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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Music of Leonard Bernstein

In The Sound of Music, when asked how they might solve a problem like Maria, one of the nuns asks, "How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?" Ironically, the man who is the subject of this post had a very different Maria as a character in his most famous work. But the man himself, Leonard Bernstein, is perhaps as impossible to define as that cloud is to pin down.

There is no doubt in my mind that Leonard Bernstein was the most famous American musician of the 20th century. That's a tall call to make but I think it stands scrutiny, especially considering Bernstein's quintuple claim to fame and influence: as conductor, as composer, as pianist, as educator and as political activist. His life is a litany of firsts, especially as a conductor, and it's his legacy as a conductor which is most readily accessible to us now in the form of his recordings. But here I want to focus on Bernstein the composer because it's the part of his life in which I think Bernstein himself felt he never received the recognition he was due. It's also the part of his life which has left us with a rich legacy of fascinating works, most of which are not regularly performed. I hope that this will reveal some hidden treasures and shed some light on Leonard Bernstein's own amazing music, which is just a part of his amazing life.

Born in Lawrence, MA, in August 1918, Bernstein was a brilliant student and a gifted pianist. He studied at Harvard and it was there that his earliest publicly-heard music was performed, some incidental music to a production of The Birds by Aristophanes.

Post-graduate studies at the Curtis Institute saw Bernstein develop as a conductor, as a pianist and as a composer. He was thrust into the spotlight in November 1943 when he replaced Bruno Walter at very short notice in a concert with the New York Philharmonic and this event is generally regarded as the official start of Bernstein's conducting career.

Leonard Bernstein (1944)

By the time he was at the New York Philharmonic, though, he had already written his first symphony. Called Jeremiah, it dates from 1942. It was premiered in Pittsburgh in 1944 and won the New York Music Critics Circle Award for 1944. It's a remarkable work for a composer at the start of his career. This is the work's middle movement, called "Profanation". [listen]

The Jeremiah symphony is one of three works Bernstein produced about this time which show an astonishing mastery of three very distinct forms of composition. Having excelled in symphonic writing in his first essay in the form he followed this up by writing Fancy Free, a ballet, and On the Town, a musical.

Fancy Free, written in 1944, tells the story of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. It's the work which begins the permanent association we now have in our minds between Bernstein and The Big Apple. The score for the ballet is big, brash, symphonic in inspiration, and wonderfully conceived. It integrates jazz and blues into formal, classical structures, and reflects the spirit of the city in a way audiences immediately found genuine. [listen]

The musical, On the Town (written the same year, 1944), takes from the ballet the idea of three sailors on leave, but the rest of the story and music are completely new. The piece was a huge success and it became a hit movie in 1949 starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In this show Bernstein penned what has since become New York's own anthem. [listen[

These three works, Jeremiah, Fancy Free and On The Town, are a massive opening salvo in what would have been a great composing career even on its own. The fact that Bernstein's conducting career ran parallel to it (not to mention his many other talents and obsessions) is testament to the man's unique place in musical history.

Bernstein was clearly influenced by two American composers of earlier generations in these pieces: Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. The symphony also shows the shadow of Robert Schumann (a composer with whom Bernstein had a strong connection throughout his life), and of course the symphony was simply one of a number works which brought Jewish inspirations to the fore, enabling Bernstein to share the depths of his feelings about his heritage.

In 1946 Bernstein composed another ballet, Facsimile. It was a failure at its premiere in New York in October of that year. The plot of the ballet involves three people, a woman and two men, who are so caught up with the busy-ness of post-war living that they cannot find true intimacy. Rather, they choose a cheap facsimile of it. Facsimile strikes a serious tone that audiences of the time perhaps weren't ready for. Maybe they expected another Fancy Free... [listen]

In 1949 Bernstein wrote a work for the famous clarinettist Woody Herman and his band. Prelude, Fugue and Riffs wasn't premiered until 1955, though, and on that occasion the clarinettist was Benny Goodman. It reflects one of the classic obsessions of Bernstein, namely to bridge the gap between popular culture and the concert hall. "Riff" of course is a jazz term; "Prelude and Fugue" could scarcely be more classical and formal. Yet in Bernstein's hands it works. [listen]

Leonard Bernstein and Benny Goodman in rehearsal (1940s)

At around the same time Bernstein undertook the composition of a very different work, his second symphony. It's called The Age of Anxiety and it's based on the poem of the same name by WH Auden. Auden's poem was published in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, so it was very much in the public consciousness when Bernstein used its ideas as the basis for the second symphony in 1949.

In reality the work is more like a piano concerto, and like Hindemith's The Four Temperaments (written in 1940), it combines the piano concerto genre with the structure of a theme and variations. While the second symphony contains some jazzy elements, its overall tone is far more European and serious. [listen]

Broadway continued to beckon and Bernstein was active in this world concurrently with everything else in his life. In 1950 he contributed some songs to a production of Peter Pan, but on a much larger scale was his next full musical, Wonderful Town, which premiered in 1953 and won a Tony Award as the best musical of that season. Wonderful Town was a vehicle for the talents of Rosalind Russell and is seen by many as a sequel to On The Town from eight years earlier. [listen]

Yet Bernstein was also attempting far more "serious" theatrical entertainment. Between Peter Pan and Wonderful Town he'd written an opera. Here the inspirations included Marc Blitzstein (famous for The Cradle Will Rock) on the one hand and ancient Greek drama on the other. The result was Bernstein's one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, for which he wrote his own libretto.

Trouble in Tahiti tells the story of suburban marital unhappiness, with a Greek chorus consisting of three people who comment on proceedings in the style of popular radio commercials. A work which seems very strange on paper, Trouble in Tahiti most definitely works on stage. It was premiered in 1952. [listen]

Leonard Bernstein (1955)

Bernstein's next two music theatre works are generally regarded as his greatest achievements. Candide, a musical based on Voltaire, went through several versions between its premiere in 1956 and Bernstein's death. The dramatic issues were never really fully resolved, but the music is dazzling and sensational. The overture, based on themes from the show, is regularly heard in concerts, and many of the songs have become classics. [listen]

A year later, in 1957, came the premiere of West Side Story. Bernstein's collaboration with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim on this reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story completely rewrote the rules on how a musical should be written. West Side Story's music is based on the interval of the tritone, and its amalgamation of serious musical concepts with popular culture is perhaps more seamless here than in any other of Bernstein's works. [listen]

Outside the theatre Bernstein continued to produce concert works of staggering variety and complexity. Perhaps his greatest departure from popular culture comes in the 1954 work called Serenade, a violin concerto based on - of all things - Plato's Symposium. [listen]

In the same year as Serenade was written - 1954 - Bernstein's only film score was heard with the release of the film On the Waterfront. The film won eight Academy Awards; Bernstein's music received a nomination. Shortly after the film's release he compiled a symphonic suite from the score, using some additional music which never made it into the final version of the movie. [listen]

Leonard Bernstein (1950s)

In 1958 Bernstein was appointed chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was a controversial appointment; no American had held the post before and it was feared that conducting's gain would be composition's loss, especially with respect to his work on Broadway. This prediction turned out to be true. Try as he might, not even Leonard Bernstein could be two people at once, although he came close. After his greater focus on conducting from the late 50s, his compositional activity markedly decreased.

Not that he didn't write large-scale works. It's just that the bigger works in the 1960s, such as the third symphony, were not as well-received as his smaller, simpler pieces.

The third symphony, a vast work for choirs, solo soprano, speaker and orchestra, was premiered in 1963. It's called Kaddish, the name used in Jewish rites to describe the prayer chanted for the dead. The work is dedicated to the memory of President John F Kennedy and it covers a huge amount of emotional territory: doubt, faith, grief, resolution. [listen]

Bernstein often agonised over his place in the composers' pantheon and whether his conducting was taking him away from his true calling, namely composition. A sabbatical away from the podium in the mid-60s was designed to rekindle his compositional muse but it produced very little work of substance. The short but delightful Chichester Psalms of 1965 was a product of this period, although much of the musical raw material was lifted from other works. That hasn't stopped it being a favourite of choirs the world over ever since. [listen]

Leonard Bernstein (1968)

A number of Bernstein’s later works deserve mention. Mass was premiered in 1971, not a liturgical setting of the normal Mass text, but a music theatre work written for the Kennedy Center in Washington. Written during the Vietnam War, and just after Woodstock, the work expresses in more populist tones the sorts of sentiments encountered in the Kaddish symphony: doubt, search for meaning, questioning of faith, very current issues at the time.

Leonard Bernstein (1977)

Later still, in 1977, came Songfest [listen], setting American poetry and scored for six singers and orchestra. This, along with another vocal work from 1988 called Arias and Barcarolles [listen], have been the most widely-accepted of Bernstein's late works. Two orchestral works from the 1980s - the Divertimento [listen] and Jubilee Games - are exciting and thrilling works which should be heard more often. Jubilee Games, completed in 1989, the year before Bernstein's death, is a concerto for orchestra, a witty and engaging mélange of ideas drawn from music, sport and Jewish history. [listen]

Two late theatre works of Bernstein's are generally regarded as failures. The musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is described in Grove as a fiasco, and the opera A Quiet Place (which incorporates all of Trouble in Tahiti as a series of flashbacks) is at best confusing and disjointed, for all the beauty of many of its parts.

Leonard Bernstein with actor Maximilian Schell (1982)

Still, these setbacks should not cloud the reputation of Leonard Bernstein the composer, who died in New York in 1990 at the age of 72. As I hope this survey has shown, he left to posterity many works which are among the best of their kind, testimony to a unique individual who could not help creating, sharing, expressing and challenging us all. There's so much there to explore.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2010.

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