A 20th century giant: 100 years of Leonard Bernstein | Music | DW | 24.08.2018
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A 20th century giant: 100 years of Leonard Bernstein

Best known as the composer of West Side Story, the all-round musical genius had a spectacular conducting style and a contagious enthusiasm for communicating his art. A tribute to Bernstein on the centennial of his birth.

A joke in classical music circles is said to be based on a true story. A woman has her very first experience of a symphony concert. Asked later what she thought of it, she replies, "Very nice, but I didn't understand why they need a hundred musicians to make one man dance."

That man was Leonard Bernstein, and anyone lucky enough to see him conduct — including this writer, who witnessed the nearly 70-year-old once at the Beethovenfest in Bonn — will understand the joke.

The maestro did a sort of ballet at the podium, communicating with gestures and facial expressions a meaning for every motif, every emotion — and during every second of the performance.

It was more than just antics. "Everything he did was a form of teaching and communicating, whether rehearsing an orchestra, presenting a 'Young People's Concert' on television, quoting from Shakespeare or telling a good Jewish joke," said his eldest daughter Jamie Bernstein.

That ability to communicate resulted in several million fewer people in the world with no notion of classical music.

Conductor, music educator and communicator, gifted pianist — and composer: a century after his birth, Bernstein's works are on playbills worldwide, and nowhere more than in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he was first celebrated as a 22-year-old in 1940 and gave his last concert in 1990, shortly before his death at age 72.

His three symphonies, numerous chamber and solo pieces, Mass and various works for music theater, including CandideOn the Town and most importantly West Side Story, are being performed everywhere. 

Still from West Side Story

West Side Story was a lasting success on Broadway — and as a film too

With the Bernstein centennial being the anniversary of the year, his life and achievements are summed up in television documentaries, newspapers and journals — and each one somehow comes up short. But how could one do justice to the all-round genius?

Little Old Man

Louis "Leonard" Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA. Ten years earlier, his father had fled pogroms of Jews in Ukraine. His mother had also come from that region, and his grandfather had been a rabbi.

When the boy was a year and a half old, a neighbor girl called him "little old man" because he never stopped talking. His mother noticed his obsession with music, but his father was not pleased, wanting his son to take over his cosmetics supplies business. Lennie wouldn't even consider it.

Jump ahead to November 14, 1943: with the conductor Bruno Walter ill with the flu, the New York Philharmonic's "Assistant Director" stepped in at a concert in Carnegie Hall without a single rehearsal.

For the parents, seated in the VIP box, it was the first time they'd attended a live concert of classical music. He'd finally earned his father's respect.

It was a time when classical music events made the first pages of newspapers and when the country sat glued to their radio receivers. The concert was a media event and a triumph; Leonard Bernstein an instant star. "A good American success story," wrote the New York Times.

Read more: Leonard Bernstein - Larger than Life

Leonard Bernstein at the Scala in Milan in 195

At the Scala in Milan in 1955

America's first home-made star conductor

The "Boy wonder of Carnegie Hall," as Newsweek called him, hadn't come out of nowhere.

Following studies at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he'd found important patrons: the conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Dimitri Mitropoulos and the composer Aaron Copland, who remained a lifelong friend.

Simultaneous to his skyrocketing conducting career, Bernstein was celebrated as a composer. In January 1944, he conducted the world premiere of his Jeremiah Symphony in Pittsburgh, and in the same year the Broadway musical On the Town wowed audiences with its dance rhythms and symphonic swing.

After World War II, Bernstein was one of the first American-born and educated conductors to gain international stature, leading the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in concert in 1947 and maintaining a life-long partnership with the later Israel Symphony Orchestra.

In 1957 came the premiere of West Side Story on Broadway, a year later he became principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic and stayed so until 1969. Ten years later, Bernstein premiered with the Berlin Philharmonic and in his later years was most closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein's preferred orchestra in his later years was the Vienna Philharmonic

Torn and conflicted

The star conductor had to pull the emergency brake a number of times to find time for composing. Always searching for his destiny, Bernstein once remarked, "Two men are locked up in this body." West Side Story librettist Stephen Sondheim chimed in, "Oh Lennie, ten gifts too many, the curse of being versatile…" in a song sung by actress Lauren Bacall at Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration.

The composer-conductor was in fact plagued by self-doubt throughout his life. Annoyed by the ongoing success of West Side Story, he sought repeatedly to write the "great American opera." But without success: after his Mass premiered in 1971, the New York Times found it "kitchy, cheap, vulgar."

The opera 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the biggest flops in Broadway history, and after A Quiet Place premiered in Houston in 1983, a newspaper critic found the opera  "a little too much" and described its creator as "a prodigious talent in decline." About the work, Bernstein's son Alexander said, "He'd given everything he had for it."

Bernstein was torn in his private life as well. In 1951 he married the Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre. With their three children, the couple seemed to have a perfect marriage. On the inside, however, was the ongoing crisis that Bernstein called " the little demon": his homosexuality.

Felicia accepted his sexual orientation, but Leonard eventually couldn't hide it, leaving his wife and children in 1976 to live with his friend Tom Cothran.

The following year, Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer. By then the couple was reunited, and Leonard stayed with his wife until her death in 1978.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein in Schleswig-Holstein, in 1987

His time will come? It never ended

If Bernstein described his double identity as a composer and a conductor as a source of inner conflict, it was that very quality that made his conducting unique.

The contemporary composer Ned Rorem wrote, "When he performs my music, his metabolism is so in tune with my own that he might have written the music himself." Bernstein himself confirmed: "If I don't have the feeling that I AM Beethoven, I'm doing something wrong."

America's music star and tabloid darling also took a stand against the Vietnam War and for racial equality, issues for which the FBI observed him for 40 years and compiled an 800-page file including denunciations from the McCarthy to the Nixon eras.

Suspicious that Bernstein's Mass was a political trap, US President Richard Nixon stayed away from the premiere of the work commissioned by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington.

A chain-smoker, Bernstein eventually depended on amphetamines and depressants to get him through the days and nights but never slowed down, even though he said to his son Alexander in 1987, "I'm so sick of being Leonard Bernstein."

The year before, he'd helped the German pianist Justus Frantz get the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival off the ground and founded the festival's Orchestral Academy of young musicians.

Justus Frantz, Leonard Bernstein and Helmut Schmidt

With Justus Frantz (l) and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (r)

In 1989, within days of the fall of the Wall, Bernstein conducted the first unofficial concert celebrating German unity in East Berlin. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was on the program. Overjoyed to participate in the historical moment, he had the chorus sing Freiheit, schöner Götterfunken (Freedom, beautiful divine sparks), switching the word Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom).

Always convinced that artistic endeavors would make the world a better place, Bernstein spent 50 years as a music educator. Having impacted the lives of countless young musicians may be his greatest legacy.

And his music? Jamie Bernstein explains the current public interest in it as a delayed reaction to her father's passion: "It was love that informed everything he did, and somehow their hearts have been opened by that. So the celebration itself is very emotional, very touching," she explained to Deutschlandfunk Radio. On a documentary on the German-French television channel Arte, she added: "Each year his music sounds better. Maybe his time will come after all."

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