Leonard Bernstein: A Place for Him

lennyA century ago today, the most famous, the most influential, the most versatile, the most restless, the most extraordinary American musician of the twentieth century was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Louis Bernstein was soon to astound his Ukrainian Jewish parents, Jenny Resnick, and Samuel Bernstein, a Talmudic scholar and supplier of barber and beauty products. In 1927, Samuel acquired the only local licence to sell the Frederics Permanent Wave machine for curling hair. Of course, he hoped his eldest son would follow him into the family firm.

When Louis was ten, his Aunt Clara, enmeshed in divorce proceedings, sent her upright piano to his parents’ house for storage. He apparently took one look at the instrument, hit the keys and then proclaimed, “Ma, I want lessons.” By his early teens, the prodigy had mastered it. He staged operettas with friends; he performed as a jazz pianist; he played light classics on the radio. This medium, and especially its successor, television, brought to America and the world Leonard (Lenny), as he officially became at 16, after his grandmother’s death.

He received a B.A. in music from Harvard in 1939, then studied conducting with Fritz Reiner at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. Reiner apparently gave Bernstein the only A he ever awarded. In the summers of 1940 and 1941, he was a student of Serge Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Koussevitzky became a close friend when Bernstein joined in 1942 as his assistant. He would succeed him as head of conducting at Tanglewood in 1951 and returned there to conduct his last concert in 1990.

In 1943, he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and on 14 November, his big chance came. Bruno Walter fell ill and 25-year-old Lenny – with no chance to rehearse – was called on to conduct. His parents cried, “’Oy gevalt!’ almost in unison,” when they heard the news, “both of them holding their cheeks, as if to prevent their faces from collapsing.” Young Lenny walked onto the stage of Carnegie Hall in his only presentable suit, not a cutaway, but a double-breasted dark grey sharkskin. He conducted the overture from Schumann’s “Manfred,” Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote,” and the Prelude to “Die Meistersinger.” The performance was broadcast nationally on CBS Radio.

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His eleven-year-old brother, Burtie, was there with their parents and recalled, “Lenny conducted with his hands, his shoulders, his head. He closed his eyes dreamily at slow passages. Crouched. Bounced. Braced himself for the finish lags planted far apart. Then he opened his arms wide as though he was embracing the whole orchestra.” His upraised fist trembled as the last notes were played. Burtie said, “The house roared like one giant animal in the zoo…..It was certainly the loudest human sound I had ever heard  thrilling and eerie.” .The New York Times proclaimed “It’s a good American success story.”   “Suddenly”, said Lenny, “I was famous.” When a reporter asked Sam Bernstein why he had objected to Lenny being a musician, he said, ‘How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”

The New York Times was not always so fulsome. His most strident critic during the Philharmonic years was the paper’s Harold Schonberg, but even he admitted Bernstein’s growth as a conductor when he left the Philharmonic in 1969. Bernstein had learned “to conduct the big works of the repertory in a way that had shape as well as color, structural integrity as well as freedom within the phrase.”

The year after his dazzling debut, he and Jerome Robbins triumphed with the ballet Fancy Free, which opened to 22 curtain calls and became a huge hit. Within eight months, they had transformed it into a Broadway musical called On the Town, another hit. His operetta, Candide, based on Voltaire’s novella, with a script by Lillian Hellman, appeared in 1956. It lasted not quite two months on Broadway but it has since been regularly revived and its overture has become a classic.

THE Broadway show that Bernstein will always be remembered for is West Side Story in 1957. Modeled on Romeo and Juliet, from a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed ferociously by Jerome Robbins and produced by Hal Prince, it was the greatest theatrical creative team ever assembled. A New Yorker critic recently wrote that the play taught her : “…. about tragedy, and love and sex – there were broken hearts all over the place, like broken glass – and the idea that things can go very, very wrong, in an instant, but that the most important thing in the world was that we all learned to get along.”

The New York Times intoned, “Bernstein has composed another one of his nervous, flaring scores that capture the shrill beat of life in the streets”. What an understatement. New Criterion’s Jay Nordlinger cites hit after hit: the outstanding tenor aria, “Maria”; the rhapsodic “Tonight”; the irresistible waltz, “I Feel Pretty”; the Straussian “I Have a Love”; and “Somewhere”— that Schubert would have been happy to claim. It is no wonder that the film in 1961 won ten Oscars and that it endures.

His last completed Broadway musical was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976) was a commercial disaster but Bernstein’s lively music with Alan Jay Lerner’s stylish lyrics can now be appreciated as a concert version in a White House Cantata (1997).

Bernstein was the first American conductor/composer to conquer Europe. Between 1944 and 1957, he was largely a guest conductor, in the United States and Europe. The Vienna and the Israel Philharmonics became second homes. Who can forget his much re-broadcast performance on the podium in Vienna, arms folded, conducting with his face the Vienna Philharmonic in Haydn’s Symphony No.88? As for the Israel Philharmonic, his tour during the War for Independence in late 1948, including concerts near the front, made Bernstein a legend in Israel. He served as the orchestra’s musical adviser in 1948–9, conducted the premiere concert in their new hall in 1957, and was again its musical adviser in 1988.

In 1953, another first, when Bernstein led Cherubini’s Medea at La Scala, starring Maria Callas, making him the first American to conduct at Milan’s venerable opera house. When asked if he could fill in for an ailing Victor de Sabata in ten days, the maestro asked, “Who’s Cherubini and who’s Medea?” They later drifted happily together though La Sunnambula.

The year after Medea with Callas, he composed two memorable pieces. The first, “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for violin, strings, and percussion)” Lenny believed it was ‘the best f…n’ piece I ever wrote’. In 1954, he also wrote the film score for On the Waterfront, the masterpiece by Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando. He was furious not to win the Oscar for best score. He was brought down by Dimitri Tiomkin’s The High and the Mighty.

Bernstein believed the best recordings were based on live performances but his studio recordings are also sublime. Writing in these pages (May 2009), Neil MacDonald reviewed Deutsche Grammophon’s release in 2008 on DVD of Bernstein’s filmed Beethoven interpretations with the Vienna Philharmonic from the 1970s. All nine symphonies were originally broadcast on American television in 1982 with introductions by the Maestro, filmed by his regular collaborator, Humphrey Burton. MacDonald, who regarded both of Bernstein’s 1974 concerts in Australia with the New York Philharmonic, as “two of my greatest nights in the Sydney Opera House concert hall”, wrote about the 2008 release “even if one had seen the concerts oneself, these films would remain an invaluable enrichment of the original experience.” MacDonald describes, “Shots of violins, trumpets, double basses and the rest of the players were intercut with close-ups of Bernstein conducting so that at times the music seemed to be coming from inside the Maestro’s head.”

Bernstein shone as a writer too. In his best-seller, The Joy of Music (1959), he considers Beethoven and the magic ingredient sought by all composers:

the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard. When he did it—as in the Funeral March of the Eroica—he produced an entity that always seemed to me to have been previously written in Heaven and then merely dictated to him……Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, the chances are you’re listening to Beethoven…. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

This work, with The Infinite Variety of Music (1967), and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (1970), his lectures on the meaning and theory of music on television and at Harvard (where he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry), led to his reputation as ‘music’s most articulate spokesman.’

Bernstein was a natural member of the Kennedy’s Camelot court, though more elegist than entertainer. He conducted a pre-inaugural gala for John F Kennedy and on 23 November 1963, he conducted Mahler’s second Resurrection Symphony. He dedicated his third symphony, Kaddish (1964), ostensibly a choral setting of Jewish prayers for the dead, to the slain President. Then, in 1968, he conducted Robert F Kennedy’s Funeral Mass. Bernstein’s Mass (1971), commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Centre, was not well received by the establishment. A leading cleric dismissed it as “the work of a mind which neither understands nor believes in the Mass,” while the New York Times called it a “pseudo-serious effort . . . cheap and vulgar . . . a show-biz Mass.” Grove describes it now as “Both moving and perplexing, it appears to be as close to Bernstein’s spirit as any piece that he ever wrote.” As with his other work, Bernstein re-used bits from other projects, an alchemy of rock, jazz, marching band music, blues, and Broadway ballads.

Politically progressive, Bernstein embraced left and liberal causes with all the enthusiasm he had for everything else. In January 1973, as Richard Nixon’s second inauguration was being celebrated at the Kennedy Center, Bernstein assembled 50-piece orchestra of local musicians and 125 singers in a performance of Joseph Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” to about 10,000 opponents of the Vietnam War in Washington Cathedral. In 1989, he refused President George H. W. Bush’s offer of the National Medal of the Arts in protest over a funding dispute of an art exhibition in aid of Aids. When the FBI opened its files, there were 1,000 items on Bernstein’s file.

And Bernstein the man? As early as 1956, Time magazine accused Bernstein of suffering from a “pre-Copernican ego” – a tendency to believe that the world revolved around him.

In late 1951, Bernstein had wed actress, Felicia Montealegre Cohn, daughter of a Catholic Costa Rican mother and a wealthy American Jewish industrialist father. Only months after their marriage, she wrote this extraordinary letter to her husband:

“First: we are not committed to a life sentence – nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so).

Second: you are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?…

… In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl. There’ll be crisis (?) from time to time but that doesn’t scare me anymore. And let’s relax in the knowledge that neither of us is perfect and forget about being HUSBAND AND WIFE in such strained capital letters, it’s not that awful.”

Felicia would give up most of her career and became a fashionable hostess for the Maestro. In 1970, she hosted a fund-raising event for the Black Panthers in the family’s Park Avenue apartment. Tom Wolfe was a guest and penned “That Party At Lenny’s” for New York magazine, a lethal lampoon – a pyrotechnic display of stinging satire for which he coined the phrase ‘radical chic’. It was said that Felicia never really recovered from this.

By 1976, having given it ‘a whirl’, Felicia had had enough. She had forborne Lenny’s trysts with marines and sailors but she considered that his serious affair with a young musician, Tom Cothran, put their family life in danger. They announced a trial separation. Bernstein moved in with Cothran. But, when, the following year, Felicia was diagnosed with cancer, Lenny returned home to care for his wife. She died in 1978, aged 56.

Marking her father’s centenary, Jamie, the eldest of his three children, has written “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernsteina story about Daddy, of encompassing family love, Jewish-American style, with all its dizzying highs and corrosive lows. As the New Yorker’s David Denby observed,

No one lives easily on the slopes of a volcano…..He seemed to be omnisexual, a man of unending appetite who worked and played all day and most of the night, with a motor that would not shut down until he was near collapse. …….From the nineteen-forties into the eighties, he was everywhere, an intellectual American Adonis, our genius—erudite, popular, media-wise, and unstoppably fluent.

He powered through the 1980s – another opera, A Quiet Place, in 1983; a celebrated recording of West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa, Jose Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos. His Missa Brevis and Dance Suite in 1988 and, in 1989, Concerto for Orchestra. In 1986, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra during a Bernstein Festival in the presence of the Queen. But at a memorial service in that year for Alan Jay Lerner, Bernstein’s admirers held up a sign saying, ”We love you – stop smoking.” But he couldn’t stop, right up to his death. His response? ”The great thing about conducting, is you don’t smoke and you breathe in great gobs of oxygen.”

As Denby says about that last decade, there were “the ordinary disasters of old age and the awe-inspiring decay of a national monument……Perhaps only Thomas Mann could have mastered the ironies of Bernstein’s story. As he fell apart physically and morally, he wrote some demanding and beautiful music (including the song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles”), and his work on the podium became ever more disciplined, often profound, even visionary.”

His last great hurrah coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he conducted concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on either side of the Wall on 23 and 25 December. In changing The word taken from Schiller’s poem in the “Ode to Joy” movement from Freude (‘joy’) to Freiheit (‘freedom’), Bernstein pronounced, “I’m sure that Beethoven would have given his blessing.”

On 19 August 1990, he gave his last performance as a conductor, with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. During the Third Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh he had a coughing fit but carried on to the end; leaving the stage during the ovation – exhausted and obviously in pain. On 9 October, he announced, he announced his retirement from conducting. Two hours before his death from a heart attack on Sunday 14 October 1990, Bernstein was visited by young composer Bright Sheng, who had orchestrated ”Arias and Barcarolles”. He walked in to see Lenny watching a Yo-Yo Ma simulcast. ”They were playing Rachmaninoff, and he was humming along. He looked himself, was very much himself and we spoke about many things. He was lucid, even witty. I was happy for him at that moment.”

On his death, the composer Ned Rorem said, “Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72, but 288.” He was buried with a copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony across his chest.

As some 3,300 events are staged this year, and next, to honour the centenary of this genius, one can only echo the words of his sublime “Somewhere”. There is surely a place for Leonard Bernstein in the musical firmament.

One thought on “Leonard Bernstein: A Place for Him

  • Jody says:

    I highly recommend Humphrey Burton’s biography of Leonard Bernstein. A huge tome but well worth the effort in exploring this complex, gift and often unpleasant human being.

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