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For rock, it was February 3, 1959. For American classical music, "The Day the Music Died" was October 14, 1990. It was on that day that we lost, all at once, our greatest conductor, our most influential teacher, one of our finest composers, one of our most accomplished pianists and our most famous native-born musician. On that day Leonard Bernstein died.
Reacting to the news, composer Ned Rorem dismissed the cliché that the perpetually-youthful Bernstein was too young to die: "Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 but 288." Indeed, while America has produced many great pianists, composers, conductors and teachers, Leonard Bernstein combined these talents to an unprecedented degree.
He once told the New York Times: "I don't want to spend my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same fifty pieces of music. It would bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all." Time dubbed him "the Renaissance Man."
But tangible achievements and public accolades are not the only measure of a man. In the Jewish tradition in which Bernstein lived, there is no material afterlife. Rather, the deceased endure by residing in the memories of those who survive. In that sense, Leonard Bernstein is immortal. When he died, millions throughout the world felt a profound and irreplaceable loss. His influence abides in each of them.
The violinist Midori likened Bernstein's legacy to a garden filled with "seeds created by his energy, planted by his love, still waiting to bloom." Perhaps Bernstein's greatest testament is yet to be fully felt as new generations of musicians, charged with the ecstasy of Bernstein's passionate commitment, ensure the vitality of classical music in the future.
Bernstein's attitude toward music was one of unfettered and consummate love: "Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace." He claimed to have no more energy than anyone else, but only that whatever he did was with his whole heart. He made no apology for his devotion: "I can do things in the performance of music that if I did on an ordinary street would land me in jail. I can get rid of all kinds of tensions and hostilities. By the time I come to the end of Beethoven's Fifth, I'm a new man."
His attitude was contagious. In the words of one jaded veteran: "When he gets up on the podium, he makes me remember why I wanted to become a musician." Bernstein's greatest influence, though, was upon the public. Hailed as a hero, Bernstein was able to popularize the classics in a way that no previous musician had ever done. An entire generation of Americans was drawn to great music through his television shows. Anyone who attended a Bernstein concert left feeling the profound wonder not only of music but of life itself.
No musician in the history of America touched so many people so deeply and in so many ways.
Bernstein's youth was unremarkable, largely due to the discouragement of his father. Even in later years, Bernstein's father would not deny his role, admitting to the New Yorker in 1958: "Every genius had a handicap. Beethoven was deaf. Chopin had tuberculosis. Well, someday the books will say, 'Leonard Bernstein had a father.'" While Bernstein later claimed to love his father, a more accurate portrayal may have emerged in his opera, Trouble in Tahiti, in which the protagonist (who just happens to be named Sam) is blinded by business ambition, bullies and bickers constantly with his wife and ignores his son.
Sam Bernstein was a Russian immigrant whose enthusiasm for America understandably was fueled by a desire for success. He was a Talmudic scholar destined to become a rabbi like his father. But upon his arrival at age 16, he began life in America as a fish-cleaner in New York's Lower East Side, working 12 hours, six days for a few dollars a week. He changed "careers" by sweeping the floor for his Uncle Henry's barbershop in Hartford, became a stockboy for a wig dealer, tenaciously worked his way up and emerged as a relatively wealthy distributor of beauty products.
The only musicians Sam had known had been klezmers – impoverished, itinerant entertainers in his native Ukraine, who played at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals in the hope of some spare change and an occasional meal. Sam wanted far better for his first son. Despite Leonard's fascination with the music he heard on the radio and in the synagogue, Sam was determined that a musical career was out of the question.
And so it was that until the age of ten, when most musical prodigies already have dazzled the world with precocious talent, Leonard Bernstein wiled away his time absorbing religious and pop tunes and preparing to fulfill his father's goal of a practical career in business. The messenger of change arrived in the form of a massive, carved upright piano which his Aunt Clara stored at the Bernstein house during her divorce. At first, Lenny played the piano instinctively by imitating the music he had heard. Although he could well afford it, Sam refused to pay for piano lessons. Exhibiting some of his father's resolve and resourcefulness, Lenny raised money to pay for his own lessons by teaching younger kids and recruited his talented sister Shirley to share his enthusiasms.
As his son's talent began to emerge, Sam's attitude softened. He bought Leonard a baby grand piano for his bar mitzvah. The next year, Sam got some tickets to the Boston Pops through his temple and took Leonard to his first concert. Leonard later recalled fantasizing with the conductor, Arthur Fiedler, and became particularly mesmerized during Ravel's haunting Bolero.
Lenny's enthusiasm for music exploded during his teen years. He staged amateur operas, dabbled at composition, and played on a radio show sponsored by his father's beauty supply company, a harbinger of the broad scope of his future professional activity. He became particularly adept at improvising variations in the styles of various classical and pop composers, an early manifestation of the eclecticism that led him to value all music and to cite examples from the Beatles as readily as from Beethoven or to prefer attending a Jimi Hendrix concert to a classical recital. He practiced the piano voraciously at all hours of the night; significantly, though, Lenny's was not the type of focussed, incessant repetition aimed at perfection but rather a spontaneous outburst of the sheer joy of playing and invention that would characterize his career.
At 14, Bernstein approached Heinrich Gebhard, the best-known piano teacher in Boston, for serious lessons and was referred to an assistant, Helen Coates. She not only refined his technique and broadened his horizons, but became a life-long mentor and friend, and ultimately would serve for decades as Bernstein's personal secretary. By age 16 Bernstein was ready for Gebhard himself, who set Bernstein ablaze with appreciation of the emotional power of music.
After receiving a strict, classical education at the prestigious 300-year old Boston Latin School, Bernstein attended Harvard. His pianism excelled and he became known as a prodigiously talented sight-reader. Bored with the highly theoretical music courses, he instead studied language and philosophy, while immersing himself in a wide variety of extracurricular musical experiences: playing silent film accompaniment, writing scathing criticism, and even staging Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Bernstein's first year and a half at Harvard was uneventful, and he appeared headed for a career as a concert pianist, if only he would settle down. But then 1937 brought a dizzying succession of three influences that would shape Bernstein's personality and career.
Dmitri Mitropoulos. In January 1937, Bernstein attended a Boston Symphony concert conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos and "went bananas" over the Greek's passionate drama and mystic intensity. In contrast to the usual image of a meek and reserved classical conductor, Mitropoulos was physically imposing, radiated enormous energy and foreswore a baton to gesture eloquently with his bare hands. At a reception the next day Mitropoulos heard Bernstein play a sonata and was so astounded that he invited the sophomore to attend his rehearsals and performances. During that week, Bernstein became enthralled with the art of conducting. He was also impressed by the power of the conductor and the huge accolades garnered after each concert. Mitropoulos's vigor, magnetism and expressiveness were qualities which Bernstein would ultimately adopt as hallmarks of his own artistry.
Mitropoulos returned to his permanent post in Minneapolis but wired Bernstein $200 to enable him to spend the next winter vacation with him. Sam Bernstein later recalled this as the turning point of his son's life. Upon returning to Harvard, Leonard declared that he would make music his life.
George Gershwin. Although Bernstein had many mentors and influences, George Gershwin may have been the principal model for his multi-faceted career. In his brief life, Gershwin achieved celebrity as an accomplished and influential pianist, a hugely successful pop and Broadway tunesmith, and a composer of serious works, including a piano concerto and an opera. Bernstein was particularly intrigued by the way in which Gershwin smoothly crossed cultural lines by unabashedly incorporating pop elements into his "traditional" pieces, and devoted much of his Harvard thesis to the matter.
Above all else, though, Gershwin revived a lost classical paradigm: the performing composer. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt – all the classical superstars of the past had gained fame by playing their own works to awe-struck audiences. Only toward the end of the century did Brahms, Wagner and others break the mold by creating the mystique of the aloof composer so occupied with rarefied thoughts that presentation had to be left to others. First Gershwin, and then Bernstein, would briefly revive the tradition of the all-around musician whose talent could not be confined to a single field of artistic endeavor.
Bernstein was devastated by Gershwin's sudden and untimely death in 1937. Upon hearing the news on a radio at summer camp, Bernstein interrupted an informal lunchtime recital to demand silence while he played a Gershwin prelude. He later recalled that at that moment he identified so fully with Gershwin that he felt that he had actually become the composer. Thus, through his death Gershwin passed a torch to Bernstein: the essential instinct of a great musician to crawl inside a work and recreate it through the act of his own performance. As Ned Rorem recalled, Bernstein "not only championed my music but conducted it in a manner coinciding with my very heartbeat."
Aaron Copland. Bernstein's next great mentor was Aaron Copland, arguably the most influential American composer of his generation. Although solidly grounded in traditional European form, Copland's music was infused with the folk and jazz idioms of America. Bernstein came to regard Copland as his Biblical namesake, the prophet Aaron, who communicated the essence of traditional culture to a new generation through contemporary language.
As a Harvard undergrad, Bernstein's favorite piano work was Copland's spiky Piano Variations; Bernstein bragged that when he played it at parties, "I could empty a room, guaranteed, in two minutes." One occasion when his guarantee failed was at a party attended by the composer, who was so amazed at Bernstein's talent that the two became instant friends.
Copland criticized and molded Bernstein's own writing, provided an entree to the top echelon of American composers, guided him toward conducting and launched his graduate training with an introduction to Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute; the rest, as they say, is history. Once his career took off, Bernstein reciprocated by becoming a tireless advocate of modern American music (including Copland's), boosting its popularity through performances of stunning vitality. But for now, the attention lavished by a musician of Copland's stature was the first tangible indication that the aspiring student would indeed scale the heights.
At this juncture, it would perhaps be dishonest to avoid any mention of another matter – nearly as dishonest as failing to place it in the proper context. The attraction of Mitropoulos and Copland to Bernstein was not entirely professional; through them came Bernstein's entree into a lifelong series of homosexual relationships into which he poured considerable emotion and energy. A surprisingly large number of American composers of the era were gay, but in keeping with the discretion of the time little mention was ever made of the fact – until, that is, the publication in 1987 of Joan Peyser's Bernstein: a Biography, which seemed absolutely obsessed with it. At the outset of her book, Peyser plausibly claimed that "the personal areas of Bernstein's life ... can make a big difference in the way we hear Bernstein as well as the way we assess his achievements." And yet, not once in the next 460 pages did Peyser even suggest how Bernstein's sexuality had the slightest bearing upon his writing, teaching, composing, conducting or any other aspect of his profession. Perhaps all that should be said is that Bernstein had a huge capacity for love and that he was attracted to people of talent regardless of gender.
Serge Koussevitzky. After Harvard, Bernstein completed a year of intensive training at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Fritz Reiner, a strict disciplinarian in the Toscanini mold, who emphasized thorough preparation and insisted that the only way to understand a piece was to master every detail. One of his favorite exercises was to demand that a student name the notes a given instrument would be playing at a specific measure of a complex score. While Bernstein may have benefitted from such rigorous discipline, he surely sensed that music meant more than rote mechanics. Then Serge Koussevitzky entered his life.
Koussevitzky was born near Moscow in 1874 and established a reputation as a virtuoso on the double bass, of all unlikely instruments (reportedly because that was the only scholarship left when he enrolled in the conservatory). In 1905 he married a wealthy heiress and obtained the means to devote himself to his lifelong compulsion to educate. By the end of the decade, he had established his own orchestra, which until the Revolution he took on tour to areas where concerts had never been heard. He also established a publishing house for modern Russian composers whom the majors had shunned; his first publication was Stravinsky's Petrouchka, and the initial roster included such other unknown future luminaries as Scriabin, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov.
Unwilling to accept Communist strictures, Koussevitzky transplanted his activities to Paris and then in 1924 was appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony. Throughout his 25-year tenure he commissioned and performed huge amounts of modern music and became the most respected of all American conductors. Then, in 1940, he launched his most enduring legacy through which he would ensure the future of the art he had so passionately advocated.
The Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood was a new and wholly American concept: a convergence of over 300 of the most talented student and professional composers, performers and writers to interact and learn from each other over the course of a summer – an artistic democracy. The apex of the program was a master class in conducting class to be led by Koussevitzky himself. Bernstein was one of only five students accepted. He instantly fell under Koussevitzky's spell.
Each of Bernstein's mentors was, in a sense, a father-figure, providing him with an artistic paradigm that the practical Sam had so actively discouraged. But while Mitropoulos, Gershwin, Copland and his many teachers were all fully dedicated to their profession, Koussevitzky approached music as a moral imperative.
To Koussevitzky, every performance was the performance, which required a conductor's total devotion and care. Koussevitzky was vain and lived and dressed quite well. But as Bernstein later recalled, "All he did was marshalled and harnessed to be at the service of music. The difference lies between the conductor who is vain on his own behalf and the conductor whose ego glories in the reflected radiance of musical creativity." Koussevitzky demanded that a conductor lead a life of personal purity, morality and service to the community. His approach was religious: musicians, like clergy, had to constantly earn the right to transmit the holiest of art to the people.
But as a performer Koussevitzky was no dour puritan. Rather, he was a warm and loving person and his interpretations glowed with inspiration, vision and spontaneous emotion. His passion was not of the unbridled sort (which often smacks of interpretive ego) but rather was dedicated to conveying the outlook of the composer. He insisted that a performer uncover and convey the "central line" of a work: the single idea that embodies its essence.
Unfortunately, Koussevitzky's intensity is not fully apparent from his studio recordings, the best of which feature his Sibelius (collected on Pearl 9408), Tchaikovsky (on RCA 60920), Prokofiev (on RCA 61657), Ravel (on RCA 61392) and modern Americans (on Pearl 9492). His art was far better conveyed on 25 concert CDs from the Italian AS Disc label (#s 550 through 574), whose importation in America has now been banned following legal action by the Boston Symphony, which apparently feels very threatened by reminders of its past glory.
Perhaps the most telling of Koussevitzky's available recordings is his 1930 set of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition (on Pearl 9020 or RCA 61392). The original piano work depicts a tour of an art show and consists of a "promenade" theme linking brief musical portraits of ten unrelated pictures. Koussevitzky commissioned an orchestration by Ravel, which has emerged as the version by which the work is most often heard today. Toscanini and Stokowski, among others, left us superb recordings which emphasize the individual color and drama of each section. Koussevitzky characterizes more subtly, melding each distinct episode into the musical whole. While lacking the overt excitement of the other versions, Koussevitzky's is perhaps ultimately more convincing, as he submerges his own personality beneath the more essential need to bolster and convey the admittedly contrived overall structural conception. Similar triumphs of self-effacement are his 1930 and 1944 recordings of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe (on Pearl 9090 and RCA 61392), in which he eschews the overt sensationalism of the score in favor of a seamless sensual flow.
Of all the brilliant students at Tanglewood that first summer, Koussevitzky seized upon Bernstein to become his star pupil and to groom as his ultimate successor. Bernstein decided then and there that conducting would become his main focus of musical activity.
Koussevitzky's artistic outlook would remain a primary influence upon Bernstein's career, but not blindly so. Bernstein flatly rejected the suggestion that he change his name to "Leonard S. Burns" and convert to Christianity (as Koussevitzky had done) in order to increase his appeal to middle America. Bernstein refused to abandon his Broadway and religious compositions, even though they infuriated Koussevitzky as diminishing his capacity to interpret great classics. Nor could Bernstein bring himself to abandon his flamboyant lifestyle in favor of the discipline and dignity Koussevitzky required, a decision that ultimately would cost him the helm of the Boston Symphony when Koussevitzky retired.
And yet, the two remained close associates and the mentor's influence remained strong. Bernstein stayed with Koussevitzky through the last night of his life and then assumed direction of Tanglewood. Although he had rejected marriage twice before, a mere two days after leading a Koussevitzky memorial concert Bernstein announced his engagement and was married in Koussevitzky's suit, as if to assure his departed master that he would become respectable after all. Bernstein named his first son Serge. He never performed without wearing a pair of cufflinks Koussevitzky gave him, ritually kissing them as his final gesture before walking out on stage. And to the end of his own days, Bernstein never tired of proclaiming Koussevitzky to have been the strongest influence on his life.
Much of what Bernstein achieved professionally was a natural consequence of his brilliance, talent and charisma. And yet, luck played a role as well. And it was pure luck that launched Bernstein into national prominence.
After completing his studies at Curtis and Tanglewood, Bernstein was out of work and took odd jobs as a music transcriber and dance accompanist in New York. But then, upon Koussevitzky's recommendation, he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic by Artur Rodzinsky. Undeservedly forgotten nowadays, Rodzinsky championed modern composers and regularly whipped the Philharmonic into an enormous frenzy, as is documented by CDs of his mid-40s concerts of the Beethoven Fifth, Tchaikovsky Fourth and Shostakovich Fifth Symphonies (on AS Discs 633, 520 and 631 respectively).
Rodzinsky later claimed that he had asked God whom to choose among eligible candidates and was told, "Take Bernstein." More likely, though, Bernstein had asthma rather than God to thank for his selection, as all his healthier competitors had been drafted. Even so, the position was considerably less an honor than it may have seemed. Although the assistant was given a concert to conduct (which the press and subscribers routinely ignored), his principal duty was to screen new scores and to learn each of the orchestra's programs in the event he was needed to substitute. But there was no realistic reward for all the intensive preparation as a stand-by: over the past several decades no replacement had ever been needed and Rodzinsky was in excellent health. While Bernstein was flattered that he had overcome the resistance to appoint a native-born American to such a post, he really had little to do.
That all changed on the afternoon of Sunday, November 14, 1943, as Bruno Walter was about to complete a two-week guest stint. Walter had been the protege of none other than Gustav Mahler, the greatest conductor of his time, who had spent the last two years of his life as music director of the New York Philharmonic. As the inheritor of that mantle, Walter had come to represent the very embodiment of Viennese musical tradition. His popularity and reputation were such that Bernstein had brought his parents to New York to witness what promised to be a great event and the highlight of the season.
And then luck intervened. Walter fell ill and, as usually occurred, the permanent conductor was called to fill in. In what would be the most famous gesture of his career, Rodzinski generously ordered: "Call Bernstein – that's why we hired him." And call him they did – at 9 am for that afternoon's concert.
Bernstein had been up all night partying, and had time only to briefly visit the ailing Walter to review the scores and to show up for the concert without rehearsal. The audience greeted the announcement of the substitution with disappointment at missing the chance to hear a great legend. Little could they have suspected that instead they would launch an even greater one: the most spectacular debut of their generation, shared by an audience of millions through the scheduled CBS national radio broadcast.
The program was difficult: Schumann's Manfred Overture, Rosza's new Theme, Variations and Finale, Strauss's Don Quixote and Wagner's Meistersinger Overture. According to Philharmonic violinist Jacques Margolis, it was intended that Bernstein simply follow the orchestra, which had already played the same program several times under Walter. But then, as Margolis recalled: "It didn't work out that way. You just couldn't believe a young man could create that kind of music. Here were players in their fifties and sixties with long experience. And here this little snot-nose comes in and creates a more exciting performance. We were supposed to have gone over it with Bruno Walter, we had rehearsed it with him and performed it with him, and this had nothing to do with Bruno Walter. The orchestra stood up and cheered. We were open-mouthed. That man was the most extraordinary musician I have ever met in my life."
Bernstein claimed to have been in a daze after the first three dramatic downbeats of the Schumann, but his instincts must have served him well. The audience became riveted by his energy and soon understood the magnitude of the event they were witnessing. Bernstein was recalled constantly by waves of ecstatic applause.
The event was front page news in the next day's New York Times, eclipsed in importance only by war dispatches. A related editorial proclaimed the occasion an American success story. Amazingly, within the month Bernstein substituted for yet another guest conductor who took ill, leading cynics to acknowledge that his debut had been no fluke and invoking glowing comparisons to Koussevitzky himself. By the end of the season, Bernstein had conducted the Philharmonic eleven times; clearly, the management recognized that they had a potent drawing card.
As the result of his instant celebrity, doors of opportunity flew open. Bernstein was besieged with guest conducting offers. He became a regular guest on the "Information Please" radio quiz show. He was the darling of high society. Orchestras sought performances of his compositions. He was even offered a screen test for the lead in a biopic on Tchaikovsky. And on a more personal level, Sam Bernstein finally reconciled himself to his son's musical career, gushing to the press over his "contribution to an America that has done everything for me" and attempting to recast his former reluctance with humor: "How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?"
One of the most significant benefits of Bernstein's celebrity, and ultimately the most lasting, was the start of his recording career as a freelance but exclusive RCA Victor artist. Largely forgotten nowadays and eclipsed by his massive Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon catalogues, the RCA performances are impressive both for their fine artistic quality and for their surprisingly broad repertoire.
One feature of the RCA recordings which is decidedly unimpressive, though, is their sound. Even in their recent CD restorations (on RCA CDs 60915, 61650, 62568 and 68101), their thin, whiny, flat sonics pale beside the rich, reverberant, well-balanced acoustic RCA had managed to provide for Toscanini's New York Philharmonic records of the 1930s, and even for Stokowski's Philadelphia series going back to 1927! Admittedly, Bernstein was hardly in a position to demand perfection, but from a purely mechanical standpoint he deserved far better than he got.
In lieu of the usual sure-fire light classical crowd-pleasers imposed upon most novices by A&R men, Bernstein somehow managed to record a nice variety of works that were both meaningful to him and representative of his composing, pianism and conducting, the three primary phases of his career at the time. Following a set of scenes from his ballet Fancy Free cut for Decca in June, 1944 allegedly under his supervision, Bernstein's first genuine recording was of the Dances from his On the Town, made with the "On the Town Orchestra" in February 1945, a mere month after the Broadway opening. It is a fine, swaggering performance that fully conveys the vivacious audacity of the premiere. Two weeks later he led the St. Louis Symphony and soprano Nan Merriman in his prize-winning Symphony # 1 (now on RCA 61581) with far lesser results; while the final "Lamentation" movement achieves a powerful dignity, the rest is coarse and careless. In 1947, he would be given the chance to record his Facsimile ballet with the RCA Victor Orchestra, and his Seven Anniversaries. (His cloying I Hate Music, a blessedly brief song cycle, followed in 1949.)
The Anniversaries gave Bernstein the opportunity to shine not only as a composer, but as a brilliant pianist. Also in the RCA series was a bracing 1947 performance of the Copland Piano Sonata, which Bernstein studied with the composer and of which he presumably gave a definitive interpretation. There is also a 1946 reading with the Philharmonia Orchestra of the Ravel Piano Concerto, a work with which Bernstein had dazzled audiences from the very start of his career and which underlined Bernstein's versatility by featuring him in the dual role of soloist and conductor.
The final phase of Bernstein's career documented by the RCA recordings is his conducting. After the On the Town Dances, he next recorded with his New York City Symphony Orchestra the Airborne Symphony by his friend Marc Blitzstein, whose proletarian opera The Cradle Will Rock had galvanized Bernstein's social conscience in 1939 and had prompted him to organize a controversial performance as a Harvard senior. Clearly a labor of love, Bernstein delivered a heartfelt performance of what can charitably be described as a period piece (or perhaps more candidly as horrendous drivel, in which a soaring narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra all push the most obvious emotional buttons to drizzle dewy-eyed wonderment upon the history of armed aerial combat, somewhat akin to the soundtrack for a mawkish educational movie).
More than any other of his early recordings, the weakness of the Airborne rather ironically serves to highlight one of Bernstein's greatest strengths: how he was able to transform such trivia through the sheer magnitude of his conviction. Just as Toscanini lent credibility to trite sentimental pieces of his deservedly unknown Italian contemporaries and Beecham animated the wispy meanderings of Delius, Bernstein's recording injected vitality and conviction to Blitzstein's bathos. Even the worst conductor can communicate at least some of the essence of a masterpiece. But perhaps the measure of a truly great conductor is an ability to invest mediocre or even genuinely bad music with a semblance of quality.
The RCA series is completed by Gershwin's An American in Paris, a Bernstein signature piece, Stravinsky's Octet and L'Histoire du Soldat, both with members of the Boston Symphony, Milhaud's La Creation du Monde and Copland's Billy the Kid ballet. The last, in atypically decent sound, is the gem of the series, brilliantly evoking the gutsy leanness of Copland's idealization of the mythic American West of the pioneers.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of these recordings is their extreme interpretive similarity to Bernstein's later remakes for Columbia, thus demonstrating the maturity of his artistry even at this early stage. The dismal sound, though, dooms all but a few to curiosity value beside the manifestly superior remakes.
As a senior at Harvard, Bernstein had faced the enviable challenge of any brilliant college student: what to pursue in a life that held so much promise in so many directions. Blitzstein recalled that one day, lying on the banks of the Charles River, Bernstein said he didn't know what he wanted to be. There were so many possibilities, ranging from business to music. Blitzstein continued: "None of this seemed out of bounds. He had no sense of limitation. ... One didn't know from which springboard he would dive, but one knew there would be a hell of a splash."
In the euphoria which followed Bernstein's spectacular debut, he evaded the need to choose and instead embarked upon a multi-faceted musical career in which he would try to have it all. Although it was his pianistic skill that had opened the first doors and for which his formal training seemed to have prepared him, Bernstein's solo activities were nearly over. Instead, he dedicated his life to three principal aspects of music: writing/teaching, composing and conducting. Although the strands were interrelated, he often pursued one to the exclusion of the others, but only until the lure of the fallow fields beckoned for renewed cultivation.
Bernstein claimed: "I have always loved words fully as much as musical notes; I find the same joys of ambiguity, structural suspense, anagrammatic play and grace of phrasing in both." As a child, he and friend Eddie Ryback invented their own language ("Rybernian," an amalgam of their names) and throughout his life Bernstein devoured crossword puzzles and loved to play verbal word-games. But the promise of these private pleasures remained unfulfilled artistically.
Bernstein wrote five books, but they mostly comprise reprints of television scripts, lectures, speeches and letters rather than original material. His few actual writings display little sensitivity to linguistic structure or to the careful selection of words that permanence demands; their rambling conversational tone seems more analogous to background music than to serious composition.
Bernstein occasionally exploited his love of wordplay to craft fascinating lyrics, as in the opening bop chorus for his opera Trouble in Tahiti (which fitfully invokes the trappings of suburbia and plays even more delightfully than it reads):
So far so far so
But the rest of the opera soon degenerates into the commonplace, and Bernstein's few attempts at writing serious drama verge on the embarrassing. Perhaps Bernstein recognized his limitation, as he came to rely on others to provide lyrics for most of his music.
While Bernstein never succeeded in channeling his talents into writing, he still had, as he put it, a "compulsion to communicate" and often had "something to say." He said it through teaching.
Violinist Isaac Stern explained that Bernstein "revelled in the power and beauty of ideas and was driven to share his wonder at these human treasures with all who were around him – most particularly young people." Norman Scribner expanded: "We all start out as children making music and our emotion is pure. We feel our bodies dance. We have this pure and unalloyed love for music. What makes Bernstein unique is that he never veered from that childhood love. When you made music with him, you felt brought back to the place where you should be and from which you should never stray – that primal state of joyful embrace."
Bernstein was a passionate advocate for musical education: "Children must receive musical instruction as naturally as food, and with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game." Fortunately, Bernstein's boundless energy, great looks, striking intelligence and compelling sincerity made him a natural teacher. And even more fortunately, he displayed these talents in the biggest classroom ever invented – television. In Bernstein's words: "This old quasi-rabbinical instinct I had for teaching and explaining and verbalizing found a real paradise."
Bernstein's first TV program was broadcast live on November 14, 1954 – exactly eleven years after his New York Philharmonic debut. That half-hour Omnibus show was an ambitious debut, exploring Beethoven's sketches for his Fifth Symphony in order to demonstrate the depth of the composer's genius in struggling with and refining his raw material to the simplicity, perfection and inevitability of its final form. Musical examples abounded, and to add visual excitement to what otherwise could have been a dull lecture, the first page of the score was painted on the studio floor, the musicians standing on their respective lines and moving about as Beethoven manipulated their music.
Admittedly, this sounds rather dull by current standards, when everything from news to science must be smothered in electronic gimmickry to hold even a moment's attention. But critics at the time immediately grasped the significance of what had occurred. Variety proclaimed that it "opened up a new field in television." John Crosby raved in the New York Herald Tribune: "This is the sort of teaching that I had visions of television doing in all the arts and sciences. One great teacher bursting with vitality and personality and information could spread his culture all over the country, assaulting you in a physical wave to such a degree that a short course in opera sticks in a million or so craniums forevermore. It's quite a feat if you can bring it off and Bernstein can and does. Virtually no one else does. He's a natural asset, that young man, and one we should treasure."
Eight succeeding Omnibus shows covered the gamut of music, from Bach to jazz and from grand opera to musical comedy. In January 1958, Omnibus was followed by Young Peoples Concerts, broadcast on Sunday nights for fifteen years, dubbed into a dozen languages and syndicated to forty countries. All were written by Bernstein and were infused with his knowing, dynamic personality and his genuine love of all music. They won Edison, Emmy, Peabody and Sylvania awards for excellence in television. But perhaps their greatest achievement emerges from a 1960 incident in a Denver park, when a little boy went up to Bernstein and hit him. The reason, it turned out, was that the previous program had begun to run over and Bernstein had to omit his usual closing. The boy resented that, "You didn't say goodnight to me." But Bernstein was thrilled at what else the boy remembered: "You were talking about Mahler." And that, of course, was the ultimate vindication of all of Bernstein's efforts: he harnessed the boob tube to turn an entire generation on to classical music.
Concurrent with his television projects, Bernsteins irrepressible pedagogical bent found another outlet. In the mid-fifties, before his popularity provided year-round employment, the New York Philharmonic musicians moonlighted in the summer, giving performances "Under the Stars" as the Stadium Concerts Symphony. They also recorded several standard symphonic works with Bernstein, but Columbia Records (to which both conductor and orchestra were contractually bound) apparently did not relish competition for their best-selling versions by Walter, Ormandy and Szell. Some were released by Decca while others were packaged by the Book-of-the-Month Clubs Musical Appreciation Society with 10-inch LPs of Bernsteins analyses, generously sprinkled with musical examples, that were at once insightful, witty and fascinating, a far cry from the well-intentioned but stiff and condescending side of "thematic analysis" that Stokowski had included with several of his early electrical symphonic sets of 78s. For example, Bernsteins vibrant commentary for the "New World" Symphony (on MAR LP 6237) compellingly skewers the oft-repeated presumption that Dvorak intended this work as an object-lesson to show American composers how to incorporate their native folk material into serious music and instead documents the Symphonys European roots and international influences.
The culmination of Bernstein's formal teaching came in 1973, when he was invited back to Harvard to deliver a series of six lectures. Bernstein threw himself into the project, devoting nearly two years to their preparation. In them, he used equal helpings of linguistic theory, musicology and mysticism to demonstrate that all musical expression, from childish taunts to Mahler adagios, are an integral part of a unified system of universal communication. At turns colloquial and at others bafflingly dense, the lectures were entitled "The Unanswered Question," in reference to the title of one of Bernstein's favorite works, Charles Ives's visionary tone poem which traces man's unfulfilled quest for meaning throughout his existence: a trumpet incessantly propounds an unchanging "question" to which flutes posit increasingly complex and confounding answers, all over an unchanging background of soothing strings representing the unaffected eternity of the indifferent universe. Bernstein concluded the lectures on a note of touching optimism: "The answer to the question, although I forget what it is, is 'yes'."
Bernstein's teaching transcended the bounds of formality and permeated all of his activity. Indeed, he once confessed that he required a pedagogic reason for everything he did. He built the programs of his concert seasons around specific themes. He consistently scheduled new music and appointed assistant conductors each year to work with and learn from him. He instituted pre-concert talks and wrote many of his own album notes, illuminating the music with his own fascinating personal perspective. Beginning in the early 1970s, he had all of his performances recorded for release on film and then video. And it has been suggested that Bernstein's emphatic style of conducting was itself pedagogic, as if to ensure that the listener wouldn't miss the point.
In a 1977 interview, Bernstein claimed that, "In a sense, I suppose, I am always writing the same piece, as all composers do. But each time it is a new attempt in other terms to write this piece, to have the piece achieve new dimensions, or even acquire a new vocabulary. The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of our century, a crisis of faith." If Bernstein's artistic grappling with the modern crisis of faith would find its most wide-ranging expression in his 1971 Mass, it began in his very first serious composition.
Bernstein had written the last of Jeremiah's three movements in 1939 as a lamentation for soprano and orchestra, using Hebrew text from the book of Jeremiah, in which the prophet mourns that Jerusalem is in ruins. In 1942, he coupled the vocal finale to two purely instrumental movements intended to depict the prophet's fervent pleas for repentance and the chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people. The full program gave Bernstein an opportunity to craft a wide range of colorful and expressive music, all of which paraphrases and evokes the sound of liturgical cadences without directly quoting authentic Jewish musical themes. The result is a gorgeous blend of novelty and tradition, at turns brooding and dramatic, intense and lush, modern but deeply tonal. And at only 25 minutes, Jeremiah is also brief enough to make its impact without overstaying its welcome.
Upon its premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in January 1944, the work made an enormous impact, and Bernstein proudly toured the country introducing it to local audiences. Following the New York performances, it won the coveted Music Critics Circle Prize for the best new composition of the year. His 1945 recording with Nan Merriman and the St. Louis Symphony (on RCA 61581) retains its historical import as Bernstein's first with a full orchestra, but his 1961 remake with Jennie Tourel and the New York Philharmonic (Sony SM3K 47162) is far more vital and probing. (A 1977 version with the Israel Philharmonic (DG 415-962) is less inspired, and Christa Ludwig's operatic treatment of the finale misses the liturgical depth of the others.) Of Bernstein's subsequent serious works, the most significant were the 1949 Symphony # 2 ("The Age of Anxiety"), the 1954 Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, the 1965 Symphony # 3 ("Kaddish") and the 1986-89 Concerto for Orchestra. But none achieved much celebrity, and now that Bernstein is no longer around to program them himself or to have them played at festivals in his honor, they are likely to be forgotten.
Bernstein once said that if you stripped down any of his serious compositions, you would find that they had a theatrical core. He marvelled at the power of theater: "Perhaps the most theatrical thing in the world is a room full of hushed people, and the more people ... are silent, the more dramatic it is." Indeed, it is not as a serious composer but as an incomparable man of the theater that Bernstein will be remembered. And the ultimate expression of theater in classical music is the opera.
Trouble in Tahiti (on Sony SM3K 47154) is a 45-minute two-character chamber piece which traces an empty day in the vacuous lives of Sam and Dinah, a bored upper-middle class couple. The lyrics are pedestrian; but, after all, how many opera librettos could ever pass for great literature? It is redeemed by Bernstein's magnificent music which is seeped in the idioms of its time (including cinematic dissolves and cross-cutting) and brilliantly contrasts Sam's superficial bravado at his office and gym with Dinah's desperate dreams of an emotional life.
The beginning sets the tone as a bop trio paints a gushy picture of a perfect life in suburbia. This facetious idyll immediately fades into a vicious parody of the opening domestic duets of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven's Fidelio, in which lovers delightedly flitted about and teased each other in anticipation of a delicious future. Here, Sam and Dinah step on each other's lines and create awkward silences as they bicker over their breakfast, accompanied by dry orchestration, awkward rhythms and spiky xylophone accents.
The end is equally inspired: tense silence as the couple speak their only sincere lines and for just once seem on the verge of actually talking to each other. But then the music resumes as they numbly trudge off to the movies, substituting Hollywood magic for the type which apparently is to remain forever missing from their own lives.
Three decades later, Stephen Wadsworth, editor of Opera News, approached Bernstein to expand and update Tahiti. In 1983, they created A Quiet Place (on DGG 419 761), which opens at Dinah's funeral, incorporates the halves of the earlier opera as flashbacks, and ends in a massive reconciliation among Sam and his children, who in their own way are every bit as messed up as their parents. Unfortunately, what had been fresh, revealing and poignant in 1951 seemed tired, trite and cloying by the mid-'80s, and most critics dismissed the effort as more of a mediocre soap opera than the great American opera Bernstein had longed to write.
But shorn of its Quiet Place baggage, the bitter ironies of the original Tahiti remain unimpaired. Not the least of these is that Bernstein wrote his savage attack upon marriage while on his honeymoon!
It is indeed amazing that so many lists of Bernstein's achievements include movies, though he wrote only a single film score in his entire life. But what a score it was!
On the Waterfront was showered with awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Elia Kazan), Actor (Marlon Brando) and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg) – but not for Bernstein's fabulous music; although nominated, it lost to Dmitri Tiomkin for The High and the Mighty. In many respects, the movie hasn't aged gracefully. Although praised in its time for gritty realism, the end now seems awfully contrived, as an entire gang of tough, corrupt dock workers magically fall into line behind a reformed outcast. While Brando's "I coulda been a contenda" speech is still enormously moving, other portions of the preachy script seem laughably naive and Eva Marie Saint's alleged acting is too stilted. Bernstein's music, though, remains startlingly fresh, precisely because it evokes rather than describes, eschewing lyrics and other specific references that would date poorly in order to suggest the timeless urban rhythms and universal human longings that transcend specific locales and generations.
Frustrated that the soundtrack often fragmented his music or submerged it beneath dialogue and noise, Bernstein arranged the score into a symphonic suite, which is equally fine in recordings with the New York Philharmonic (on Sony SMK 47530) and the Israel Philharmonic (on DGG 415 253-2).
A collaboration with Lillian Hellman, Candide was based upon Voltaire's satiric novella of 1759, which had lampooned the philosophy of optimism, a mindless acceptance of disaster in this best of all possible worlds. Most great shows boast an inseparable blend of book and lyrics. Joan Peyser pinpointed the problem that doomed Candide from the outset: two brilliant creators each seized upon the possibilities of the source material in irreconcilable ways. Bernstein crafted a delightful score that subtly ribbed the staid conventions of European opera, while Hellman, "whose tongue was never in her cheek," planned a dead-serious attack upon the anti-communist investigating committees which had victimized her and her literary circle. Needless to say, Candide didn't jell.
Another problem was that Voltaire's work was a dizzying succession of brief, surreal adventures in wide-flung locales. As Meryle Secrest aptly observed, the story was more suited for cinematic than theatrical treatment. Despite pruning, the huge number of episodes lacked continuity, the costuming and sets were overwhelming and the pace was simply too breathless for the typical theater-goer. Perhaps the ultimate kiss of death was the absence of genuine romance. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr termed Candide "a really spectacular disaster." The show opened on Broadway on December 1, 1956 and closed after 73 performances.
Hellman was irked that her cogent words were constantly drowned out by Bernstein's distracting music. And there was a lot of music – nearly two hours' worth, comprising thirty separate numbers. The Overture has become one of the most popular light classical compositions of our time and "The Best of All Possible Worlds" and "Glitter and Be Gay" have also taken their places in the Broadway pantheon. But beyond its few hit tunes, Candide boasts an amazing variety of music, albeit intentionally derivative, ranging from Viennese waltzes to Lutheran chorales to a Mozartean Act One finale. The end, though, is pure Bernstein: a lovely solo, repeated with layers of choruses, leading up to a riveting Mahleresque orchestral climax.
In conventional terms of finances and longevity, Candide was a flop. But it has refused to die and has been periodically revived in versions that reshuffled the scenes and music, substituted new books and restored musical numbers originally cut. A 1974 adaptation played over 700 performances. A recording of a 1988 restoration for the Scottish Opera (on DGG 429 734) was conducted and cast by Bernstein and stands as his final and definitive version.
Although Bernstein labored to save Candide, he was barely fazed by its failure. He had already turned his attention to completing the work which would become his legacy.
To the end of his days, Bernstein was plagued with regret that he had failed to write the Great American Opera. Instead, he wrote West Side Story, the great American musical. (Ironically, though, one of his last recording projects (on DGG 415 253) was a misguided attempt to recast the show as grand opera, which only produced a travesty of the gritty original.)
The idea of the show had been suggested by Jerome Robbins, a choreographer who sought to create a distinctive American ballet style much as Bernstein strove to do with music. Their first collaboration became Bernstein's first success – the 1943 ballet Fancy Free, which they later transformed into the equally popular show On the Town in 1944. In 1949, Robbins conceived a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with an ill-fated slum romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl during the Easter/Passover season. Bernstein withdrew, though, out of respect for Koussevitzky's ire that he was diverting his talent from conducting the classics.
By the summer of 1955, when urban gang warfare was in the headlines, Robbins's original idea was recast as a rivalry between blacks and Hispanics in New York City. Arthur Laurents began to develop the book by adhering closely to the plot and characters of the Shakespearean original. In final form, romance would bloom between Tony, retired leader of the white Jets, and Maria, newly immigrated sister of the head of the rival Puerto Rican Sharks gang.
Each of the creators tells a somewhat different story of how the miracle of cohesion ultimately occurred, but what we know for sure is that somehow it happened. The final product was awash in great American themes: love conquering prejudice, youth against maturity, tradition challenging progress. Even more amazing, though, is how the show constantly balanced poetry and realism. As Bernstein explained to the New York Herald Tribune, the entire show was a tightrope between art and realism, carefully balancing audience expectations between the diverse demands of fantasy versus authenticity, entertainment versus drama.
The final result was brilliant from all perspectives. Laurents's book captured the lingo of the streets, Sondheim's lyrics conveyed youthful emotion through breathless understatement, huge portions of the show were given over to Robbins's expressive and gripping ballets, and Bernstein's music soared from tragic fury to the tenderness of first love, and all with the essential spirit of New York. The cast of relative unknowns headed by Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera threw themselves into their roles. The integration of these elements was extraordinary, and perhaps is heard to best advantage in "Maria," an absolutely perfect blend of lyrics, melody and sheer feeling to convey the ardor of first love.
The most striking innovation came at the end of the first act. After an amazingly dexterous and buoyant quintet, the mood plunges into grim tension for a rumble between the rival gangs, and then turns brutal for a fatal knife fight. As the shocked survivors scramble off, a siren wails and the stage is left nearly bare, two corpses sprawled on the pavement. A deathly gong rings over a xylophone trill as the dim street lighting fades to black, an urban requiem for lost dreams that left intermission audiences gasping.
The brilliance of the show would have been impossible without the generous sacrifices by its egotistical creators. Librettist Stephen Sondheim matched Bernstein's feel for musical vernacular with more appropriate lyrics than Bernstein had intended to provide himself, but still divided his share of royalties with the composer. Laurents's stage directions became the lyrics of "Something's Coming." Robbins eschewed spectacle for ballets that were grounded in the raw theme. And Bernstein recycled "One Hand, One Heart" from Candide and forfeited a potentially show-stopping climactic mad scene to be sung by Maria after Tony is shot, allowing Laurents to substitute a barely spoken, inarticulate shock that is infinitely more moving.
After tryouts in Washington and Philadelphia, West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957, where it garnered unanimous rave reviews. It played for two years in New York, went on the road for a year, and then returned to New York for another triumphant run. Just as enthusiasm for the show began to wane, Broadway saw a new West Side Story premiere – the lavish movie version, filmed in Panavision 70, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblin. Although it swept the 1961 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Bernstein himself was ineligible, since his music by then was no longer original (although, to complete the irony, his orchestrators and conductor all won awards for their derivative work). But the soundtrack LP (on Sony SK 48211) was a huge success (far outselling the superior original cast version) and ultimately became the fifth best-selling album of all time. (By contrast, the Beatles' best showing was Sgt. Pepper, which managed only # 26!)
Although Bernstein would produce several more works, the apex of his activities as a composer was Mass (on Sony SM2K 63089), which he subtitled, perhaps for lack of a better description, "a Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." Aaron Copland once dismissed Bernstein's music as "conductor's music – eclectic in style and facile in inspiration." Bernstein turned that criticism into the unifying strength of Mass.
The work was commissioned to open the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC as a national showcase for the performing arts and was intended for only eleven performances in its opera house. Funded by the late president's family, cost was no object and Bernstein's imagination ran unbounded. As idea after idea piled up, Bernstein found himself in the enviable position of accumulating rather than having to edit them. In final form, Mass required a profusion of over 200 performers, including choirs, soloists, rock combos, marching bands, a full symphony orchestra and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.
In Mass, Bernstein attempted to universalize the Catholic ritual in order to further explore the spiritual crisis of our time with which he remained obsessed. All the sections of the traditional ritual are there, but interspersed with decidedly nontraditional observations and challenges. While arguing with God is an accepted part of Jewish theology (which Bernstein had exploited in his "Kaddish" Symphony), many Catholics were shocked at applying such rhetoric to the immutable truth and order of their mass. Indeed, when a Cincinnati production was announced the next year, the local Archbishop condemned the work as blasphemous and forbade Catholics to attend.
Mass announces its intentions with mind-expanding harshness, as four loud, incompatible percussive settings of the "Kyrie" bombard the audience from quadraphonic speakers located in the corners of the auditorium. The cacophony is silenced by a guitar chord, which begins a disarmingly sweet and naive song of praise by a blue-jeaned folk singer. Donning vestments, he becomes a Celebrant. Throughout the next 80 minutes segments of the ensemble careen through a phenomenal profusion of marches, narration, hymns, blues, scat, Hebrew prayers, gospel, Broadway songs, opera arias, rounds and Beethovenesque meditations. While all of this sounds like an unholy mess on paper, like the best Beatles pastiches ("A Day in the Life," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," the entire second side of Abbey Road) it somehow all works wonderfully on record and even more powerfully in the theater.
Unable to satisfy the crowd's raucous demands for peace ("Donna nobis pacem"), the Celebrant ultimately shatters the sacraments, professes his confusion in a grand-operatic mad scene, babbles irrationally and slips back into the masses. The end is one of those outrageously corny but deeply moving gestures that only an ardent sentimentalist like Bernstein could possibly pull off. After its relentless assaults, the work concludes with a ravishingly gorgeous, richly harmonized reprise of a hymn for universal peace. As the cast drifts into the audience to spread a touch of benediction, Bernstein on tape intones the final words: "The mass is ended; go in peace."
The audience at the premiere reportedly sat in silence for three minutes before beginning their ovation. Bernstein himself was so moved that he hugged and kissed everyone in sight, including a gracious but shell-shocked Rose Kennedy. Other audiences left in cathartic tears.
Critics, though, were less transported. Although Paul Hume in the Washington Post declared Mass to be "the greatest music Bernstein has ever written," the New York gang sharpened their fangs for a feeding frenzy: "derivative and attitudinizing drivel," "subliterate rubbish," "pretentious and thin," "cheap and vulgar." Even the shimmering conclusion was attacked as a "tacking-on-at-the-end of Love Love Love Love Love as a solution that may not be questioned."
But while Bernstein was always vulnerable to criticism, for this once he may not have cared. It seems clear from the panorama of musics and uninhibited sentiment that Bernstein wrote Mass for the people and not for emotionally dead sophisticates or cynical critics. The work is, quite simply, Bernstein's artistic testament, the one time he could pour himself into the creation of music without restraint. He lavished on Mass an incredible wealth of fine melodies, exquisite harmonic progressions and innovative detail. Its vast sweep, lavish casting, innovative staging and breathtaking ending were an apotheosis of Bernstein's brilliant sense of theater. And even if Mass was a product of its times, replete with dated references to hippies, jailed Vietnam war protesters and folk troubadours, who in the last two decades has found a better solution to the problems of our era than "Love Love Love Love Love?"
It was the people who gave Bernstein his vindication: when the original cast recording was released it flew to the top of the classical charts and in Billboard's most recent compilation it remains the best selling multiple-record classical album of all time.
Bernstein delighted in finding cycles in his life. Thus it is fitting and perhaps inevitable that for his last major work he returned to the religious themes from which had sprung Jeremiah.
The Concerto began in 1986 as a two-movement Jubilee Games, to which Bernstein added the present fourth movement in 1987 and the second in 1989. The work is dedicated to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave the premiere of each version and recorded the full work under the composer's baton (on DGG 429 231-2). Melding religious and intellectual inspiration, the Concerto is Bernstein's most deliberately structured piece.
The first movement celebrates the Biblical concept of jubilee, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, when all servants were freed after every seventh cycle of seven years. To symbolize freedom, much of the movement is improvised and raucous. To announce its organizational scheme, the players shout the Hebrew word "sheva" ("seven") seven times, followed by brass fanfares in the traditional motivic patterns of the shofar, the ceremonial ram's horn blown on joyous occasions. The remainder of the movement is largely in 7/4 and 7/8 time, using seven-note scales.
The next movement is an homage to the corresponding portion of Bartok's 1945 Concerto for Orchestra, as pairs of instruments present variations on a theme, in this case material from Bernstein's 1974 ballet The Dybbuk, which he based on the Kabbalah, a medieval Jewish blend of numerology, theology, magic and mysticism. The third movement is a lively dance based on meters of 18, a "lucky" number that corresponds to the Hebrew letter "chai," which means "life" (as in the toast "L'Chaim!" – "To Life!").
In face of the challenges of twelve-tone, serial and dissonant music, Bernstein always believed in the power of tonality as an artistic vehicle to redeem mankind. And so, after brass fanfares recalling the jubilation of the first movement, his Concerto for Orchestra ends with lushly orchestrated, deeply moving and richly tonal music over which a baritone sweetly chants the ancient priestly benediction that closes Jewish services of worship and which thus provides a fitting end to Bernstein's activities as a composer of music:
"May the Lord bless you and keep you;
In the public mind, it is the conductor who personifies the power of classical music, holding a hundred musicians under perfect control and unleashing the force of the full orchestra with a mere gesture. Despite his spectacular success as a soloist, teacher and composer, it is as a conductor that Bernstein will be best remembered.
Propelled by his spectacular 1943 debut, Bernstein suddenly was in great demand as a conductor. After fulfilling the rest of his year with the Philharmonic, Bernstein repaid some professional favors. His first out of town stint was to Pittsburgh to conduct his new Jeremiah Symphony for Fritz Reiner's orchestra. He repeated the gesture for Koussevitzky in Boston and Rodzinsky in New York, and then guested in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Montreal and Vancouver.
In 1945, Bernstein was appointed to succeed Leopold Stokowski as director of the non-profit City Symphony of New York, which had been created the year before to serve as the focal point for an arts center in a theater the city had foreclosed and refurbished. The orchestra priced its tickets popularly from 90¢ to $1.80, emphasized programs of modern and lesser-known works, and served as an alternative to the established orchestras. The position was non-salaried but a fine opportunity for Bernstein to test his wings in a low-pressure setting. The program promised "VITAL MUSIC old and new, superbly performed under a STIMULATING YOUNG CONDUCTOR at prices within the reach of all." Bernstein delivered. The New York Times praised his "vividness, conviction, imagination." The Brooklyn Eagle reported that "new life was injected into the orchestral world. Enthusiasm ran over on both sides of the stage. If he did nothing else Mr. Bernstein created a kind of white heat while putting on an excellent show."
Indeed, films of Bernstein conducting at the time show him to have been mostly wild and uninhibited on the podium. Interestingly, for Mozart and Beethoven he lapsed into a chaste, traditional function of time-beating with expressive accents, much as other conductors did for all music. For overtly emotional music, though, Bernstein flung himself at the orchestra, making desperate, clutching gestures with his bare hands (à la Joe Cocker), as if trying to wrest music out of the very air before him. Only after 1957, in order to compensate for back problems, did Bernstein resort to using a baton. Even then, his face continued to reflect a full gamut of extreme emotion, from excruciating pain to overwhelming bliss. No musician could possibly play routinely when the leader was so overtly involved and enthused.
In 1946, Bernstein took his first tentative step toward an international career with a short European tour, beginning with a program of American music in Prague to celebrate the anniversary of liberation. Next came London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. But the real magnet was in Palestine.
Founded in 1936 to provide an outlet for European refugees, the Palestine Philharmonic had become an anti-fascist symbol and rallying point. Toscanini, then the most famed conductor in the world, declined other engagements and nurtured the group through its first two seasons. Bernstein joined the orchestra for its tenth anniversary, was treated as a genuine hero, and garnered ovations that eclipsed anything he had seen in America. An intriguing picture of the time shows Bernstein and the orchestra playing outdoors amid crumbling walls, completely surrounded by an audience sitting, squatting and standing in every bit of space, their faces rapt with keen attention and pleasure.
Bernstein was equally impressed, not only by the strength and resilience of the people, but by their unbridled cultural enthusiasm that seemed to hang on every note. Bernstein was overwhelmed by his reception and returned the next year after the war of independence to spend three months as director of the renamed Israel Philharmonic, touring disputed areas by armored bus and giving open air concerts as hostilities continued to rage. In coming years, he would return often and led the orchestra on European and American tours, forming a life-long bond that would culminate in recordings and in the dedication of his final work.
Elsewhere, Bernstein's triumphant guest shots continued, as he conquered the rest of America and Europe. In 1953 Maria Callas, the diva whose dramatic intensity revolutionized opera in our time, heard Bernstein on a radio broadcast and insisted that he be hired as the first American ever to conduct at La Scala, the leading opera house of Italy. Even though the short notice of his engagement left him less than a week to learn the score, Bernstein's appearance with Callas was hailed as a huge success.
But despite international acclaim, all conductors yearn to be head of their own orchestra, whose programs and "sound" they can meld to their own image. Toscanini had his NBC Symphony, Koussevitzky had Boston, Ormandy had Philadelphia, Reiner had Chicago, but throughout this period, despite the enormous acclaim he garnered wherever he appeared, the stability and stature of a permanent appointment continued to elude Bernstein. The cruellest blow was in Boston, a position for which Koussevitzky had groomed Bernstein; the trustees were so set against the protege, though, that when Koussevitzky insisted upon Bernstein as his replacement, they fired him instead.
What was the problem? Religious prejudice may have played a role, but the more likely reason was, ironically, the very factor that had made Bernstein a national hero. Orchestras are fundamentally European institutions, and routinely considered only foreign-trained immigrants as having the cultural qualifications to lead them. Bernstein, though, was quintessentially American, and no major orchestra had ever appointed a native as its head. An equally serious strike against Bernstein was his relative inexperience. Sure, he could conduct his own and other modern music incomparably, and could add a brief dollop of excitement to a routine season, but patrons and subscribers wanted a solid anchor for the core repertoire from Mozart to Brahms.
And so it was that the musical world was surprised to learn at a press conference on November 20, 1957 that Leonard Bernstein had been named music director of the New York Philharmonic. Perhaps the most convincing explanation is offered by Meryle Secrest, who contends that Arthur Judson, impresario and manager of the Philharmonic since 1922, had all but ruined the orchestra by hiring only personnel, soloists and conductors whom he represented, a classic conflict of interest that had deprived the orchestra of the excellence and variety it required for genuine stature. When Judson was finally ousted in September 1956, the board knew that a clear break with past practice was needed to restore public confidence. Bernstein's youth, modern repertoire, charisma and audience appeal made him a logical choice and he was selected over Guido Cantelli, a protege of Toscanini who boasted all the traditional European virtues.
Bernstein went right to work, promising to forego Broadway and guest conducting in order to devote himself to his position. He planned a season filled with exciting new American works, innovative informal preview concerts and television exposure. For his first program as music director, Bernstein chose the Schumann Manfred Overture and Strauss Don Quixote from his debut in 1943, Ravel's flamboyant La Valse and the North American premiere of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto with himself as both soloist and conductor, a perfect blend of tradition, novelty and versatility, and all whipped up with terrific excitement.
Bernstein's appointment neatly coincided with the beginning of the stereo era. As he had done with TV, when presented with the challenge of a new technology, Bernstein immediately seized upon its possibilities. Never one to meekly test the waters, Bernstein plunged into the opportunity by cutting one of his favorite pieces with which he had dazzled European audiences.
Recorded in a single session on January 20, 1958, Le Sacre de Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") was a confluence of inspired greatness: Stravinsky's composition, Bernstein's interpretation, the Philharmonic's execution, and Columbia's engineering, each element perfectly blended and magnifying the effect of the others into an overwhelmingly powerful whole. To this day (on Sony SMK 47629), it retains every drop of its original power and remains one of the very greatest achievements of the phonograph.
The work. The Rite of Spring is one of the most important works in the history of music. At the turn of the century, Mahler's angst and Schoenberg's tonal probing suggested a twentieth century music that would extend but be firmly anchored in the ethos of the nineteenth. It took Stravinsky, in one bold and sudden gesture, to grab music painfully and brutally, and to blast it into a wholly new region from which it could never return.
How did Stravinsky receive this weighty charge? He would never say, suggesting only that "I was guided by no system; I wrote what I heard." That what he heard was like nothing else was immediately apparent from the premiere, one of the most notorious of all time.
The 28-year old Stravinsky was the toast of Paris. In 1910, he had launched the hugely successful Firebird, a delightful ballet with some modern elements, but a fanciful story and gorgeous music clearly in the familiar, grand tradition of Tchaikovsky. For the next season he produced Petrouchka, whose music, while more modern, was anchored by memorable folk tunes and a solid narrative tale of intrigue among familiar Commedia del'Arte characters. It was with those wonderful memories firmly in mind that society audiences anticipated yet another fabulous but essentially traditional entertainment.
Like its predecessors, The Rite was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes and was to be choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinski. It was to be the third triumphant crown of the most potent combination of art and dance that Europe had ever seen. But Stravinsky had other ideas. The troupe's conductor, Pierre Monteux, was introduced to the score when the composer played it on the piano. He recalled: "The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down to accentuate the force of the music. Not that it needed such emphasis." Monteux thought Stravinsky was "raving mad" and predicted the music would cause a scandal. He was wrong: it provoked a full-scale riot.
The extreme difficulty of the music demanded an augmented orchestra and the radical choreography required well over a hundred rehearsals, which could not be accommodated for the 1912 season. Instead, Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe was presented, fulfilling audience expectations with a mythic story, orthadox dancing, and one of the most ravishing scores ever written. Anticipations for the delayed premiere of The Rite continued to rise. At last the fateful night of May 29, 1913 arrived.
The first two minutes apparently went well, with the audience enthralled by the haunting introduction. But then, just as the astringent brutality of the music broke through, in Stravinsky's words: "the curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down." The subject of the ballet was itself shocking: instead of the stuff of which fluffy dreams are made, ugly pagans sacrifice a young girl to propitiate the gods of spring. Even the costumes, choreography and sets boldly dispensed with grace and beauty to emphasize awkward, primitive starkness. At first there were a few boos and catcalls, but then the storm broke as the shocked audience reacted by throwing, yelling and fighting. Diaghilev tried to quell the disturbance by switching the house lights on and off, but to no avail. In the meantime, Nijinski tried to sustain the performance as best he could by shouting out numbers and cues to the dancers, who couldn't hear the music, loud as it was, over the din. Stravinsky was furious and stormed out of the theater before police arrived to end the show.
But as so often happens in art, the scandals of the past generate the foundations of the future. Indeed, the very next year Monteux introduced the score in concert and its appeal began to take hold. By 1929, the staid New York Times proclaimed the significance of The Rite "to the twentieth century as Beethoven's Ninth is to the nineteenth." The arrival of The Rite in the pantheon of pop culture was clinched when it was chosen for part of the soundtrack of Walt Disney's Fantasia in 1938. Incidentally, Stravinsky was paid $5,000 for the film rights, after having been told by Disney that if he didn't agree they simply would appropriate the score anyway due to copyright enforcement problems. The composer's reaction to the result: he condemned the performance of the simplified and rearranged music (by Stokowski) as "execrable" and the visuals "an unresisting imbecility." But critical perspectives aside, from that point on, The Rite has become one of the most popular of all modern scores, enjoyed by millions throughout the world.
The Interpretation. And there lies the problem Bernstein faced in performing The Rite: how to restore the original impact of a score which a mere two generations later had become so co-opted and comfortable that it was remembered more as a cartoon soundtrack for dancing dinosaurs than as the bold cornerstone of twentieth century music.
Stravinsky's score is an absolutely brilliant component of the ballet, which opens in a wondrous evocation of the first promise of spring and concludes in vicious human sacrifice. The music ranges from plaintive folk music to huge, pounding rhythm, from placid reverie to grating dissonance, and from leaping metric grace to irregular fragmentation. Perhaps above all else, it is a score that proves the point that language cannot possibly suffice to even begin to describe great music.
Having associated with contemporary composers and having written much modern music himself, Bernstein was well aware that the pivotal significance of The Rite transcended mere popularity. Indeed, so much of what we now accept as "modern music" derives from The Rite. Carl Van Vechten (who got beat up in the opening night melee) recalled that the audience had reacted so violently because they found the whole thing "a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art." With the benefit of perspective, Edwin Evans more aptly described the score as "a conflict which is forever rending and tearing, not in order to destroy, but in order to emerge." Stravinsky recognized that traditional classical music had become stagnant and had to evolve quickly. He did not set out to destroy the old music, but his jagged rhythms, wild harmonies and violent dynamics gave birth to so much of the music of our time. Thus the problem Bernstein faced was to present the score with startling freshness to an audience that was apt to take its innovations for granted. After all, in the 45 years since the premiere of The Rite modern notions of rhythm had grown sophisticated through jazz, traditional musical form had become superseded by chance music, the outer bounds of tonality and dissonance had been supplanted by serial music, and crashing chords seemed downright placid compared to high-decibel rockers and computer-generated musique concrète.
Bernstein's solution was brilliant and yet, as so often with artistic breakthroughs, disarmingly simple. He was well aware that what shocked audiences in 1913 would seem pretty mild stuff two generations later. And yet, he couldn't expect audiences to simply turn back the clock, forget what they knew and participate in an aesthetic masquerade. Nor would he falsify the score by adding more "modern" elements. There was only one way to shock a contemporary audience while preserving the integrity of Stravinsky's original conception: by generating a level of energy so intense as to restore the disparity between what the audience knew and what they were about to experience.
And if there was one thing Bernstein could do, it was to generate energy. His performance explodes with huge crackling sparks of rough, untamed excitement.
The Performance. But all the frenzied podium gestures in the world would be unavailing without a corresponding contribution from the orchestra. The New York Philharmonic, in most critics' view, had become lazy and unkempt, sleepwalking through concerts without challenge. Lenny goosed them back to life. The players truly loved Bernstein and under his frenzied baton turned their unruliness to superb advantage, rising above the boredom of professional routine to convey a wonderstruck student's ardent joy of creating art afresh.
Fully reflecting its conductor's galvanic commitment, the Philharmonic's attacks are razor-sharp, its outbursts perfectly synchronized, its dynamics meltingly smooth, and its virtuosity blinding, even in the most complex and difficult passages in which the score abounds. Most amazing of all, the players manage to generate primordial snarls and shrieks that fully convey the raw excitement of Stravinsky's conception. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest instances of orchestral execution ever recorded.
The Recording. The final crucial component in the creation of a recorded masterpiece is the recording itself. After all, like the proverbial tree falling in the deserted forest, if you can't hear it, then for all intents and purposes it didn't happen. Here, the engineering brilliantly complements Stravinsky's, Bernstein's and the Philharmonic's achievements.
The sound is so extremely clear that it startles, even today. A huge number of spot microphones must have been used, as we seem to crawl right inside each of the instruments, and can actually feel the buzz of a vibrating reed, the grip of a rosined bow, the impact of a plucked string, the tense breath on a flute, the biting flatulence of the heavy brass. The very air reverberates with the sounds of primal nature, like the buzz of a forest pulsing with life. Above it all the percussion section is given outrageous prominence, far louder than could be generated in any auditorium, with the tympani in particular tearing the sonic fabric with their harsh blows.
True, this is not the natural, ambient sort of sound we have come to prefer nowadays, but this was hardly a "natural" conception. If the performance is a vibrant dream, its recording is a thrashing hallucination. The all-important rhythm, which pounds home the structure and jump-starts the dynamics, and the exaggerated presence, which underlines the radical harmonies, all attack us, grab our attention, and force us to retreat from their overwhelming power. This is classical engineering at its most creative – using the resources of the studio to enhance the composer's and performers' intentions.
The Rite of Spring has received dozens of distinguished recordings over the last 37 years, but none – not even Bernstein's own two remakes – approaches the brilliance of this one, which captures for all time a unique convergence of genius.
The Rite of Spring effectively launched Bernstein's stereo recordings with Columbia and the New York Philharmonic, a series that ultimately would boast over 500 works to become the largest discography of any classical artist. From the refined classicism of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart to the searing emotion of Mahler and Shostakovich, Bernstein and the Philharmonic's earnestness, versatility and innate musicality are remarkably consistent. Nearly every work is well-conceived, -performed and -recorded.
Although the Rite was a tough act to follow, the conductor, orchestra and engineers hit the jackpot many more times in the next years. Their greatest achievements serve as a convenient overview of the most consistently productive phase of Bernstein's career:
Ives: Symphony # 2 (October, 1958) (now on Sony SMK 47568). Charles Ives was one of America's best-kept secrets: a devout Yankee insurance executive whose private passion was to transform Handel, hymns and patriotic songs through ear-bending polyrhythms, microtones and dissonances to yield a music that was quintessentially American in its blend of contradictions. Although Ralph Kirkpatrick had championed Ives's piano music, it was Bernstein who fostered America's discovery of its hidden treasure when he led the world premiere of Ives's Symphony # 2 in 1951, 50 years after its completion. (A delightful anecdote: despite much urging, the obstinate 77-year old composer claimed disinterest and refused to attend the concert; but his equally stubborn wife went, received the accolades and, upon returning home, found their kitchen radio tuned to the station which had broadcast the concert and her husband, who denied it all, in a rare state of joy.) The release of this recording cemented Ives's fame and launched a full-scale Ives revolution. Bernstein revels in the naive delights of this work, which culminates in a riotous coda of Tchaikovsky, "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," reveille and a jarring dissonance.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (December, 1958 and June, 1959) (on Sony SMK 47529). Gershwin's two most popular works were among Bernstein's early specialties. Curiously, though, notwithstanding his obvious love of the piece, he disparaged the Rhapsody as "not a composition at all. It's a string of ... terrific tunes ... stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water. You can't just put four tunes together, God-given though they be, and call them a composition." Bernstein went on to suggest that the major sections of the piece could be cut or interchanged. Perhaps what Bernstein was really saying is that he was proud to invest an extra measure of commitment, passion and energy to put over a composition with a wobbly structure but with which he deeply identified.
From their first appearance, Bernstein's performances were hailed as definitive. Even today, they remain astoundingly fresh. Sadly, these two are the only Gershwin works Bernstein ever recorded; we can only imagine the power he would have brought as soloist and conductor to the zingy Concerto in F.
Shostakovich: Symphony # 5 (October, 1959) (on Sony SMK 47615). After his first year as music director, Bernstein and the Philharmonic embarked on a grueling eight week, fifty concert tour of Europe and the Middle East, covering twenty-nine cities in seventeen countries. Time proclaimed it "likely to go down as the most successful of all time." Typical of the reaction was that of the Paris Tribune, which hailed Bernstein's "impetuous talent ... bursting at the seams." The highlight was Russia, where, typically, Bernstein won over the people of a former enemy through the sheer contagion of his charisma.
Shostakovich wrote his Symphony # 5 under tense circumstances as an apology to government censors who had found his previous work too advanced and unproletarian. Bernstein replaced the staid, dignified, deliberate interpretation to which the Russians had become accustomed with a reading of enormous dynamism, modelled on Rodzinski's (on AS Disc 631) but magnified to the last degree of visceral excitement. Upon returning to the States, Bernstein and the Philharmonic recorded the performance that had blown away their audiences and had garnered frenzied twenty-minute ovations. From the blistering opening, through the icy largo, to the roaring finale, this is a staggering achievement, absolutely gripping in its sustained intensity.
Mahler: Symphony # 4 (February, 1960) (on Sony SMK 47579). Despite his fame as a conductor, Gustav Mahler's compositions were generally dismissed as indulgent meanderings. Before he died in 1911, Mahler had proclaimed: "My time will come." Little could he have guessed that his acolyte had not even been born. Bernstein's conversion was from Mitropolous, who led a great New York Mahler cycle in 1960 (preserved on Hunt, Arkadia and Music & Arts CDs) and died rehearsing the sprawling Symphony # 3. Bernstein identified completely with Mahler, whom he viewed as straddling two centuries: the excessive romantic passions of the 19th and the tortured neurotic angst of the 20th, a perfect anticipation of Bernstein's own flamboyant but conflicted outlook as composer and conductor. Both men were visionary throwbacks.
Although Walter, Klemperer, Horenstein and others had advocated Mahler's work, it was Bernstein's impassioned concerts and pioneering recorded cycle that finally launched the Mahler revolution. The first installment was the pastoral Symphony # 4, a vibrant performance in which the orchestra plays its very heart out. For his soloist in the final vocal movement, Bernstein made the inspired choice of Reri Grist, fresh from the cast of West Side Story. Equally impressive is a staggeringly intense Symphony # 2, which followed in 1963 (previously on M2S-695 and unavailable on CD [1999 update please see below.]). Any doubts as to the authenticity of Bernstein's free-wheeling interpretations are dispelled by Mahler's only recordings: 1905 Welte-Mignon discs of his pianism (collected on Golden Legacy CD 101) which exhibit the same sort of highly individual, impetuous approach.
Copland: El Salon Mexico (May, 1961) (on Sony SMK 47544). In 1938, the year after meeting Bernstein, Copland produced his most popular work, an irresistible mythic evocation of the exotic rhythms and color of the South American dance hall. Typical of Copland's gift, all is heard through the ears of an American tourist, alive with the wondrous discovery of bright, pulsing brilliance.
All of this is fully reflected in Bernstein's sensational performance. But this was no mere interpretation. Bernstein's knowledge of this and other Copland scores was intimate, as the composer and student often played through them on the keyboard before publication. Bernstein's magnificent recorded versions of Copland's great works, including the ballets Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring (on Sony SMK 47543) are definitive, fully reflecting the composer's own intentions, passed on directly through his protege. But El Salon Mexico was the closest identification of all: Copland had entrusted Bernstein with producing the piano transcription, which in 1941 became Bernstein's first published work.
Berlioz: Harold in Italy, with William Lincer, violist (1962) (no CD; Columbia LP MS 6358). In an attempt to encapsulate the Bernstein phenomenon, analogies between Bernstein and the giants of the 19th century whose memories he invoked tend to focus upon Franz Liszt, the powerhouse prodigy and cultural magnet who withdrew from public life to create an entire school of acolytes. Meryle Secrest, though, makes a more convincing case for Hector Berlioz, due to his incomparable sense of theater, swift association of ideas, passionate expression, controversial career and total immersion in the idea of romanticism.
Bernstein's ardent performance of Harold reveals an astounding degree of identification with his spiritual forebear. Instead of importing a celebrity soloist, Bernstein led the Philharmonic's first chair violist in a hair-raising reading of this arch-romantic work, which had been written for the flamboyant Paganini (but who rejected it as lacking in virtuostic solo display). The inexplicable failure of Sony to have restored this performance to CD is the most severe gap in the current Bernstein discography. [1999 update please see below.] The magnitude of the loss can be inferred from Bernstein's 1975 performance of the massive Berlioz Requiem with the combined forces of the French National and French Radio Orchestras and Choruses (on Sony SM2K 47526). Not only is Bernstein's performance superb, but it also strives for authenticity, having been recorded in Les Invalides, the Parisian auditorium where Berlioz had led the world premiere in 1837.
Haydn: The Six "Paris" Symphonies (1962-1968) (on Sony SM2K 47550). Bernstein had easily won over young concertgoers (and infatuated many older ones as well) with his youth, energy, charm and great looks. The orchestra was happy as well: the huge popularity of Bernstein's concerts increased the players' paid season from 34 weeks to full-time employment, and burgeoning record and TV royalties augmented revenues yet further. But critics were less impressed. The London Spectator sniped that Bernstein seemed "utterly at the mercy of adolescent emotional rages" and "always appeared to be succumbing to his first excited reactions to the music, never to be thinking beyond them." His worst enemy, though, was far closer to home. Harold Schonberg, senior music critic of the New York Times, was a constant thorn in Bernstein's side, bitterly complaining after the first season: "At all times the aura of show business rather than music-making is present. Thoughtful people are beginning to complain more and more of Bernstein's antics on the podium ... and asking if Lenny is ever going to grow up."
Although the jibes targeted his kinetic appearance, the fact that Bernstein's purely audio records garnered good reviews tended to discount a genuine visual problem and suggested a less tangible concern. (As the old Gordy label used to boast: "It's what's in the grooves that count.") The real issue was youth: with venerable masters like Walter, Reiner, Munch, Klemperer and Stokowski still active and memories of Toscanini, Beecham and others still warm, many older patrons and critics simply refused to believe that a mere youngster could compare, especially in the hallowed older repertoire.
Haydn was Bernstein's breakthrough to credibility. No less an authority than H. Robbins Landon, the world's most respected Haydn scholar, proclaimed Bernstein to be one of the greatest Haydn interpreters of all time. Bernstein's injection of lust, virility and sheer joy into the formal structures of these works has never been equalled. Critical doubts were finally swept aside. Even Schonberg conveniently overlooked his earlier rancor and devoted an entire chapter of his 1967 The Great Conductors to singing Bernstein's praises.
Nielsen: Symphony # 3 ("Espansiva") (May 1965) (on Sony SMK 47598). Frustrated that he had produced only a single work since 1957's West Side Story, in lieu of his seventh year at the helm of the Philharmonic Bernstein took a sabbatical to concentrate on composing. Hoping for creative inspiration and stability, he produced only the innocuous Chichester Psalms and found that his certainties crumbled; as he put it, he managed to find "two answers to everything and one answer to nothing." Instead, he resumed activity as a guest conductor, culminating in Denmark, where he accepted a prize and reciprocated by leading the Royal Danish Orchestra in this obscure work by their foremost composer.
A fine souvenir of his universality, Bernstein absorbed and communicated Nielsen's unusual approach to harmonic progressions, rooted in tradition but with a distinctly modern twist. The playing is pretty rough, but Bernstein's enthusiasm more than compensates. Local press response was ecstatic: "Overwhelming and incomprehensible." "As if Nielsen had waited half a century for this night." "It throbbed away like the very blood in our veins." "It's almost absurd to ask whether an American from New York understands our Danish Carl Nielsen. I wonder if anybody has understood him so deeply or taken him so enthusiastically as this man Bernstein." "The greatest Nielsen conductor whom history has yet known."
Bernstein returned to the Philharmonic invigorated with fresh ideas and launched a two-year survey of modern symphonies. But the extreme flattery he had garnered in Europe could not be ignored and perhaps paved the way to the final cosmopolitan stage of his career. Indeed, the next November Bernstein announced his resignation from his New York post, effective in 1969. As the pendulum had swung for Bernstein, so it swung again with the selection of the unemotional objective French modernist Pierre Boulez as his successor. Out of gratitude for the last decade, the orchestra conferred upon Bernstein the new position of Conductor Laureate, leaving its door open for Bernstein to return whenever he wished.
Haydn: Mass in Time of War (January 20, 1973) (on Sony SMK 47563). This was more an eloquent political gesture than a concert. From the time of his attendance at Harvard through his AIDS activism in the 1980s, Bernstein was constantly involved with leftist causes. He campaigned against communist witchhunts and urged orchestras to train and hire minorities. He used his stature to force recalcitrants toward social good, as when he conditioned his 1966 appearance in Vienna upon donating the proceeds to the Red Cross for the benefit of Israeli casualties and directed profits from his sole concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic for Amnesty International. There were occasional setbacks (a successful discrimination suit against him and the Philharmonic and a much-ridiculed cocktail party for the Black Panthers that the New York Times derided as "elegant slumming" and that led Tom Wolfe to coin the phrase "radical chic"), but Bernstein rarely hesitated to speak his mind or act upon his beliefs.
The Mass in Time of War had been written in 1796 as Napoleon advanced from Italy to Vienna, where it was to be performed. Haydn spiked his music with uncharacteristic (and, to some, sacrilegious) melodrama, military fanfares, ominous drum rolls and a fervent final prayer for peace. Nearly two centuries later, Richard Nixon's inaugural concert was about to begin in the Kennedy Center, but Bernstein refused to attend. Instead, two miles away, he led volunteer orchestral and choral forces in a "Concert For Peace" at Washington's National Cathedral. Three thousand packed the audience; twelve thousand more stood vigil outside in the winter rain. No one had to mention a word about Vietnam. The blazing commitment of this performance said it all.
Most of Bernstein's Columbia work was compiled into Sony's "Royal Edition" of 119 mid-priced CDs in 100 volumes. In purely musical terms, the edition is an enormous success, as it supersedes scattershot CD issues and ensures the survival of this fabulous body of work. Although it is hard to say whether Sony's highly-touted 20-bit conversion technology and "super-bit mapping" makes any audible difference, the sound quality is generally excellent and transfers are honest reflections of the original LPs, preserving much of the exaggerated treble gloss of Columbia's early stereo discs (as well as the blurred and murky sound of their late-sixties LPs).
In a sense, the title is justified: Bernstein was indeed America's musical royalty and, as such, he deserved the very best. But that is not the reason for the name of the series, and the Royal Edition disappoints on several scores.
Foremost among these is the absurd linkage of America's greatest conductor with, of all people, His Royal Highness Prince Charles. What, you may properly ask, does America's flamboyant supreme musical genius have to do with the staid wastrel English monarch-to-be? And yet HRH's goopy face and insipid watercolors disgrace each cover and his pathetic artistic creed bloats every booklet. The unintended contrast between the richness of Bernstein's talent and the poverty of the Prince of Wales's privileged affluence is both striking and pitiful.
Among other regrets is the replacement of the original LP album covers, which boasted attractive, innovative and thematically appropriate graphics, type and layouts. Some had eye-grabbing shots of Lenny in hyperkinetic action or more formal portraits of the proud orchestra and its leader; others added visual beauty to the musical contents, such as a Renoir oil for a Debussy collection; yet others provided a touch of whimsy: three similar portraits of Napoleon, Beethoven and Bernstein for Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, or a closeup of a target painted on an apple for a collection featuring Rossini's William Tell Overture. The Royal Edition, though, substitutes a layout which, while attractive, becomes boring in its bland uniformity. Worse, the royal watercolors, even apart from their artistic vacuity, have nothing whatever to do with the music. Indeed, many of the matches go beyond random and seem downright perverse: a placid marsh for Stravinsky's ferocious Rite of Spring, frigid mountains for Mahler's pastoral Youth's Magic Horn, or, worst of all, a phallic tower for Verdi's Requiem.
Similarly, many of the albums had extensive, informative notes that would have been meaningful to perpetuate. Nielsen and Ives symphonies had biographical booklets to familiarize buyers with the lives and music of their relatively unknown composers. Several 1959 releases had proud photos and reviews of the Philharmonic's triumphant overseas concert tour. The Beethoven Missa Solemnis reprinted Beethoven's fascinating letters haggling over the publishing rights for his masterpiece. And many albums presented Bernstein's own cogent and highly personal observations about the music. These have all been discarded in favor of generic program notes (mostly translated from German authors, for whatever inappropriate reason) which make little pretense of addressing the specific performances; indeed, the notes in volume 40 dwell upon Ives's Unanswered Question, a Bernstein hallmark that isn't even included in the Royal Edition, and volume 97 leaves listeners wondering how Bernstein managed to grab a dozen opera megastars to sing cameo slivers of Vaughan William's Serenade to Music. (The reason, of which the notes give not even a clue: this auspicious performance was recorded live at the gala dedication of Lincoln Center in 1962.) While the booklets do present some fine black and white portraits of the young conductor by Don Hunstein, they bulge unnecessarily with multilingual translations.
There are musical shortfalls as well. Bernstein loved modern music, and his sharp ear and sense of rhythm made him a fine performer of the genre. And yet, while the Royal Edition includes all of his Bartok, de Falla, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Stravinsky, nearly all of his other Columbia recordings of serious modern fare are omitted. Some, such as his own and Copland's works, are available on other CD editions, but his fine Honegger program (last on Columbia LP MS-6659), his spirited Resphigi (on MS-7448), his heartfelt Barber and Berg Violin Concerti with Isaac Stern (on MS-6713 and MS-6373), his gorgeous Roussel Symphony # 3 (on MS-6582), his pioneering Harris and Schuman Symphonies (on MS-6303 and MS-7442), his searching Foss Time Cycle (on MS-6280) and especially his unrivalled Ives Holidays Symphony (on MS-7147) are all absent and hence relegated to LP oblivion. It seems a shame that such uniquely valuable and pioneering recordings have been ignored while Bernstein's redundant performances of the mainstream repertoire, about which other conductors had more insightful things to say, are all included.
Also sorely missed are Bernstein's fine Bach Magnificat (on MS-6375), a bounding Handel Messiah (on M2S-603), a lyric Dvorak Symphony # 7 (on MS-6828) and his only chamber recording, Schumann's Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44, with the Julliard Quartet (on D3S-806). The most serious omission of all, though, is that impassioned performance of Berlioz's Harold in Italy (on MS-6358). Even if there were some mystical reason why the Royal Edition had to be limited to 119 discs, the short running time (less than 50 minutes) of many volumes should have permitted the inclusion of Harold and the other missing works (or, alternatively, the abridgement of the series into a lesser – and more affordable – number of discs).
In the spirit of pop box marketing, the producers have included a few previously unreleased performances: a Schubert overture, three Johann Strauss waltzes, a Wagner prelude and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern. While the gesture is certainly appreciated, none of these compensates for the extensive omissions.
For the most part, the producers have chosen well among the works receiving multiple performances during Bernstein's Columbia tenure. Thus, they have included the lush 1973 Ravel with the French National Orchestra and the atmospheric 1968 remake of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, while bypassing the inferior second versions of Shostakovich's Symphony # 5 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But they stumbled badly by selecting the diffuse 1974 London performance of Mahler's Symphony # 2 in lieu of the riveting and astoundingly passionate 1961 New York reading on M2S-695 and by choosing the solid but unremarkable Beethoven Piano Concerto # 3 with Rudolph Serkin rather than the visionary 1959 account with Glenn Gould on MS-6096. And instead of Marilyn Horne's singing of Ravel's Sheherazade, it would have been more meaningful to have used the earlier collaboration with Jennie Tourel, who had helped launch Bernstein's career, and with whom he had a deeper artistic bond.
A final quibble is the seemingly random packaging together of several two-disc sets. While necessary for the few extended works (the Mahler symphonies, the Berlioz and Verdi Requiems and the Haydn Creation), the contents of all the other multiple sets fit well onto separate discs. There is no reason why Haydn and Sibelius symphonies are bundled together when the Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Tchaikovsky symphonies all appear more conveniently (and store less awkwardly) on individual discs.
All told, the music of the Royal Edition is an embarrassment of riches. Its presentation, though, is a mere embarrassment.
[1999 update Its a pleasure to report that most of the performances omitted from the Royal Edition have now appeared as part of a new mid-priced "Bernstein Century" series. Especially welcome are the Berlioz Harold in Italy on SMK 60696, the Ives Holidays Symphony on SMK 60203 and the Mahler Symphony # 2 on SM2K 63159. The new series also includes valuable mono recordings that were ineligible for the all-stereo Royal series (Bernstein conducting his own music and a stunning 1956 Bach Piano Concerto # 1 with Glenn Gould on SMK 60211) as well as wonderful sets of unjustly obscure modern American symphonies by William Schuman (SMK 63163) and Roy Harris, Randall Thompson and David Diamond (SMK 60594). Its also gratifying that the covers of the new edition feature wonderful portraits of Bernstein, as if to restore true genius to its proper place. The overlap between the two sets suggests that Sony may be atoning for (and apparently replacing) its royal blunder and at last will do itself proud by this essential segment of its catalog. For a complete survey of the new "Bernstein Century" discs, please see Lenny's Back (Slight Return) The Bernstein Century Edition.]
Bernstein had recorded exclusively for Columbia since 1950. RCA tried to tempt him away in 1959 with a promise of his own recording orchestra and a huge salary (the deal with which they had lured Toscanini in 1937), but Columbia successfully countered with guaranteed royalties and the unprecedented right to choose his own repertoire.
At first, the marriage was productive and lucrative, but by the mid-1960s, the initial ardor began to wither. Just as Bernstein's sabbatical had revived his European wanderlust, Columbia's enthusiasm for its classical breadwinner faded; he had already recorded much of the standard repertoire and became increasingly interested in expensive live location recordings and esoteric works that promised dubious marketing returns.
Bernstein's first taste of another label came in 1966 through a cooperative venture between Columbia and Decca/London. Bernstein had garnered great plaudits for a Verdi Falstaff he had conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and accepted an invitation to repeat his success with the Vienna State Opera. Since Columbia had no interest in paying the huge fees imposed by the New York unions, Bernstein recorded the opera in Vienna and stayed on to wax Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (now on London CD 417 783) as well as a Mozart Symphony and Piano Concerto (last available on London LP CS 6499). Columbia got to market the opera and Decca got the rest. The egotistical Bernstein could not have failed to have been impressed by the lush beauty of Decca's famed FFRR sound and by the luxurious gatefold albums that featured striking portraits of the conductor and flattering liner notes.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the '70s, Bernstein continued to record sporadically for Columbia. Most sessions were held in New York, although beginning with a 1966 Mahler Symphony # 8 ("The Symphony of a Thousand"), large-scale works were recorded in London for reasons of cost. The final break began in 1972.
That year, Bernstein had a huge success with a radical new production of Bizet's Carmen at the Met. His raw, stark and realistic approach restored Bizet's original spoken dialogue between musical numbers and dispensed with the traditionally-heard grand operatic filler added by Ernest Guirard after Bizet's death. Time hailed it as "a crackingly taut performance." The New York Times called it "daring and provocative," "a brilliant conception" and "the most interesting performance at the [Met] in our time."
Needless to say, Bernstein wanted to record his achievement, but Columbia declined. After all, no opera had been taped in America for over a decade due to cost considerations and Columbia was not about to rock that boat. Instead, Columbia gave Bernstein a release so he could take the project elsewhere. His choice was Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DG), the German affiliate of the huge Philips/Polydor complex, which was willing to commit the necessary resources, not only to the recording itself but also to its presentation and its marketing. As with his Decca fling of 1966, Bernstein had to have been impressed by the extremely vivid sound, the lavish booklet stuffed with interesting original essays and by the sturdy and attractive case, a clear contrast to the flimsy and perfunctory presentation Columbia had given his Falstaff. For its part, Columbia must have been chagrined that while its Falstaff had been a financial flop, the far more expensive Carmen became the best-selling opera in the entire DGG catalogue.
In 1976, Columbia released Bernstein from the remainder of his contract. He signed with DG and launched the final phase of his conducting career.
Bernstein had released only a handful of records in the early 1970s, as Columbia was hesitant to incur the expense of rerecordings when its existing masters could still be reissued in new packages, compilations and budget labels. DG had no such compunction and in fact was eager to replicate Bernstein's past successes for its own benefit. DG also encouraged Bernstein to record new repertoire and with a wide variety of orchestras. Within the first two years of their association, an ambitious pace was set: the Liszt Faust Symphony with the Boston Symphony, Stravinsky's Mass and Les Noces with the English Bach Festival, Boito and Strauss opera scenes with the Vienna Philharmonic, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and Bernstein's own Songfest with the National Symphony (Washington, DC) and Symphonies 1 and 2 and Chichester Psalms with the Israel Philharmonic.
The latter was quite a coup. Just imagine Bernstein's gloating at getting the top German record company to devoutly record and aggressively market the national cultural pride of Israel. His achievement was particularly impressive since on purely artistic grounds the Israel Philharmonic didn't measure up to the other world-class ensembles in much of the repertoire Bernstein insisted that they record with him.
The eclectic roster of ensembles would eventually expand to include the Orchestre Nationale de France in a superb Franck Symphony in d minor, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in a deeply reverential Mozart Mass in c minor and Requiem, the Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in a ravishing Debussy program, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in impassioned Shostakovich Symphonies 1 and 7, and, as a final slap at Columbia, the New York Philharmonic, which turned in brilliant rerecordings of their earlier Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ives and Copland.
The most extensive of the new series, though, was with the Vienna Philharmonic. While Bernstein's career until now had centered upon New York, his professional life would focus increasingly upon Vienna. The most perplexing question is why an ardent zionist was so attracted to this most antisemitic of all European cities (and, for that matter, why he so actively contributed to the profits of a record company firmly rooted in the Third Reich). Philharmonic violist William Lincer succinctly summarized the anomaly: "They gave flowers to Mr. Bernstein today. Twenty-five years ago, they probably killed fifty of his relatives."
Bernstein's earlier experiences in Vienna had been discouraging. In an openhearted gesture of reconciliation during his 1947 European tour, Bernstein had won over the Bavarian State Orchestra and its audience, but his attempt to repeat the gesture in Vienna was met with hostility. Even in the mid-'60s, the Vienna musicians disparaged his new Symphony # 3 ("Kaddish") as an unworthy "Jüdishe werk." Quite possibly, as a matter of ego and revenge for Nazi atrocities, Bernstein could not resist the thought of bending this recalcitrant body to his will. But amazingly enough, the principal reason may have been nothing less than love.
New York loves the avant-garde, England loves chamber music and Italy loves opera, but it is Vienna that loves the orchestral classics that were so dear to Bernstein's affections. It was logical, and perhaps inevitable, that Bernstein's overwhelming love of music would eventually find its home there.
The Vienna Philharmonic was an autonomous organization that had developed a distinctive, internationally-acclaimed, deeply burnished and exquisitely smooth "sound." To uphold its reputation, the orchestra hesitated to stray from its ticket to success and repeatedly plowed the same worn interpretive furrows. The musicians became accustomed to a profusion of European guest conductors who exploited the orchestra's strengths by emphasizing a muted expression of taste, structure and subtlety. When confronted by Bernstein's unbridled feeling, the players were galvanized into reawakening to a passionate love of "their" own music. And Bernstein was overwhelmed to have this most famous of all orchestras eagerly available to serve him.
The association between Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic had a more practical basis as well. Bernstein had already conquered America and hungered for international recognition. The orchestra wanted an entree into the lucrative American record market and, lingering prejudice aside, sought a reconciliation with Jews who, despite decimation, remained influential in musical circles.
Their first collaboration was a deeply emotional one: a September 1977 live recording (now on DG 419 439 or 435 779) of Beethoven's Quartet # 14 in c# minor in Mitropoulos's own orchestral arrangement. This was the very work that Bernstein had heard at his first Mitropoulos concert in 1937 and which he had found so unforgettable. Beginning in 1946, Bernstein programmed the work often using Mitropoulos's original score. The Vienna performance was dedicated to Bernstein's wife Felicia, who was fatally ill. But the gesture was as much an apology as an honor and as much a prayer for the future as a penance for the past.
The 1970s had been rather fallow for Bernstein on both a personal and professional level. Notwithstanding a public image of warmth and togetherness, Bernstein's marriage had become a hollow shell, torn by affairs, separations and disputes right out of the formerly fictitious nightmare of Trouble in Tahiti. His recordings had slowed to a trickle. His only composition since the 1971 Mass had been 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a bicentennial show that closed after only seven Broadway performances. It was the first unmitigated flop of Bernstein's career and embarrassed him so deeply that he never recorded it, even though he scrupulously taped nearly every other performance of his last two decades. Felicia's illness devastated Bernstein and forced him to confront the dissipation of his lifestyle and the need to restore meaning to his professional activities.
In the original album notes to the Beethoven Quartet, Bernstein wrote that this was the proudest achievement of his life. What he did not write was that this record opened the door to the rest of his career. While Felicia still lived, Bernstein canceled most of his activities to be with her. But following her death, even as Bernstein's personal habits and social conduct slid into disrepute, his focus and magnetism on the podium scaled unprecedented heights.
His first Beethoven recording in over a decade, the Quartet plumbs depths that the earlier readings never approached. This is Beethoven of a wholly new order: no longer sublimated but overtly emotional, no longer structurally balanced but seething with unbridled passion, no longer classical but ardently romantic. Equally important, the orchestra follows Bernstein's heart-rending and impassioned lead with near-perfect precision and emotional responsiveness, coordinated as closely as a string quartet would have played the original version. It was clear that Bernstein had finally found his artistic soul-mates for his final journey through the orchestral repertoire.
Nearly all conductors tend to slow down as they age. Perhaps this is a function of physiology, reflecting the slower reflexes and more deliberate tempo of an aging life. Or perhaps the change is psychological, reflecting the more contemplative, ruminative nature of a mature artist. Whatever the cause, the effect is apparent in nearly every great conductor whose mid- and late-career activity has been documented on record. But Bernstein's change would be the most dramatic of all.
Take, as a single example, a comparison of the timings of the movements of the Tchaikovsky Symphony # 6 ("Pathetique") between Bernstein's 1964 Columbia and 1986 DG recordings: the first expands from 18:50 to 22:34, the second from 7:05 to 8:29, the third from 8:50 to 9:52 and the fourth all the way from 11:35 to 17:12. Notably, the lyric middle movements (a 5/4 waltz and a march) have slowed the least; it is the seethingly impassioned adagio final movement that has become the most distended.
Bernstein's vigor, broad repertoire and enthusiasm had often been attributed to sheer irrepressible youthful energy. But Bernstein's later style proved that these qualities arose from something far deeper: a zest for discovery. In his DG releases, Bernstein not only slowed things down, but he probed ever deeper to discover yet-untapped profundities in the works he loved best. He did this in the only way he knew how: by letting his emotions run free. And perhaps he had finally reached the stage in life where he no longer cared about criticism to the effect that his bloated ego had overwhelmed a proper artistic aesthetic.
Classical music buffs dream of their favorite music just as intensely as anyone else. The stereotype among nonbelievers is that these reveries must be rather dull and tasteful, exactly replicating a refined, idiomatic reading. But that's really not what any dreams are for, and far more often, classical dreams are of a more creative extreme: wildly unbuckled interpretations that stretch so far beyond reality that they could never be heard in any concert hall or, for that matter, on any recording. Bernstein's most intriguing late performances come closer than any others to fulfilling such dreams.
How can mere words describe something as intangible and abstract as great music? Perhaps the only approach, tentative though it may be, is by analogy. The difference between Bernstein's Columbias and his DGs is the difference between the wonderstruck discoveries of youth and the knowledgeable confidence of maturity; spring versus autumn; impulse versus reflection; energy versus strength; keen anticipation versus retrospection; infatuation versus deep fulfillment.
This is not to suggest that Bernstein's essential energy dwindled, but only that it became embedded in a richer context. Like any other fabulous jewel, its glitter is magnified by a setting of dramatic contrast. The energy was still there, but became even more startling when couched in richly-textured saturation, like a diamond reposed in deep velvet.
Bernstein's mature style is perhaps best heard in an April 1987 reading of the Mahler Symphony # 2 in c minor with the New York Philharmonic (on DG 429 395). Bernstein had identified closely with this work, and had wowed audiences with his kinetic readings since 1947. His first Columbia recording of 1961 was razor-sharp; Luciano Berio was so enthralled that he "sampled" the entire third movement as the basis for his visionary electronic and choral pastiche Sinfonia. Bernstein chose the same work for his thousandth concert with the Philharmonic on December 15, 1971, an occasion drenched with emotion and which I still consider the most memorable concert of my life.
With only slight exaggeration, Bernstein once stated that his criterion for conducting a work was: "Will it give me an orgasm?" It's easy to see why he loved the Mahler Second so very deeply. The work runs the full gamut of human emotion, progressing from obsessive tension in the first movement, through lilting grace in the second, wicked sarcasm in the third, deep introspection in the fourth, and heaven-storming drama in the forty-minute finale. The symphony is subtitled "The Resurrection" and ends in a cathartic blaze of glory unmatched in any other work (although Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe and Mahler's own Symphony # 8 come very close). Under Bernstein's inspired baton, the tempo slows and then nearly ceases, subsumed by waves of power chords, all underlined by the deep rumble of the concert organ. The considerable energy of the Columbia recording is now prolonged and magnified to an unprecedented degree (and seems even more impressive without the inner-groove distortion and lapse of fidelity that weakened the end of the 1961 LP).
Occasionally, the results of Bernstein's emotive forays were quixotic and unsatisfying, as in a bloated Elgar Enigma Variations that seems to lose any sense of structural cohesion. In other instances, such as his Haydn, Copland, Ives and Gershwin, the relaxed maturity of the DGs seems less appropriate than the exciting cutting-edge discovery of the more youthful versions. And in the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies and concerti, the rerecordings yield fine satisfaction, but little that other conductors hadn't already achieved.
On many other occasions, though, Bernstein produced bold and stunningly vivid journeys into a realm where traditional classical music supposedly has no place. It is these which vindicate the final phase of his artistry and which form the last part of his legacy.
Sibelius: Symphonies #s 1, 2, 5 and 7 (Vienna Philharmonic, 1987-90) (DG 419 772, 427 647 and 435 351). These are hardly the fleet displays of granitic structure that sound authentically Scandinavian – the type of readings heard in the early 1930s recordings of Robert Kajanus, chosen by the mike-shy composer to direct the first records of his work, or of George Schneevoigt, his successor at the Finnish Symphony Orchestra. Rather, Bernstein has reconceived the works in deeply personal terms, seething with passion. The Symphony # 1, in particular, is simply astounding in its power. Interestingly, these works were favorites of Koussevitzky, whose artistry Sibelius admired and approved. And yet, while Koussevitzky generally adhered to the traditional approach, Bernstein, even if inspired by his mentor, clearly cuts his own, radically divergent path of overt, uncontrolled melodrama.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies #s 4, 5 and 6; Romeo & Juliet; Francesca da Rimini (New York Philharmonic, 1986-89) (DG 419 604, 429 234 and 429 778). Nor were Bernstein's final interpretations of Tchaikovsky traditional, in the sense of the extreme dynamism and tightly coiled tension of celebrated "Russian-style" readings of the past by Coates, Rodzinsky, Koussevitzky and, most recently, Mravinsky. As with Sibelius, Bernstein's extreme expansion of the tempo creates an atmosphere of profound mystery that shines a unique and fascinating light on these overly familiar pieces.
Mozart: Requiem and Mass in c minor (Bavarian Radio Orchestra, 1988 and 1990) (DG 427 353 and 431 791). The current trend in Mozart interpretation is to use period instruments and light, unemotional textures in an effort to replicate the performance practices of 200 years ago. Bernstein's richly romantic temperament was as far removed from this approach as possible. His readings of Mozart's two greatest religious works are awash in deep reverence. Whether or not Mozart would have played them this way, the sheer magnitude of profound feeling is overwhelmingly persuasive.
Bruckner: Symphony # 9 (Vienna Philharmonic, 1990) (DG 435 350). Much as Furtwangler did with his agonized 1944 Berlin concert (on Music & Arts 730), Bernstein turned to this jagged, unfinished work as a vehicle for his own frustrations and pain. But while Furtwangler had organized his conception around slashing outbursts, Bernstein's passion is of a wholly different order, throbbing with repressed energy, as if an enormous force were struggling to break through a stifling blanket of surface sludge. And all the while, Bernstein does the composer the favor of adding a distinctively Viennese lilt to the lyrical passages, as if to belatedly accord Bruckner social status in the city which had cruelly snubbed him throughout his unhappy life, but of whose heritage he was such an integral part.
Shostakovich: Symphony # 7 ("Leningrad") (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1989) (DG 427 632). Lacking the structural inevitability of Bruckner or the prolific invention of Mahler, Shostakovich's 1941 depiction of the siege of Leningrad can seem trite, diffuse and very, very long (as in Toscanini's earnest but tedious 1942 broadcast). The only way to pull off this rambling work is with unabashed emotional commitment. Bernstein does just that and makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case for a piece that needs lots of interpretive help. One of the projects Bernstein never lived to realize was a new recording of the Shostakovich Symphony # 5, which had caused such a sensation on the Moscow tour in 1959. What a stunning performance that would have been!
Mahler: Symphony # 9 (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1979) (DG 435 378). Notwithstanding his artistic commitment, Bernstein had a huge ego and was not above occasional vengeance. This set documents his finest hour in that regard. If Bernstein was the second most famous conductor in the world, Herbert von Karajan was the first. Despite his Nazi past, von Karajan guest conducted Bernstein's New York Philharmonic but never returned the favor and jealously kept Bernstein away from his own orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. Bernstein's revenge was brilliant. Von Karajan prided himself on iron discipline, with which he had forced his Berliners into a mold of dry, sterile perfection that had become widely admired as a paradigm of classical refinement. For his only appearance (arranged by management over von Karajan's protests), Bernstein wrested a performance of astounding power that recalled the unabashed emotions the orchestra had produced decades ago for their former leader Wilhelm Furtwangler, whose temperament Bernstein emulated but von Karajan despised and had done his best to purge. Listeners were ecstatic; von Karajan was appalled; and Bernstein was undoubtedly quite pleased with himself he had broken his rivals prized toy!
Mahler: Symphonies 1 - 10 (1985-88) (DG 435 162, 13 CDs, also available separately). Of all the composers with whom he felt an intimate artistic and emotional bond, Bernstein's identification with Mahler was the closest. While other conductors have left extraordinary accounts of individual works (Horenstein's Symphony # 1 on Vox CDX2-5508; Walter's Symphony # 4 on Sony MPK 46450 or Arkadia 767), none has grasped and conveyed the overall essence of Mahler as thoroughly as Bernstein. His superb final Mahler cycle is divided among the New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the three orchestras with which Mahler had been most closely associated. Bernstein didn't live to record the mammoth Symphony # 8, but DG dusted off and posthumously issued a 1975 Vienna concert. The performance is slightly lax and the sound is compromised by booming, arrhythmic podium stomping which should have been removed or at least attenuated. But despite this single disappointment, the Mahler cycle is a fulfillment of Bernstein's life: to serve up the work of his favorite composer in a final, glorious vision, seasoned by decades of study and love by his most devoted advocate.
Bernstein knew he had led a charmed life. As he had confessed to USA Today in 1986: "I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-20s and [was supposed] to be dead by the age of 35. Then they said I'd be dead by 45. Then 55. Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I'm overcommitted on all fronts." In his eighth decade, though, biology finally caught up with him.
Bernstein often said that he wanted to die on the podium, much like Mitropolous, who had collapsed while rehearsing his beloved Mahler. Bernstein's demise was to be far less romantic. His last year was one of false starts, missed opportunities, canceled tours and abandoned projects. But Bernstein's life had been defined by grand gestures, and he bracketed its end with two of the grandest of all.
December 1989 marked the reunification of Germany and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein could not resist the symbolism of an aging American Jew serving as the catalyst for the reintegration into the world community of ideological foes, formerly united only by their antisemitism. And so it was that on Christmas Day 1989, Bernstein led orchestras, choruses and soloists from Berlin, Dresden, New York, London, Paris and Leningrad (representing the two Germanies and the wartime Allies) in a massive rendition of Beethoven's Symphony # 9.
Beethoven had poured into his final symphony a sprawling summation of life's passion, profundity, humor, despair and triumph. Bernstein added to the occasion his own overwhelming vision of humanity. To underline the message, Bernstein changed the word "Freude" ("joy") to "Freiheit" ("freedom") in the final chorus, a gesture for which he invoked the composer's blessing. The united forces East and West are palpably gripped with a spiritual conviction that transcends even the glory of the music itself. Captured on DG 429 861, every moment of the sublime 78 minutes vindicates all that Bernstein lived for as an artist and as a human being.
The Berlin concert may have been Bernstein's most public final gesture, but there was one more deeply personal obligation he had to repay before taking his final leave.
Bernstein liked to quote T. S. Eliot: "In my end is my beginning." Artistically, Bernstein had been born in 1940 as Serge Koussevitzky's first student at Tanglewood. Since then, the eager, aspiring youngster had become everything he had admired in his mentor and was now himself the dean of American music. And so, at its very end, his life was about to come full circle.
Although his publicists insisted he was merely tired, Bernstein in fact was fatally ill. He had been forced to cancel his upcoming engagements – all but one. The fiftieth anniversary of Tanglewood was to be commemorated on August 19, 1990 with a concert played by Koussevitzky's orchestra, held in Koussevitzky's concert hall and dedicated to Koussevitzky's memory. Bernstein knew he had to keep this one final commitment.
The program itself reverberated with significance: Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, which Koussevitzky had commissioned and Bernstein had premiered in 1947; Arias and Bacchanales, Bernstein's final composition; and Beethoven's Symphony # 7, a work with which Bernstein had opened his tenure with the New York Philharmonic in 1958 and an ideal blend of the profound probity and athletic vigor which ignited his best interpretations. After conducting the Britten with his accustomed power and insight, Bernstein had to delegate his own work to an assistant while he rallied himself for the Beethoven. During the third movement he collapsed, coughing and gasping for breath. The orchestra covered valiantly, but the audience knew that an era of limitless energy and eternal youth had passed.
The ecstatic applause at the end was fully deserved, but not for the music. Bernstein undoubtedly had something profound and amazing left to say about Beethoven, but the sheer burden of survival had overwhelmed his power to communicate it. Typical of his late concerts, Bernstein seemed to have intended a slow, seethingly intense reading, but the Beethoven emerged instead as merely clumsy and fatigued. The orchestra's listless attacks and sloppy execution evidenced both a lack of rehearsal and the lapse of Bernstein's personal magnetism. Rather, the ovation was for the last public appearance of a supreme legend and for the extreme nobility of his final gesture.
The CD of the concert (DG 431 768) remains only a grim deathbed memory, best forgotten in favor of more vital souvenirs of a fabulous career. Bernstein's true final legacy lies in the valediction of his late recordings, which exemplify all he had lived for as an artist and as a human being. Ever the egoist, Bernstein tried to thwart death through a final concert and to defy mortality through the permanence of recordings. Ever the explorer, Bernstein's final records transcended tradition to blaze musical paths that no previous conductor had dared to attempt. Ever the teacher, Bernstein imparted a great final lesson through his deeply inspired and passionate interpretations of power, conviction and truth. Ever the visionary, Bernstein devoted himself to a musical ecstasy that would inspire the artistic outlook of future generations. And ever the humanitarian, Bernstein poured every last drop of his life into the redemptive power of music for the sake of all mankind.
In keeping with his image as an American hero, Bernstein's treatment in literature was largely adulatory throughout his life. That all came to a crashing halt in 1987 with the publication of Joan Peyser's Bernstein – a Biography (Morrow, 1987). Always sensitive to professional criticism, Bernstein and his family and friends felt deeply betrayed and stung by Peyser's intrusion into the most intimate recesses of their formerly private lives. But notwithstanding her trashy approach, as a outsider Peyser had a refreshing perspective and some rather perceptive observations.
Perhaps hoping to undo the damage and redress the balance, Bernstein's heirs granted admirer Humphrey Burton exclusive access to the massive Bernstein archives and the right to interview family members in order to compile his comprehensive Leonard Bernstein (Doubleday, 1994). Although in the Foreward Burton claimed that his biography was not authorized and that he was immune from editorial pressure, his predisposition and unique inside sources virtually assured a flattering product. Heavily annotated and strictly chronological, Burton's is a basic resource, albeit a rather uncritical, bland and plodding one.
Late that year came the best biography of all – Meryle Secrest's Bernstein – a Life (Knopf, 1994) – nearly as heavily researched as Burton's but boasting superior organization and style. Secrest unfolds the story thematically and blends her topics with a lovely, natural flow. But even she could not resist the temptation to devote a dozen pages to a sordid and largely gratuitous parade of degrading anecdotes about the declining civility that marred Bernstein's behavior in his last decade.
The biographical material in this article is primarily indebted to the Peyser, Burton and Secrest books. Useful supplements are Bernstein Remembered (Carroll & Graf, 1991), a profusely-illustrated coffee-table book boasting a fine introduction by Donal Henahan, and William Westbrook Burtons Conversations About Bernstein (Oxford University Press, 1995), providing colleagues personal reminiscences. Also crucial to an understanding of Bernstein are his writings, particularly The Infinite Variety of Music (Simon & Schuster, 1966), Findings (Simon & Schuster, 1982) and The Unanswered Question (Harvard, 1976), a transcription of his 1973 Harvard lectures. To view the TV star on his own medium of choice, there is Leonard Bernstein – a Gift of Music (Unitel), a video overview of his career that includes some superb concert footage and is occasionally shown on PBS.
This article, of course, consists only of words. As with all great musicians, language cannot possibly suffice to suggest their full measure of greatness. Listen to the 1958 Rite of Spring or the 1963 or 1987 Resurrection and you will discover more about Bernstein than words could ever convey.
For more information on Bernstein's recordings, please see my extended reviews of:
Copyright 1995 and 1999 by Peter Gutmann
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copyright © 1999-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.