A man, a country and an era came together in Leonard Bernstein, the musician of the American century.
After 150 years of insecurity as this country gazed across the sea at the edifices of European culture, here was the New World finally in command. Composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, television personality, star, Bernstein — a Jew, crucially, just a few years after the Holocaust — marched Mahler back into Vienna, a second wave of liberation, a musical Marshall Plan. Bold, maybe a little brash; tender, maybe a little sentimental; difficult to work with yet desperate to please: Bernstein’s qualities were America’s, too.
He was born 100 years ago on Aug. 25, and his centenary is being celebrated as his achievement — and the smilingly confident place and time he symbolized — seems ever more unrepeatable. Who today could write both “West Side Story” and three thorny, searching symphonies? Who could bring together Brahms and the Beatles on national television, and have millions watch? To what maestro’s left-wing political dalliances would New York magazine devote a cover story in 2018?
Yet if there will never be another Bernstein, and if the high culture for which he tirelessly evangelized keeps drifting farther from the mainstream, his legacy is still clear, and secure. When he died, in 1990, he left us a charge to listen to music, of all kinds, with endless enthusiasm; to devote ourselves to both the creation of new work and the revival of old; to make every facet of culture accessible to all.
To mark the anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, writers of The New York Times have come together to focus on key moments in his career, to interview musicians he led from the podium, to praise his feverishly physical conducting style, and to offer suggestions for further listening. We hope to capture just a bit of the energy and influence of one of the most indelible figures in the history of the arts. ZACHARY WOOLFE
A Revolutionary Score
It’s more than just “New York, New York.”
“On the Town,” Bernstein’s 1944 foray into Broadway, may be famous for that number, which transcended musical theater to become a city’s anthem. But the rest of his score for this show is so much more important: Its omnivorous musical style embodies the Bernstein ethos at its most daring and youthful, while also laying the groundwork for his later masterpiece, “West Side Story.”
When he wrote “On the Town,” Bernstein was in his mid-20s but rapidly on the rise. He had already made his unexpected debut conducting the New York Philharmonic, filling in for an ailing Bruno Walter, and in January 1944 he had arrived as a composer with the premiere of his First Symphony.
“Fancy Free,” Bernstein’s first ballet — a collaboration with the great Jerome Robbins, who would choreograph “On the Town” and “West Side Story” — came just several months later and couldn’t be more different. Where the symphony was moody and dissonant, and clearly under the influence of Aaron Copland, the ballet score unabashedly embraced popular music and jazz. (It opened with a radio-ready song, “Big Stuff,” which was recorded by Billie Holiday.)
With the ballet, Bernstein was flirting with an artful marriage of classical and popular idioms, of high- and lowbrow culture. This would reach its apotheosis with “On the Town,” whose score is often as revolutionary as the politics of the Broadway production itself.
As the Harvard professor Carole J. Oja observed in her 2014 book “Bernstein Meets Broadway,” the musical’s premiere was full of subtle subversions. At the height of World War II, it had cast the Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato as Ivy Long. And the opening number, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” with the call-and-response feel of a spiritual, announced the musical’s mixed-race casting and identity in a time when blackness on Broadway most often came in the form of all-black shows like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Porgy and Bess.”
The score is less explicitly political, but consider its brazen blend of genres, pulled off with the success of only someone who had come to Broadway by way of the concert hall. (Other composers in this vein were Gershwin and Weill.) There is a lot of music in “On the Town” — about 30 minutes of which is purely orchestral — and it reads like a panoramic glimpse into Bernstein’s musical mind.
“New York, New York,” is quintessential Bernstein: an exuberant opening with his trademark syncopation. Later orchestral passages, like “Lonely Town Pas de Deux” and “Imaginary Coney Island” have the soaring lyricism and classicism of symphonies, while some songs nod to operetta (in a way, it must be said, that is more fun and less fussy than in his quasi-operetta “Candide”).
But Bernstein could also be a consummate tunesmith: Few Broadway ballads are as memorable as “Lonely Town,” or as quietly heart-rending as “Some Other Time.” And he embraced all-out camp with “Ya Got Me” and “I Can Cook Too,” which is refreshing given how unbearably earnest Bernstein’s later works could be.
The democratic style of “On the Town” proliferated in Broadway’s golden age and continues today, even in the works of Bernstein’s eventual collaborator Stephen Sondheim. It’s also in their “West Side Story,” an indisputable masterpiece, though ultimately more refined and controlled than “On the Town,” which has the youthful élan of its creators: brash energy that sometimes verges on unwieldy recklessness. That spirit may make it a risk for producers today, but it’s also what makes every opportunity to see the musical so electrifying. JOSHUA BARONE
Puncturing the Snobbery of the Concert Hall
There were conductors as great as Bernstein — and pianists, and composers, and political activists, and theater artists. But there had never been a communicator about music with anywhere near his brilliance, humor, energy, reach and importance.
From 1958 until 1972, Bernstein turned a series of educational concerts for children into a televised international classroom of unlikely glamour. The roots of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts went back to the 1885-86 season, when Theodore Thomas conducted 24 matinees focused on learning about music.
In Bernstein, the practice was revived by post-World War II mass culture. After becoming the Philharmonic’s music director, he reshaped the concerts, following the model of the Omnibus programs he’d done on CBS, starting in 1954.
That was the series that began unforgettably with Bernstein analyzing the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while he and the musicians strolled over a giant reproduction of the first page of the score. “A more perfect unconscious metaphor for his American cockiness,” the critic and historian Joseph Horowitz writes of the moment, “could hardly be invented.”
In the Young People’s Concerts, that cockiness was still there, but also Bernstein’s confident mellowness — his coolness.
“See how simple it is?” he asks after the Philharmonic surges through the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at a concert devoted to understanding melody. The audience chuckles — all that? simple? — but Bernstein’s explanations make it so.
He introduced Mahler and Ives; he paid tribute to Hindemith, Stravinsky and sonata form. He demystified living composers by hosting them and showing that they were — shocker — ordinary people. He used slang. He talked about the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.
He punctured the snobbery and rituals of the concert hall, and showed music as something that could be gobbled whole, without prissy distinctions between high and low. He was iPod Shuffle half a century before it was invented, a one-man mash-up.
Everything illuminated everything else; everything was interesting; great Elvis was as worthy of enjoyment as great Mozart. That none of this seems at all unfamiliar in 2018 is a testament to his permeating influence.
Bernstein hosted the televised concerts for 15 consecutive seasons, during which time they were dubbed into 12 languages and syndicated in 40 countries. They were referenced in “Peanuts” and, in Hungary, beat “Bonanza” in the ratings. For a few years, they even made it from weekend afternoons to prime time.
He clearly loved doing them, and is said to have written every word of every script. In the 1964-65 season, when he took a composing sabbatical, Bernstein conducted just a single concert (of his own music) — along with four Young People’s Concerts. They were, he said, “among the favorite, most highly prized activities of my life.” When he gave up the Philharmonic’s directorship in the late 1960s, he said he would be happy to continue leading them, and did.
Bernstein’s is the best kind of teaching: even more empowering than informative. Music, in his telling, is about open-ended, never-ending pleasure, about gaining confidence in your own choices and judgments.
“No matter what stories people tell you about what music means,” he said of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture on the first televised program, “forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music just is.” ZACHARY WOOLFE
Shakespearean Depth in a Broadway Musical
The first note of “West Side Story” can’t even wait for the downbeat; it lands one hiccup early. That’s how impatient the show is to get going — and how impatient Bernstein was to bring what he knew about musical theater to Broadway in 1957.
What he knew is just what the opera composers he loved had taught him: Music is character. In “West Side Story” he was writing about gang members hopped up on hatred and hormones during the last days of summer. No wonder he introduces them, in the Prologue, already jumping the gun.
But it’s not just in the Prologue. The score to “West Side Story” is a war zone of impetuous cross-rhythms. That lurching first figure recurs as the engine for “The Jet Song,” in which the melody and the bass line form a complex, interlocking pattern. Moments later, “Something’s Coming” sets a jumpy tune against a monotonous substrate, dramatizing the longings for escape that propel Tony — the Romeo figure in this updated “Romeo and Juliet” — toward his fate.
Of course, Bernstein was working with some of the best lyrics yet written for a Broadway show, by Stephen Sondheim, then in his late 20s. Together they were cannibalizing one of the best scripts, by Arthur Laurents. Compared with other musicals, not much dialogue remained after Bernstein and Sondheim’s raid. To make up for it, the score had to be dense, providing in music the depth of portraiture Shakespeare achieved in verse.
That’s part of why the rhythm of “West Side Story” is so intensely layered. Naturally, Bernstein used Latin dance forms to depict the Puerto Rican characters: an explosive mambo, a delicate cha-cha and, in “America,” a joyful huapango, with its stresses constantly regrouping, two then three, back and forth. More than 30 percussion instruments, including maracas and police whistle, help create and clarify the effects; though many productions make do with one player, Bernstein calls for four or five in his symphonic arrangement of the score’s dances and they are not underworked.
But the manipulation of stress in “West Side Story” cuts the other way as well. Whenever the pure love of Tony and Maria is set to music, the rhythms, as if they were street noise, disperse. “One Hand, One Heart” barely has any notes; Sondheim had to beg Bernstein to toss in a few more so he could fit some proper English onto the melody. And the hymnlike, dreamlike “Somewhere” is entirely square, at least until it wakes up to the rat-a-tat nightmare that is the lovers’ reality. Then it sounds like gunfire.
We think of Bernstein as a melodist, and it’s true that the vocal lines of “West Side Story” are gorgeous, even when they’re spiky. But no one writing a musical has ever used rhythm as effectively as he did, to let us hear the human heart just as it’s leaping forward, just as it’s about to burst. JESSE GREEN
The Maestro Meets the Black Panthers
One January evening in 1970, Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, had about 90 people over for a soiree. The express purpose, according to the invitation, was to “meet and hear from leaders of the Black Panther party and lawyers for the New York Panther 21.” So: a cocktail fund-raiser for the Panthers 21 Legal Defense Fund, which would pay for the defense of the men and women accused of a rash of attempted coordinated bombings and armed attacks on government facilities (they were all eventually acquitted).
Anyway, these fund-raisers were a thing at the time. And that evening in January, it was the Bernsteins’ turn.
The press hadn’t been invited. But the press was there. The Times’s society writer, Charlotte Curtis, whipped up a detailed article that ran a few days after. Six months later, in New York magazine, Tom Wolfe dropped his bomb.
“Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” lasted 25,000 words of withering absurdism that mocked white liberal haute bourgeois virtue. The guests included the likes of Barbara Walters, who at the time hosted “The Today Show,” the filmmaker Otto Preminger, the socialite Jean vanden Heuvel and “the former ‘boy president’ of Sarah Lawrence” (Harold Taylor). Wolfe, less cuttingly, looks askance at the Panthers for, among other things, being the sort of outfit that would need the attention of such people.
But Wolfe keeps making a target of Bernstein, who had just cut back his duties at the New York Philharmonic. He becomes an emblem of do-gooding wishy-washy, optics-obsessed paternalism — and these Panther parties were possibly beside the point of most engaged interracial civil rights struggles. Bernstein seems, in Wolfe’s caricature, grand, withdrawn, contradictory, exasperated, squeezed.
“Lenny couldn’t get over the whole affair,” Wolfe writes. “Earlier in the evening he had talked to a reporter and told him it was ‘nauseating.’ The so-called ‘party’ for the Panthers had not been a party at all. It had been a meeting. There was nothing social about it. As to whether he thought because parties were held in the homes of socially prominent people simply because the living rooms were large and the acoustics were good, he didn’t say. In any case, he and Felicia didn’t give parties, and they didn’t go to parties, and they were certainly not in anybody’s ‘jet set.’ And they were not ‘masochists,’ either.
“So four nights later Lenny, in a tuxedo, and Felicia, in a black dress, walked into a party in the triplex of one of New York’s great hostesses, overlooking the East River, on the street of social dreams, East 52nd, and right off the bat some woman walks right up to him and says, ‘Lenny, I just think you’re a masochist.’ It was unbelievable.”
It was also an impossible position for Bernstein. Obviously, he meant well. But he’d lost control over the interpretation of what he meant. In Wolfe, he was up against someone as superb at his job as Bernstein was at his — one maestro trapped under the thumb of another. WESLEY MORRIS
Bigger Than the Beatles
My father took me to see Bernstein conduct a Young People’s Concert when I was nine years old. I don’t remember what he conducted, but I do remember that he was dressed in a very hip way, he looked really cool, and he talked to me, to us, the audience, and I absolutely loved that.
When Bernstein conducted, he was having so much fun. I had been getting the feeling that classical music was not going to be a lot of fun. And then I saw him, and I said to my dad, “Ah, that’s it! I want to be the conductor.” So Bernstein became my idol from that moment on. I had a poster of him, and a poster of the Beatles on my bedroom wall — the Bernstein poster was bigger!
As I got to know him, and study with him, I discovered many other connecting points: the idea of eliminating boundaries between popular and serious music, the idea that music is fun, that the rules about how people must behave are just dumb constraints that we’ve imposed on classical music and, most importantly, that music speaks to every one of us. And, as I witnessed the kind of a citizen of the world he was, my admiration for him grew exponentially. I really admire people who stand up for what they believe in.
As an American music director, I think my commitment to new music, to living composers, my interest in speaking to audiences, my interest in creating access points for all different segments of our population, all different types of people, throwing the doors of the concert hall open — I think that all of these things were deeply influenced by Leonard Bernstein. These approaches are much more part of the fabric of orchestras as institutions today — because of Bernstein.
Bernstein gave a credibility to American musicianship that hadn’t existed before, easing our sense of inferiority. He came along and did what seemed impossible: bringing Mahler back to Vienna!
He talked a lot about the narrative of the piece. He was an amazing storyteller. I remember watching him, I think it was with the New York Phil once, when he said, “Ugh, do I have to tell you the story of this Haydn symphony?” And all these grown-ups were like, “Yes! Please tell us the story!” He loved storytelling, and music for him was just a vehicle for telling stories. Often his stories had important morals as well: There was always a lesson to be learned. For me that was a big takeaway.
In terms of conducting technique, he would offer tips. He used to say, “Don’t imitate me — but do it like this.” It was very funny. But it was much more about bigger concepts. He was extremely supportive of me personally. He’d say “Come on, show me what you’re feeling!” and then saying “Yes! That’s it!” Giving students the courage and permission to be themselves — this is a beautiful gift.
I think in many ways he was at a unique moment — but he was a uniquely gifted human being. Really the epitome of an American entrepreneur. He was so many things: a great conductor, great composer, great pianist. But he was also a TV star, he was a thinker, he was a philosopher, he was a political activist. How many people could wear all of those hats at once? It’s a rare thing. MARIN ALSOP, MUSIC DIRECTOR OF THE BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, AS TOLD TO MICHAEL COOPER