Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor, and colossus of American music was born eighty-seven years ago today. In the nearly fifteen years since his death, Bernstein’s star has fallen somewhat from its stratospheric heights. In Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall, Joseph Horowitz offers a compelling explanation of Bernstein’s career. The tragedy of Leonard Bernstein, as Horowitz depicts it, is that despite his many successes, Bernstein failed to live up to his artistic promise. Instead of becoming the facilitator of a genuinely American tradition in classical music, Bernstein became, in Horowitz’s words, an “artist upstaged by his own celebrity.” Bernstein’s legacy, Horowitz suggests, was not a revolution in American music characterized by Bernstein finding the holy grail of “[an American] Mozart”, but “the damaged hopes of this most American of classical musicians.” Although I have been a fan of Bernstein for as long as I can remember, Horowitz has convinced me that, in part, Bernstein did “fail” to reach his potential.
However, I would like to suggest that we remember Leonard Bernstein not only by questioning whether or not he lived up to his artistic potential, but also by celebrating his many musical triumphs. Although he only composed three symphonies (Jeremiah, The Age of Anxiety, and Kaddish), all three are well-crafted and powerful works that dispel the lingering idea that classical music (particularly the more traditional tonal variety) “ran out of steam” or “broke down” in the Twentieth Century. As the musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1970, Bernstein conducted and recorded unparalleled performances of his fellow American composers Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring, “Fanfare for the Common Man”) and George Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”, “An American in Paris”). Bernstein’s most popular composition was the music of West Side Story, a Broadway hit and later a movie that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Many people (myself included) sometimes forget that Bernstein also composed the moving original music from the movie On the Waterfront, which won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Elia Kazan. Even Bernstein’s lesser-known works are vibrant and unique, such as the jazzy “New York, New York” and “Times Square: 1944” from the musical On the Town, the rousing Overture from the operetta Candide (an unparalleled work of lyrical, musical, and philosophical satire, which Bernstein co-wrote based on Voltaire’s work of the same name), and the uplifting Chichester Psalms, which is a choral treatment of Psalms 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, and 133 (all in Hebrew).
There is a difference between being denigrated for failing to achieve more, and having the quality of one’s existing accomplishments impugned. Although the critics and scholars have grown harsher towards Leonard Bernstein since his death (and not without reason), there should be no question that during his life, Bernstein made impressive recordings and wrote inspiring music. For anyone seeking to acquire the best of Bernstein’s composing and conducting, I agree with NPR Classical Music Commentator Ted Libbey’s recommendation of Sony Classical’s Bernstein Century series of re-released recordings. If you don’t mind opera, try the original cast recording of Candide.
Bernstein himself said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Throughout his frantic, eccentric, and highly prolific career, Bernstein greatly enriched mankind through his music. Even if he did not achieve as much as he might have, Leonard Bernstein’s legacy contains more than enough to inspire and enlighten musicians and music-lovers, and to affirm that there are great American composers.
Here’s to you, Lenny!