Bernstein, Leonard

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Genius of theatre and concert hall

Leonard Bernstein

Every self-respecting symphony orchestra can dash off the Candide Overture in the time it takes to boil an egg. Tunes like ‘Maria’ and ‘Tonight’ are evergreens. So it may seem perverse to describe Leonard Bernstein as an unknown composer. The truth is that Bernstein was a musical Jekyll and Hyde. There was never any question about the quality of his musicals: with the exception of the bicentennial disaster, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they were instant successes and have remained firm favourites.


The mould-breaking West Side Story is often revived on Broadway and in the West End – and also mounted by school amateurs at one end of the spectrum and prestigious opera houses at the other, among them La Scala and Bregenz. The first production of Candide, his satirical operetta, was a flop and took 30 years to shake into shape but it now works equally well on stage or in the concert version that Bernstein himself trail-blazed at the Barbican in what proved to be his last London appearance before his death in 1990, aged 72. Since then, Bernstein’s lighter shows – On the Town and Wonderful Town – have, too, been frequently revived.

While he was alive and a superstar of the rostrum, other conductors steered clear of Bernstein’s concert hall compositions so that recordings and performances, other than his own, were rare. His output was substantial, including two operas, three symphonies, three ballets, three song cycles, a song symphony (Songfest), a Mass and what in effect are concertos for violin (Serenade), flute (Halil) and cello (Meditations). But is this body of work any good? At the height of his fame as a conductor, his reputation was often under fire. In 1966 the New York critic Alan Rich wrote that listening to the Serenade was like ‘sucking on a sugar-free lollipop’; the score, which many now see as his most beautiful abstract work, was dismissed as ‘drab, tawdry and derivative’.

As Sibelius once observed tartly, whoever heard of a statue being erected in honour of a critic? Whereas the street outside New York’s Lincoln Center has been re-named Leonard Bernstein Place and, yes, his music definitely does cut the mustard: conductors of the calibre of Previn and Tilson Thomas were the first to champion him (while he was still alive) and in the 1980s the LSO, with whom he’d already been working for 20 years, elected Bernstein their life president and mounted a festival in his honour. Since then his compositions have appeared in concert programmes played and broadcast all over the world.

Maybe Jekyll and Hyde, suggesting a split personality, is the wrong analogy. In his passport he described himself simply as ‘musician’ – pianist, conductor, teacher as well as composer – and he made no distinction between Broadway and Carnegie Hall. He was proud of his eclecticism and unashamed of writing melodies in recognisable keys – even if they sometimes followed hard on the heels of brutally aggressive atonal passages, as in his ‘Kaddish’ Symphony No. 3. At heart, Bernstein was a traditionalist who believed in the natural supremacy of good old-fashioned tonality, yet each of his three symphonies brings something new, such as the despairing mezzo voice that sings the Old Testament lamentation in his Symphony No. 1, or the variation techniques in No. 2 which precisely mirrors the form of WH Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. ‘All my music is theatrical,’ Bernstein said later of the ‘Kaddish’; much of it, too, is concerned with man’s loss of faith in a barren age.

Bernstein’s need to write music that is about something external to the notes laid him open to charges of histrionics, even of sentimentality, but when it is performed with conviction, and with strict attention to the composer’s instructions, his music rarely fails to deliver the ‘tingle’ factor: one thinks of the unfolding majesty of the grand G major tune in the last of the Chichester Psalms (originally composed for a Broadway show with lyrics by Comden and Green) or the love music from On The Waterfront or perhaps best of all the uplifting closing chorus in Candide, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’.

As he grew older, composing became more difficult and he gave up his New York conducting post at 50, intending to devote more time to composition. But the critical drubbing he received after Mass made him wary and happier when working as a teacher and conductor, where almost everybody appreciated his talents. He was lured back to Broadway by a collaboration with the lyricist Allan J Lerner on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To examine the first 100 years of the US presidency seemed a good idea but it was muddied by a sub-plot concerning the place of black people in the nation and at the White House. The show died on Broadway, closing after five days, delivering an even worse blow to Bernstein’s reputation than Bernstein’s fundraising cocktail party for the Black Panthers pilloried by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic.

But once again Bernstein pulled something out of the ruins, a belated bicentennial tribute, Songfest, for which he selected a dozen poems by four centuries of American poets. Bernstein’s long-running love affair with the voice continued in several other late compositions, most importantly in the autobiographical opera
 A Quiet Place (1983) which revisits, 30 years on, the suburban family Bernstein created for Trouble in Tahiti. The less ambitious Arias and Barcarolles was conceived for two voices and two pianists; the Concerto for Orchestra ends with a baritone soloist. At the time of his death he was struggling to find a form for an opera he longed to write about the Holocaust. His need to create work of significance was sometimes like a millstone round his neck: arguably the happiest of his late compositions is the 1980 Divertimento, evoking memories of his Boston childhood.


Humphrey Burton