Although having a huge reputation as an interpreter and composer of classical music, Bernstein is probably most readily associated with musicals in general and West Side Story in particular. This is a modern reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story for stage and film. Full of Latin rhythms the musical manages to have New York gang members sing and dance and yet still seem tough and threatening. Anyone seeing the making of the album of West Side Story with Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa will agree with the description of Bernstein as "formidable" but he was formidable also in the sense of the breadth of his musical taste and experience and the total dedication to his art.
Bernstein was a hard-working musician, starting out initially as a pianist. He studied at Harvard University where was coached by Walter Piston and Aaron Copland (with whom he formed a life-long musical association). Then at Tanglewood Music Centre he studied with Serge Koussevitzky. These influences led him from full-time performing into the art of composing. He became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where a particular event gave him instant acclaim and a widespread following. Bruno Walter was to conduct a significant concert by the orchestra which was to be broadcast live on Radio. Walter was unable to fulfil this engagement and the principle conductor (Artur Rodzinski, who had appointed Bernstein) was away, and so Bernstein was called upon to fill in. He later became the orchestra's musical director, and was to become one of the foremost conductors of the day, leading orchestras throughout the world and gaining a reputation for his interpretations of composers such as Beethoven, Mahler and other masters including Brahms and Sibelius. He was also to conduct the world premier of Charles Ives' 2nd Symphony in 1951.
One of Bernstein's compositions was a Ballet called "Fancy Free" choreographed by Jerome Robbins about 3 sailors on leave in New York. This was then expanded into a Broadway musical called "On The Town" and a few years later the film version was shot starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Other Broadway musicals followed, including "Wonderful Town" and "Candide", but it was "West Side Story" (again conceived by Robbins and with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) that was to hit the big time with long runs on stage followed by a film version winning no less than 10 oscars. Bernstein himself was not eligible for the Award since the film music didn't meet the criterion of being original, and the musical award therefore went to Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green (who also conducted), Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal for the "musical score" adaptation. However a few years earlier Bernstein had been nominated for an oscar for his music to the film "On The Waterfront" which in tone and style was a foretaste of the darker parts of "West Side Story".
Lenny (as he was affectionately called) also composed traditional classical works for the concert hall, including 3 Symphonies and an Opera. Stylistically, Bernstein was influenced by Popular music, Jazz and also the Jewish music of his family heritage. In a sense, he took the trend established previously by Copland of blending elements of popular American culture into the classical tradition, and his earlier songs (for example those from "On the Town") certainly bore a resemblance to the music of George Gershwin. Although he was a staunch supporter of tonal music, he was sufficiently aware of serial techniques to adopt 12-note themes in some works, but never to the extent of fully embracing serialism. In terms of musical style, he seemed most at home with a fusion of classical, jazz and popular influences, giving his work a powerful dramatic feel but with an gritty urban realism. He was a great communicator and always willing to share his passion for music with the younger generation, giving masterclasses in Tanglewood and introducing the "Young People's Concerts" on television.
October 2010 marks 20 years since the death of Leonard Bernstein, and to mark the occasion Sony Classical are releasing a commemmorative edition which celebrates Bernstein's skill as a conductor. The release is a pack of 60 CDs of recordings made by Bernstein mostly with The New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Fittingly the special release also includes Bernstein's Symphonic work as a composer - Symphony No. 1 "Jeremiah", No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety" and No. 3 "Kaddish". The CD set can be found on Amazon.com in the US from 22nd November and Amazon.co.uk in the UK from 6th December.
There are a large number of classical recordings of Bernstein conducting classical works, such as Mahler Symphonies. To sample the best of his own compositions, try "The Essential Leonard Bernstein" which is a 2 CD Set mostly conducted by the composer, with tracks from West Side Story, On the Town, Candide, Fancy Free, On the Waterfront, "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" and others. This double album is available from: Amazon.co.uk1> in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US.
There is sheet music by Leonard Bernstein, including various arrangements of songs from West Side Story. This one from www.musicroom.com has America, Cool, I Feel Pretty, Maria, One Hand, One Heart, Something's Coming and Tonight. A web-site exists devoted to Leonard Bernstein at www.leonardbernstein.com and also one dedicated solely to West Side Story at www.westsidestory.com. Also see Jeffrey Dane's personal tribute to Leonard Berstein at the American Music Preservation site.
In flight to NY, miles above the Earth, I thought with a cold fury of having had to leave Vienna, my favorite European city. The warm sadness that soon overcame me wasn't surprising, but its unusual intensity had an elusive and intangible but still palpable character I found strangely disconcerting: a feeling of harmony became dissonant.
It can't be explained. It could only be felt. It's impossible to define, but it was very easy to recognize. It was 6:15pm New York time on a Sunday, October 14, 1990, and I had no way of knowing at that moment you had just left us.
So near, and yet so far. . .
Our world isn't the same without you in it. I never studied with you, but you were a very real mentor and role-model for me during my own formative years. You represented moments in my personal weather that had a profound influence on the entire climate of my life. I developed a marked tendency to form an almost emotional attachment to the musicians, living or not, whose work I study, and in me evolved a genuine passion for the history, literature, composers and practitioners of the art. This fervor is still with me -- and the responsibility for it falls to you. What I learned from you is, in a word, immeasurable.
You no longer talk with us but your voice isn't stilled. It will never be stilled. It's no coincidence your final resting place is on the highest natural point in the borough of Brooklyn: you're so far above most of us that the only things we had in common were human form and a passion for music. You're no longer here, but you're still very much with us. You always will be, for many reasons, maybe the most eternal of which is that what you did outlived you, and will outlive us.
I treasure that cork-tipped baton you gave me, and your inscribed photo of us, and those countless, cherished occasions on which I saw you in rehearsal, in concert, and on which we so very often spoke. I'd not be the same man if I hadn't known you, and I'm glad that I did. There are many who knew you, on whatever level, and it's very pleasing for me to know - it's even a source of pride - that I'm one of them.
So far, and yet so near. . .
Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher and author whose work is published in the USA and abroad in several languages.
(Color photo by Marie Dane; black & white photo by Pierre Voslinsky)