Example 3.2b: Rubinstein invites the producer to his home for a private performance. Convinced that the filmmaker will show his music the proper respect, Rubinstein seems favorably disposed toward making the proposed screen production. However, when pressed, the producer concedes that music alone is unlikely to hold an audience, and that some form of story-content will also be needed.

  • Video Example 3.2c: While the producer claims that a single camera positioned where an onsite observer might stand will be sufficient to capture the magic of that performance, viewers of Meet the Masters are treated to a much more visually dynamic presentation. Featuring dramatic, high-contrast lighting and mobile cinematography, this 45-second shot from Rubinstein’s performance of Liszt’s Liebestraum begins at eye level in medium-closeup, with the camera then panning and tilting down his outstretched arm to end on a high-angle closeup of his fingers on the keyboard.

  • Video Example 3.2d: High-angle closeups of Rubinstein’s hands are used throughout the episode’s performance sequences. The pianist’s rendering of Mendelssohn’s "Spinning Song" opens with a static wide shot at eye level, followed by a bird’s eye shot with slight pans to the left and right. Running over a full minute without interruption, this shot is one of the longest takes in the episode, but its length is mitigated by the visual interest accorded through its unusual camera placement and continual shifts in framing.

  • Video Example 3.2e: A third high-angle closeup of Rubinstein’s hands is used for his performance of Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor. Inserted between two lengthier wide shots of the performer at eye level, this shot runs considerably shorter than the Mendelssohn closeup and uses slightly wider framing to incorporate more of the keyboard, but also features much more dramatic panning. Pulling sharply to the left and right to keep the performer’s fingers in frame as he executes a series of complex runs, it showcases both Rubinstein’s technique and the virtuosity of the televisual apparatus, offering perspectives unavailable to an on-scene observer and demonstrating the medium’s capacity to bring visual interest to broadcast presentations of classical music.


Stills from episode of Meet the Masters featuring cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (NBC, November 16, 1952). Courtesy: Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina

  • Web Figure 3.1: The beginning of the episode immediately establishes its show-within-a-show motif, taking the viewer onto the set of a “Behind the Music” television program whose host wraps up her current episode by announcing Piatigorsky as the guest for her next episode. Looking into the camera, she promises her viewers that she will have plenty of interesting anecdotes about the famous cellist to supplement his musical performance.

  • Web Figure 3.2: The next scene opens with the program host collecting Piatigorsky at the airport. As his arrival was delayed, introductions are brief, and the two race to the studio so he can make his scheduled camera rehearsal for that evening’s program.

  • Web Figure 3.3: In the car en route to the studio, the program host asks the performer for some personal stories they can use to capture the interest of their live studio audience during the program’s opening interview segment. Piatigorsky politely rebuffs her, reminding her that his goal for the broadcast is to share his music, not tell stories.

  • Web Figures 3.4 and 3.5: At the studio, the host’s continued attempts to get useful story material for her broadcast are cut short by the start of the camera rehearsal. The director peers down from the control booth and prompts Piatigorsky to conduct run-throughs of each number to be featured on the evening’s program. The episode here alternates between performance sequences and short dramatic sequences that show the director and crew preparing the cameras and set for the next number.

  • Web Figures 3.6 and 3.7: The performance sequences during the lengthy camera rehearsal scene begin with a heavy reliance on wider long takes, shot with stationary camera at eye level, with relatively flat lighting. However, as the numbers progress, fill lights are removed for more dramatic, low-key lighting, and visual interest is added through strategically placed cut-ins that feature tighter, low-angle shots that focus on the performer’s face and movement of his fingers on the strings.

  • Web Figures 3.8, 3.9, and 3.10: On the night of the broadcast, the program host introduces the show by announcing that she will forgo her standard interview segment, with music’s status as a “universal language” making any introductory explanation unnecessary. Piatigorsky then takes the stage and prepares to begin his performance.

  • Web Figures 3.11 and 3.12: Performing a selection by Schubert, Piatigorsky instantly captivates his studio audience and holds them throughout the full performance. For the television viewer at home, however, continued techniques of spectacular sound are showcased throughout this sequence. Here, a wider medium of the performer at eye level is made more dynamic through the incorporation of mobile cinematography, with the camera dollying in to a closeup of Piatigorsky’s hand to show his changing fingerings. Repeated several times throughout the episode in conjunction with other techniques discussed in this chapter, such overt efforts at visual stylization contradict the episode’s insistence on music’s capacity to hold the television viewer entirely on its own merits, without visual or narrative embellishment.


Clips from episode of Meet the Masters featuring Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, and Gregor Piatigorsky as “The Trio” (NBC, April 6, 1952). Courtesy: Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina.

  • Video Example 3.3a: The opening shot of the film includes narration by a Hollywood screenwriter charged with developing a story for a screen picture about the three performers. Shot from the screenwriter’s point of view as he approaches the house where the performers are rehearsing, this segment brings immediate visual interest to the production, while also providing a dramatic frame story for the performance sequences that follow.

  • Video Example 3.3b: Inside the house, the writer engages the performers in dialogue, explaining his studio’s concerns that an onscreen concert will not sustain audience interest on its own, and that some type of story-content will be needed. The performers, while perplexed by this news, are happy to comply when the writer asks if he might begin by seeing them play.

  • Video Example 3.3c: Performance sequences in this episode feature numerous examples of static wide shots, showing all three performers in frame from a fixed camera position. Held for long stretches lasting up to a minute, these shots sacrifice visual interest to invite full focus on the aural dimensions of the musical performance.

  • Video Example 3.3d: As the performance progresses, longer takes of the full Trio are broken up by shorter, more tightly framed shots of the individual performers. The penultimate number goes even further, incorporating quick reaction shots of the house staff, who stare in silent attention, mesmerized by the performance. Providing visual variety, these shots also reassert the presence of the frame story, while modeling preferred viewing behaviors for the audience at home.

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