September 2018

Arts & Letters

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

By Andrew Ford

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Leonard Bernstein’s centenary fell late last month – he was born on August 25, 1918 – and all year it has been celebrated in concert halls around the world. But why are we celebrating so hard? And what, I wonder, is being celebrated?

Besides being the composer of West Side Story, Bernstein was best known in his lifetime as the most recognisable conductor of his generation (Herbert von Karajan would have run a close second). In the United States, he was a household name, largely because of televised concerts in which he talked to the audience; many of these were directed at children.

Dead conductors are hard to celebrate in live concerts, though in London the BBC Proms were “recreating” one of the programs Bernstein conducted there. It was a mainstream pairing of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 – nothing about it is unique to Bernstein – but “the world’s greatest classical music festival” was keen to play up its association with the late maestro, even if he only conducted there twice. In the United States, as you might imagine, the celebrations are in full swing. Bernstein’s own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, began last October with three weeks of events. Even in Australia, all six state orchestras made Bernstein’s music a feature of their seasons.

Leonard Bernstein’s story is well known. He was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to a Ukrainian Jewish family. His father ran a hairdressing and beauty supply company. The Bernsteins weren’t musical, and Leonard – or Louis as he was called before he changed his name at age 15 – wasn’t exactly a prodigy. But he was talented, enthusiastic, ambitious and charismatic. At 19, while at Harvard, he met the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was both impressed and smitten, asking the young student for a photograph to take on a European tour. (There are rumours of an affair.) Mitropoulos never gave Bernstein conducting lessons, but recommended him to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he entered the class of the great Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner. Later, Bernstein studied with another European émigré, Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It would have been difficult to find three more serious mentors.

Bernstein worked hard, honing his talents as a conductor, pianist and composer (Aaron Copland was an early role model and friend), and, in 1943 at the age of 25, he was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Within months, he had made his debut with the orchestra, standing in for the legendary Bruno Walter at such short notice there was no opportunity for a rehearsal.

It was a Hollywood moment. The performance at Carnegie Hall was a success, the young conductor was cheered, and everyone heard about it because the concert was broadcast live across the nation and the story was on the front page of the following day’s New York Times. Within two years, Bernstein had his own orchestra – the New York City Symphony – and at the end of the war there were engagements across Europe. In 1958, he succeeded Mitropoulos as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and stayed until 1969, when he was named laureate conductor for life.

If this were not enough, in 1944 (the year between Bernstein’s conducting debut with the Philharmonic and his appointment as music director at the Symphony) his other career took off. In January he led the premiere of his first symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; in April he conducted his score for Jerome Robbins’ ballet Fancy Free at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House; and in December his musical comedy On the Town opened on Broadway. Bernstein’s career path was set: a zigzag path, or so it seemed, between high and low art that he would negotiate with aplomb, while often affronted by the way in which his concert music was received.

It was significant that 1944 included both a Broadway show and a symphony. Along with conducting – particularly on television – Bernstein’s musicals would bring him his greatest popular success, but it’s hard not to feel that Bernstein wanted to be regarded as a serious composer worthy of his European mentors.

There is a letter from Koussevitzky to Bernstein in 1946. The old man has invited Bernstein to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Bernstein has proposed his new ballet score Facsimile. Koussevitzky is shocked. He demands to know if Bernstein considers his music worthy to stand alongside Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Had he stopped there, his letter might not have been so confronting, but he goes on to list Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók and Copland. Bernstein replies, tail not quite between his legs, that of course he is “not on a level with Beethoven and Bartók”. Copland isn’t mentioned.

Bernstein needed the limelight but he also wanted to be revered. In Humphrey Burton’s biography, there’s a telling story of Bernstein, in his Maserati convertible with personalised numberplates, stopped at traffic lights in midtown Manhattan. Teenage boys pull up next to him. “Hey, Lenny, wanna change cars?” they call out. “They wouldn’t talk to Szell like that,” Bernstein snarls to his passenger. Well, no, of course they wouldn’t! They’d never have heard of George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. They were being familiar with Bernstein because, week after week, he’d been on their television sets, talking to them in their homes.

Among Bernstein’s concert works are three symphonies. The first, composed during World War Two, is the Jeremiah, in which a mezzo-soprano sings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. The second (its premiere in 1949 conducted by Koussevitzky) is The Age of Anxiety, named after W.H. Auden’s virtuosic poem of the same name. The third, Kaddish (1963), is a kind of spiritual psychodrama in which a narrator, addressing God, wrestles with belief, while the Jewish prayer for the dead is intoned by a boys’ choir and a soprano soloist. Then there’s a violin concerto, innocuously titled Serenade though its bracketed subtitle is “after Plato’s Symposium”.

It’s high-minded stuff, no doubt about it. The titles alone tell us this. Bernstein is mixing it with his heroes – the composers that Koussevitzky named in that letter, as well as Mahler and Shostakovich – and he expects to be taken seriously.

But did the wider audience care? Not those boys in the “rattling jalopy”. And do audiences care today? It’s interesting to examine the concert programs put together to mark Bernstein’s centenary. In Australia, there was a performance of the Jeremiah symphony from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and The Age of Anxiety from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The popular Chichester Psalms turned up in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, and will be in Adelaide in November. The Canberra International Music Festival ended with a performance of Serenade. Overwhelmingly, though, the Broadway hits were what our orchestras focused on.

Is it too simple to regard Bernstein as a multitalented double man: purveyor of musical theatre on the one hand, symphonic profundity on the other? Even if it was a dichotomy Bernstein himself sensed and struggled with, it wasn’t necessarily real.

Bernstein provided a clue to his true nature in an interview he gave to British television in 1986. “Music,” he insisted, “is one activity. Writing it is part of that activity, playing it is another, and conducting it is another; and teaching it is another, and thinking about it is another and talking to you about it is another. But it’s all one thing.”

He might have added that writing musicals and writing symphonies is also one thing. Because, listening to the symphonic works again, I sense little distinction between their musical style and that of his supposedly lighter fare. The aims might be different; the gestures, harmonies and orchestration are much the same. It is not just that a symphony can contain references to jazz. Of course it can, and in The Age of Anxiety the fourth movement features a solo piano playing something like the “Wrong Note Rag” from his musical Wonderful Town. But that’s a kind of quotation: street music invading the concert hall. Haydn did that, so did Mahler, so did Charles Ives.

Bernstein goes further. The final movement of the Jeremiah symphony – in which that mezzo-soprano sings, in Hebrew, “Wherefore dost Thou forget us forever / And forsake us so long a time? / Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord” – concludes with the orchestra playing soft, high, long-held chords that are practically interchangeable with those that end “Maria” in West Side Story. The Age of Anxiety concludes with a passage of mounting heroic defiance that recalls the composer’s only film score, for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. It’s all one thing.

In 1973, Bernstein was Harvard University’s Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. Since 1925, the holder of this chair had been invited to deliver a series of lectures on “poetry in the broadest sense”. Among Bernstein’s illustrious predecessors were T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Jorge Luis Borges, Stravinsky and Copland. (It wasn’t until 1979 that a woman – the critic Helen Gardner – gave the Norton Lectures, and only three others have done so since.)

Bernstein took the job seriously. He reduced his conducting and composing workload, and spent much of the year at Harvard, where he delivered each of his six lectures twice: once for the university and once for the television cameras. The lectures were entitled The Unanswered Question, after Ives’s enigmatic orchestral piece of 1908 in which a placidly tonal string orchestra provides a bed of unchanging certainty above which a trumpet intones a curly musical question and an increasingly frustrated quartet of dissonant flutes attempts to find an answer. Bernstein used both Ives’s title and the piece itself as the springboard for an examination of tonal music in crisis, drawing heavily on Noam Chomsky for a discussion of musical syntax. He was evidently concerned by the breakdown of a system of keys that had served Western music for centuries and that he was not ready to abandon.

I watched the lectures on television in England during the Christmas holidays of 1975. It was my first vacation home from university and I was full of musical certainties, some of which would have been at odds with Bernstein’s attitudes. For instance, I did not consider the breakdown of tonality a terrible thing, but a historic inevitability. Recently, I watched the lectures again and found my memory had played tricks on me.

I recalled rather accurately the style of the lectures, which is a little arch. There’s the great man in a range of formal and semi-formal attire: in one lecture he wears a bow tie, in another a loud checked sports jacket that dazzles the cameras. He has a tendency to posture and preen. Each lecture finishes with music, a major work – or a movement from one – with Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s 40th symphony and Beethoven’s Pastoral; the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. At the end of these filmed performances, we return for a summing up to the lecture room, where Bernstein is wiping away a tear or stubbing out a cigarette. Reviewing Bernstein’s Norton Lectures in The New York Times, immediately after the last had been delivered, Michael Steinberg referred to Bernstein’s “fatal gift of projecting himself rather than the matter at hand”.

My memories of what Bernstein discussed centred on his rather forced application of Chomsky’s notion of deep and surface structure in language to music. I find that more persuasive now than I did aged 18, and am more forgiving than my teenage self of Bernstein’s lament for tonal music. I am also astonished to find how much of Bernstein’s thinking about tonality – and how many of his actual examples – I have shamelessly (if unwittingly) filched for my own lectures and articles over the past 40 years. It seems I was an attentive student, in spite of my prejudices.

But what I find most striking, revisiting these lectures, is the extent to which they sum up Bernstein and his music. At the end, the composer-conductor is upbeat about music’s future. Even as his heroes had latterly succumbed to experimenting with Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique – Stravinsky and Copland embracing the approach at the ends of their careers, Benjamin Britten and Shostakovich dipping their sceptical toes in its waters – a younger generation of composers reconsidered tonality. Bernstein mentions Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung (“70 minutes in a B-flat world”) and, above all, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to Bernstein. But he also talks about the musical vernacular: about the American – nay, cowboy – style of Copland, and about the very Parisian waltz in Francis Poulenc’s opera Les mamelles de Tirésias. He quotes Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, and talks about how Stravinsky – before embracing 12-tone music – had refreshed his music and tonality itself by incorporating elements of “jazz, cafe music and salon music, with all their attendant waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, tangos and rags”.

In other words, he is celebrating pluralism. And, while he might not spell it out, he implies, in that final lecture, that we need a harmonic system that can accommodate both symphonies and pop songs – The Age of Anxiety and “I Feel Pretty”. Of course there are “atonal” masterpieces – Bernstein doesn’t deny it – but “atonality” would never be a lingua franca.

It is this idea that Bernstein’s own music embodies. And, in the end, it is this idea that we are celebrating.

Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford is an award-winning composer, writer and broadcaster. His books include The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies from Hitchcock to High Fidelity, In Defence of Classical Music and Earth Dances.

Leonard Bernstein, circa 1950. © Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images

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