Leonard Bernstein has been described as a 20th-century Renaissance man and it is true that he dared to be versatile in an age of specialisation. The first indigenous American to really challenge the global domination of musical life by Europeans, or quasi- Europeans, he came to symbolise the optimism and can-do attitude of the American way, while representing also the flip-side of the Dream, incurably restless and variously unfulfilled. At the time of his death, his own music, especially his concert music, was generally reckoned a disappointment: its rampant eclecticism did not chime well with what Western art music was supposed to be about. Today, however, even his supposed failures are coming in from the cold. Those generously inflected Bernstein realisations, so effective in promulgating the music of his American contemporaries and that of Gustav Mahler, no longer represent a barrier to the rediscovery of his own music by a new generation of performers.
There was much that was conventional in Bernstein’s upbringing and education. Born in 1918, he studied at both Harvard and the Curtis Institute and was at various times the protégé of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. Self-evidently gifted, he also had luck on his side. In 1943 he made his reputation as a conductor at a stroke when he replaced an indisposed Bruno Walter. Thereafter he was associated with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (from 1947), the Boston Symphony Orchestra and especially the New York Philharmonic (of which he was Music Director, 1958–69). Increasingly drawn to Europe, he forged a special relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic. A celebrated educator, writer, broadcaster and, in earlier years, a formidable pianist, he pursued an on-off career as a composer, like his idol Gustav Mahler, blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture in a personal mix of that composer with Copland, Stravinsky and elements drawn from Broadway and specifically Jewish traditions.
His works for commercial theatre, most notably the musicals Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957), are currently more highly prized than his ballet Dybbuk (1974) or his most personal operatic statement, A Quiet Place (1983). His other magnum opus, the unclassifiable evening-length piece for singers, players and dancers entitled Mass (1971), continues to divide opinion. There are three symphonies but casual listeners often find most to admire in more modest concert works such as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949), the Serenade (1954), a violin concerto in all but name, and the defiantly melodic Chichester Psalms (1965).
What distinguished Bernstein’s work as a composer is actually what distinguishes it from so many of the contemporary trends he latched on to, the better to throw his own meanings into relief. Whether pop, pap or post-Schoenbergian, it is the very contemporaneity of so much 20th century music that can make it seem anonymous. Trying everything as it does, reaching out for some ‘ebullient renewed will to survive the Apocalyptic’, Bernstein’s music is always cathartic and unmistakably his own.
Profile © David Gutman