Concert halls are filled with the music of Leonard Bernstein this season, for we are in an “anniversary year”: the centennial of Bernstein’s birth. He was born on August 25, 1918, and died on October 14, 1990 (at seventy-two). Anniversaries are virtually the organizing principle of the music business. I have long complained of “anniversaryitis”—but there are worse afflictions, true.

New York is especially Bernstein-mad. The composer spent his career in this city, though he was born and raised in Massachusetts. He wrote, among many other things, “New York, New York,” that catchy song from On the Town (you know which town). It’s practically an anthem of the city. The New York Philharmonic asserts particular ownership of Bernstein, as well it might: he was the orchestra’s music director from 1958 to 1969, and regularly conducted the orchestra thereafter. A few years ago—peeved at some expression of idolatry— I wrote that Bernstein was “kind of a god and mascot of the Philharmonic, and of New York.” The subject of Bernstein provokes peevishness in some people.

On New Year’s Eve, the Philharmonic had a Bernstein gala, conducted by Bramwell Tovey, an Englishman. In remarks to the audience, he said many over-the-top things about Bernstein —things he might have reconsidered in the cold light of day. But he also said this: Bernstein “was the most famous American musician of the twentieth century.” When I heard this, I thought it was wrong. Then, in thinking about it for a few seconds, I could not contradict it.

The subject of Bernstein provokes peevishness in some people.

It would be unfair to count Rachmaninoff (who obtained U.S. citizenship). Same with Horowitz (who in any case was probably not more famous than Bernstein). Gershwin? Copland? Barber, with his Adagio for Strings? Maria Callas (who was American-born, but later took Greek citizenship)? Philip Glass? No, Maestro Tovey was right: it must be Bernstein. (And we are talking about classical musicians, of course, not Elvis.)

Shortly after Bernstein died, his friend Isaac Stern, the violinist, made a good point: Bernstein’s “multifaceted talents came to full flower” just as television became the dominant medium in America, and just as the recording industry took off. Bernstein was everywhere. He was on television—primetime network television—often. Today, classical music barely has a foothold in television, even at odd hours and on odd channels.

“He hated it when someone said, ‘You’re really the Renaissance man,’ but, damn it, he was. He had more than music in him.” So said Marilyn Horne, the great American mezzo-soprano, to me in an interview some years ago. She went on, “One could learn so much from Lenny, just by having a meal with him. He had so much to give.” I asked her, “Did he like singing?” “I think he did,” she answered. “I never rehearsed anything with him—even something I thought I knew rather well—that he didn’t put a whole new insight into. I learned a lot from him.” Other musicians, at the top tier, give this same testimony.

Bernstein wrote classical music and Broadway music. He played the piano and conducted. He gave lectures and wrote—wrote prose, I mean. Donal Henahan, the late critic, once spoke of Bernstein’s “bewildering versatility.” Have we had anyone else like him? Yes, André Previn comes to mind. He writes music, of various sorts. He is a pianist (classical and jazz). He is a major conductor. And he writes like a dream—prose. (Try No Minor Chords, his memoir of Hollywood. It was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was also close to Bernstein.)

Throughout Bernstein’s life, there was a debate: Should he narrow down and do less, so that he could do one or two things better, or even better? Should he write classical music, only? Musical theater, only? Should he concentrate on conducting? Should he throw himself into piano playing, and be an actual concert pianist? I am one of those who believe that he needed to do it all. That he needed the blizzard of activity. I’m not sure he would have done any one thing better, had he focused on just that.

Bernstein reminds me of William F. Buckley Jr., different as they were in their politics. Buckley edited a magazine, wrote a syndicated column, hosted a television show, lectured widely, wrote spy novels, etc. When will he knuckle down and write a serious book?, many said. Why do we need another sailing journal or a hundred more columns on the news of the day when he could give us some summa? I believe that Buckley needed his blizzard of activity, needed outlets for his various talents, needed to scratch a variety of itches. Both Buckley and Bernstein were dedicated workers. They got a lot done. Each worked until his final breath (and kept going, I bet).

In preparation for this piece, I spent a few days bingeing on Bernstein: his music, his conducting, his piano playing, and more. I do not propose a complete survey here, far from it. Rather, I have some comments to make, in this season of Bernstein-bingeing. If you sample Bernstein recordings, bear this in mind: he made more than four hundred of them. Not all of them are gems, as how can they be? Even Homer nods, especially when he makes more than four hundred recordings. But Bernstein’s record (no pun intended) is impressive.

Our opinions of Bernstein probably say as much about us as about him. When I was younger, I was a bit allergic to Bernstein, though I always acknowledged his talent (and thought West Side Story a masterpiece). You perhaps know the rap on him: trashy, vulgar, shlocky; needy, showy, mannered; bathetic, self-indulgent, egotistical. Bernstein is guilty of some of that, I think, but my allergy has largely vanished. I have become more “latitudinarian” in my musical judgments (to use a Buckley word). Young people, as a rule, are strict. They insist on right and wrong, and their conception usually comes from their teachers. When you get older, you accept that there’s more than one way to skin a cat—although there are still right ways and wrong ways.

Our opinions of Bernstein probably say as much about us as about him.

For me, the key questions, certainly about performance, are: Is it musical? Is it reasonably faithful to the composer? Does the performer have a case? Almost never was Leonard Bernstein without a case.

A lot of conductors have played the piano, in public. Furtwängler, Walter, and Szell come to mind. Sawallisch, too. We should not count Eschenbach, because he was a famous pianist who then emerged as a conductor. Levine is a very good pianist. So is Previn, of course. Bernstein, too, was a very good pianist—a real pianist, not just a conductor who dabbled in piano playing—and he could probably have had a career, if he had wanted. We can see this in his earlier recordings especially.

In 1946, he recorded Ravel’s Concerto in G (with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, which he conducted from the keyboard). He plays beautifully and shrewdly. He observes French cool and American jazz (also cool). In 1947, he recorded Copland’s Piano Sonata, in a commanding way. In 1959 came an enduring seller: Bernstein in Rhapsody in Blue, the Gershwin hit. Less famous but equally good is his 1966 recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 15 in B flat, K. 450, with the Vienna Philharmonic (which he also conducts). This performance is full of Mozartean character.

I will make two or three general remarks about Bernstein at the keyboard: He played with a big, fat tone. And his playing was masculine. Virile. The pianist he most reminds me of is Daniel Barenboim, who, as you know, has made a big career as a conductor, too.

Bernstein’s later recordings, I find, are less good than his earlier ones. This is especially noticeable in the same repertory. Bernstein has practiced less, I imagine, and his fingers are sluggish. I once interviewed Eschenbach, who, that very morning, had resumed playing the piano after a long layoff. “My fingers felt like sausages,” he said. Bernstein, in his later years, sometimes had sausage fingers. Also, the videos show us that his posture was poor: he sat close to the keyboard and hunched his shoulders, just as he did when he conducted, which was no hindrance. Bernstein looks restricted at the keyboard, and he was. His passagework is clumsy.

While he may have lost facility, he never lost boldness. He just bulls his way through, heedless of any obstacles. And even when he is at his worst, he shows you something musical. There is always some spark in his playing. The same is true of his conducting.

Leonard Bernstein with daughter Jamie and son Alex. Photo: Bernstein estate.

He loved Haydn, and conducted a lot of him. Try Bernstein in a 1984 recording—a film, actually—of Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in G, the “Oxford,” with the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein is so alive. That is what Isaac Stern said about him and his music-making: above all, he was “so alive.” In the Haydn symphony, Bernstein is free yet tasteful. He gets Haydn’s humor. He lets the man have his flair. In these hands, the music swings.

In Bernstein’s hands, the music swings.

“I got rhythm,” Gershwin wrote (along with his brother Ira). American musicians are expected to have rhythm, and Bernstein was a leading example of this.

In my recent binge, I wanted to hear him in Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, because a conductor must really know how to breathe in this symphony, and he should keep himself out of the way. I was worried that Bernstein would be all too present, and that Brahms would be distorted. I need not have worried—at least about a performance that Bernstein gave with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1972. On the podium, Bernstein speaks like Brahms, or rather, he lets Brahms speak. It is a beautiful, Brahmsian performance.

At the top of his game, Bernstein had extraordinary communicative powers, and extraordinary leadership ability. He felt that he belonged on the podium, and that the music came through him. He was its advocate, and others needed merely to follow. You can see this in a 1979 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. (Kurt Moll, incidentally, is stunningly good as the bass soloist.) The music is incisive, uplifting, and right. And no one is having a better time in the auditorium than the conductor.

He bothered a lot of us with his podium style: his leaps and swoons and so on. But I like to say, “No fair lookin’. ” Music is an aural art, and if you don’t like what you see, look away and listen. Moreover, a conductor must do whatever is necessary—stand on his head, if that’s what it takes—to get from the orchestra what he desires.

Bernstein had a big appetite for music, as for other things, and he conducted almost everything. Curiously, he did not conduct much Bruckner. One of the Bruckner symphonies he did conduct was the Sixth, which almost no one conducts. For a famous man of the musical theater, he conducted only a modest amount of opera. He and Callas teamed for Medea and La sonnambula. He teamed with Marilyn Horne for Carmen. He teamed with Fischer-Dieskau for Falstaff.

A couple of years ago, I was writing about Falstaff, and I was positively drunk on the closing fugue. I think I listened to every recording of it—and none was better than Bernstein’s. None was as good, actually.

In the concert hall, he championed his fellow American, Charles Ives, and indeed gave the premiere of Ives’s Symphony No. 2—a full fifty years after it was written. He also championed Nielsen, the Dane, and Mahler and Sibelius, who are staples now, but who were not so established then. (Ives and Nielsen remain on the fringes.)

I wish to note, too, that Bernstein could conduct his own music, very well. In Bernstein, there is no one better than Bernstein. But doesn’t that go without saying? Not necessarily. Some composers are less than ideal interpreters of their own music. I would rather hear Copland conducted by Bernstein than by Copland. And Stravinsky conducted by Bernstein than by Stravinsky.

The great Russian—actually, he became an American, like Rachmaninoff and others—was Bernstein’s guest on television one night. The year was 1960. Bernstein called Stravinsky—as he did more than once, unambiguously—“the greatest composer of our time.” (Remember that Shostakovich and Britten were also at work.) He said that a composer, in a recording, can show people for all time how his music should go. He then had Stravinsky conduct scenes from The Firebird (Stravinsky’s magnificent ballet). I must admit, this conducting is awfully good, whether the last word or not.

Starting in 1954, Bernstein gave concert-lectures for the Omnibus program on cbs. In 1958, he gave the first of his Young People’s Concerts, also carried by cbs. He did fifty-three of those concerts. The first of them was called “What Does Music Mean?” The last of them, aired in 1972, was on Holst’s Planets. Over these fifty-three programs, Bernstein set an example in music appreciation. These days, almost every musician talks from the stage, whether asked to or not. Bernstein was really good at it. His thoughts were well organized, and he expressed them in excellent English. He also had a very good voice: a very good speaking voice. He could communicate in more than musical ways.

He spoke to the children at an amazingly high level. He spoke to them at a higher level than musicians today speak to adult audiences. He also assumed more knowledge (probably because he could). In his own day, Bernstein was regarded by many as low-brow, or at least a popularizer. Today, he would be considered the height of sophistication, maybe a snob. It’s hard to watch Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts now and not think that our culture has gotten markedly dumber.

In February 1960, he presented a program called “Who Is Gustav Mahler?” He tells the children that Mahler was one of the greatest conductors who ever lived. He then notes a criticism made by many people: Mahler may have been a great conductor, but he was not that good a composer, probably because his head was filled with the music of others—the music that he conducted—making it hard to compose music genuinely his own. Of course, this same criticism was made of Bernstein himself.

In his own day, Bernstein was regarded by many as low-brow, or at least a popularizer.

He then says, “I admit it’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer: there never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. . . . That’s one of the reasons I’m so sympathetic to Mahler: I understand his problem. It’s like being two different men locked up in the same body. . . . It’s like being a double man.”

Bernstein has the orchestra—his New York Philharmonic—play some happy music from Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. He then tells the children, “You might not believe it, but the man who wrote all that jolly stuff was one of the most unhappy people in history!” He further says, “When Mahler is sad, it’s a complete sadness. Nothing can comfort him. It’s like a weeping child. And when he’s happy, he’s happy the way a child is—all the way. And that’s one of the keys to the Mahler puzzle: he is like a child. His feelings are extreme, exaggerated, like young people’s feelings.” Mahler was “half man, half child,” says Bernstein. And, of course, that is said about Bernstein, with reason.

Years ago, I was talking with a musician friend of mine—a conductor—about Mahler. My friend did not care for Mahler. Explaining why, he said, “You know how young people say ‘ tmi’? ‘Too much information’? That’s how I feel about Mahler. The music is grossly personal.” Leaving Mahler aside, that is a problem some of us have had with Bernstein, both as composer and as conductor.

Here is an interesting fact, slightly macabre: Bernstein lies buried with a copy of a Mahler score—that to the Symphony No. 5—lying across his heart.

When I looked at the catalogue of Bernstein’s classical music, I was surprised by several things. First, there is less of it than I would have thought. Yes, Bernstein was busy as a conductor—extremely busy—but I somehow thought he had written more. Second, most of his writing was done in the first half of his career. There is a petering off. Third, he did not write very much piano music, especially for a composer who was so good a pianist. There is no concerto, for example. (There is no concerto for any instrument, except the violin, and he called that piece “Serenade.”) Fourth, there are not that many art songs, for so famous a songwriter—for the composer of dozens of memorable Broadway tunes. But then, there is a fine line between his art songs and his Broadway songs, if any. Is “Somewhere” Broadway or “art”?

A radical in his politics, Bernstein might be seen as a conservative in his music. He clung to tonality when the fashion was the other way. He was willing to be simple when complexity was in style. He wrote for audiences and he wanted them to like it. He cared whether you listened. (Here, I allude to the famous, or infamous, title of a 1958 essay by Milton Babbitt: “Who Cares if You Listen?”) Bernstein was attached to the old forms, including the medieval. Virtually his last work was Missa Brevis.

One of his best pieces, I have always thought, is the first one he ever published: his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942). It is both French, as so many woodwind pieces were, and American. It is lovely and intelligent —with just enough jazz to make you grin. This sonata will likely remain in the clarinet repertoire.

Chichester Psalms (1965) has much beauty and power in it. (Have you ever thought of Bernstein as a religious composer? In addition to Chichester Psalms and Missa Brevis, he wrote a “Jeremiah” Symphony, a “Kaddish” Symphony, MASS, and more.) The second movement of the Chichester piece treats the Twenty-third Psalm, using a boy soprano. I find this music cloying. I am allergic to it. But I will also grant that there is an ingenuousness about it. Bernstein could be amazingly ingenuous or innocent, for such a sensualist and hedonist. The “Kaddish” Symphony (1963) I admit to being allergic to, even if my general Bernstein allergy has faded. The symphony strikes me as pretentious or pseudo-deep. It makes me cringe. I find parts of it emotionalist, rather than emotional. I can hardly listen. At the same time, I understand why other people respond to this piece. It is heart-on-sleeve. One man’s pretentiousness or emotionalism may be another man’s honest feeling.

I have said that the early sonata is lodged in the clarinet repertoire. What else of Bernstein will last? He himself feared that he would be remembered as a conductor, not as a composer. This may happen to Pierre Boulez, I believe. I wonder whether any of his music will be played, generations hence. This is impossible to tell. But I believe that Bernstein’s Serenade (1954)—formally, “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for violin, strings, and percussion”—will last. When future generations want an American violin concerto from the middle of the twentieth century, they will turn to the Serenade, I wager. It is a beautiful, intelligent, and inspired work. More and more, I love it. I have always regarded it as Bernstein’s best piece, in the classical field.

And I smiled when reading some New York Philharmonic program notes last October. It was almost a smile of vindication. Joshua Bell was playing the Serenade, and the program notes told a story: Late in his life, Bernstein was rehearsing the Serenade, and he turned to the soloist, Glenn Dicterow, to make a statement: “This is the best fuckin’ piece I ever wrote.”

Before leaving the subject of Bernstein’s classical music, I should say this, too: he had an influence on other composers, especially Americans. Over the years, I have frequently described a new piece as “Bernsteinian,” as regular readers can no doubt attest.

In 1954—the same year as the Serenade—he wrote a film score: that to On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s masterpiece. The music enhances the movie. Later, Bernstein fashioned a suite from his score. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin, who had written the music for The High and the Mighty. (Other nominees included two famous composers: Max Steiner, for The Caine Mutiny, and Franz Waxman, for The Silver Chalice.) Bernstein did not take his loss graciously. Not for him was “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” “I am furious about the Academy Awards,” he wrote to his secretary. “It is obviously politics, and I don’t care, except that it would have jacked up my price for the next picture to double. And that is important. Oh well.” Bernstein, celebrated for his leftist ideals, sounds pretty money-grubbing in this note. I will also point out a curious fact: Bernstein wrote the music for what is many anti-communists’ favorite movie of all time.

Opening Carnegie Hall’s season in 2008, Michael Tilson Thomas gave a little talk. He was conducting his San Francisco Symphony in a Bernstein gala. Bernstein, he said—no, yelled—was a “lib-er-al.” That’s how he pronounced that word: with three distinct, fist-shaking syllables. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers. Was Bernstein a liberal? Only in the sense that the UC Santa Cruz faculty is. Bernstein was on the left, with such friends as Marc Blitzstein and Lillian Hellman. It was Bernstein who inspired Tom Wolfe’s coinage “radical chic.” Wolfe was writing about the fundraising party in 1970 that Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, had thrown for the Black Panthers. In 1989, the first President Bush wanted to give Bernstein the National Medal of the Arts. Bernstein refused, because of a controversy over federal funding of an art exhibit having to do with aids. In any case, Bernstein was involved in politics throughout his life.

Politics used to influence what people thought about Bernstein, musically.

I have no doubt that politics used to influence what people thought about Bernstein, musically. But that has largely burned away . . .

He wrote many pieces that are neither quite classical nor quite popular. Take his ballet Fancy Free (1944). Is it classical or popular? It is in between, I think, like Gershwin’s American in Paris. What would you call MASS, Bernstein’s “Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers” (1971)? (I have quoted the subtitle.) The singers in the Gloria in excelsis Deo section sound like the Sharks and the Jets (gang members from West Side Story). What is Candide (1956)? Bernstein himself, on television one night, described it as “my operetta or musical or whatever you want to call it.” He then conducted the overture. This overture, in all likelihood, will never leave the repertoire. Speaking to his audience of children, Bernstein said Candide had run only about two months on Broadway. Sadly, “the show is temporarily over, but the overture lingers on, I hope.” The children may not have known it, but their parents probably did: Bernstein was adapting a lyric from a popular song—Irving Berlin’s “The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On).”

The overture is fizzy and funny and fine (to quote a West Side Story song). Churchill once said of fdr, “Being with Franklin is like opening a bottle of champagne.” The overture to Candide is that way too. So is the aria that the overture quotes, “Glitter and Be Gay.” Another song from the show, “I Am So Easily Assimilated,” is a funny one about the Jewish experience. Candide ends with “Make Our Garden Grow,” which I refer to as a “secular hymn.” It is a common gala-ender. In fact, the New York Philharmonic ended its recent New Year’s Eve concert with it. Some audience members sang along with the professionals, unbidden: it is a hymn for the Church of the Upper West Side. As you might suspect, I’m not crazy about this song, having a slight allergy to it. Indeed, I react as to fingers on a chalkboard. But I should also say that “Make Our Garden Grow” is often performed in a treacly fashion, and it need not be.

Bernstein wrote two musicals—musicals that are obviously musicals, and not anything else—whose titles sound alike, confusing many of us. One is On the Town (1944) and the other is Wonderful Town (1953). Both musicals have lyrics by Comden & Green. On the Town is stocked with songs that endure: “New York, New York,” “Lonely Town,” “I Can Cook Too,” “Lucky to Be Me,” “Ya Got Me,” “Some Other Time.” Wonderful Town, not so much. (“Ohio”?) Also not enduring is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which Bernstein wrote in the American bicentennial year of 1976, with no less than Alan Jay Lerner. Almost nothing from it lingers on. On New Year’s Eve in Berlin, Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo-soprano, sang “Take Care of This House” with the Berlin Philharmonic, under Sir Simon Rattle. I suspect a political point was being made, more than anything.

Finally, we come to West Side Story (1957). Bernstein dreaded being remembered as a conductor, not as a composer, but he also dreaded being remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story, period. Even if he were remembered that way—so what? West Side Story is enough for one lifetime, or ten. Years ago, record companies would put out box sets of complete operas, and also a single LP of highlights. I once described Handel’s Giulio Cesare as a long, continuous highlights album. Every number in that show is a winner, one after the other. Giulio Cesare is an extended, historic bolt of inspiration (like the same composer’s Messiah, in fact). Well, West Side Story is one big highlights album too. There is hardly a weak note, a weak moment, in the show. That goes for moments instrumental and vocal alike. “One Hand, One Heart” can be a little treacly —but it need not be performed that way.

“Something’s Coming” is a model of anticipation. “Maria” is an outstanding tenor aria. “Tonight” is a rhapsodic duet. “America” is eternally hot. “I Feel Pretty” is an outstanding waltz-song, something that Brahms would have admired. “Gee, Officer Krupke” is comedy gold. “I Have a Love” is another duet, with Straussian intervals. And let me say about “Somewhere”—that Schubert wouldn’t have minded putting his name to it.

As long as there is anything like musical theater, there will be West Side Story. As long as people want to sing and play and dance, there will be West Side Story. Those proverbial cockroaches that will survive a nuclear holocaust? They will have West Side Story to enjoy.

When The New Criterion asked me to write about Bernstein at 100, I sort of groaned. I was Lenny’d out a long time ago. But I much appreciated my immersion, my bath, my binge on Bernstein. When I was younger, I think I resented all the attention that Bernstein got, especially when others were ignored. (Attention often seems to be a zero-sum game.) Why doesn’t anyone care about Eugen Jochum?, I would think. Not sexy enough, not weird enough, not publicity-seeking enough? I was nauseated by Bernstein’s celebrity. I was repulsed by his obvious neediness and egotism, and by the Cult of Bernstein.

I understand my former views, and can still get peeved from time to time. But the Bernstein wars are long past, even if the melody, or smoke, lingers a little. The record is clear, for anyone to examine, whenever he wants: Bernstein was a great musician—a total musician—and a genius. In his vast and varied output, he made a big contribution to the cultural heritage of his country, and beyond.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 10
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