You’ll need little reminding that this year marks the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, on 25 August, 1918. And you’ll find little opposition to the widely held view that he was, and remains, the greatest musician that America ever produced. Composer-pianist-conductor, he followed the 3-talent tradition of history’s greatest musical luminaries, from Mozart to…well…Bernstein, who possibly outdid Mozart in also being a superb educator. Naxos artist Marin Alsop knew him well, so this week’s reflection on the great man will be framed by the recordings she has made of his music for Naxos.
The label’s reputation for having some of the best liner notes around is unchallenged, so our way in to the music will be through that source, with observations provided by Frank K. DeWald, David Ciucevich and Robert Hilferty. Our opening statement, however, falls to Marin Alsop, maybe the prima inter pares of those inspired by the complete package of what was the great Leonard Bernstein:
“Leonard Bernstein was my hero as a child and my mentor as an adult. Like the man himself, his music transcends barriers and breaks boundaries, reminding us of music’s incredible power to speak directly to our souls. Fun, glorious, intense, outrageous, comforting, confrontational, profound…This is the Leonard Bernstein I knew and loved.”
What follows is an overview of the 8-CD centenary box set of Bernstein’s music, conducted by Marin Alsop, which we released in February.
Symphonies 1 and 2
Leonard Bernstein may well have understood symphonic form better than any other 20th-century composer—as a conductor, he was celebrated for his interpretations of symphonies from the beginning of the genre (Haydn) to its apotheosis (Mahler). And yet none of his three works bearing the word “symphony” in its title is in any way traditional. In 1977 he said, “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah [Symphony No. 1], I was wrestling with that problem.” In Jeremiah the crisis is joined; in the second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, it is discussed, probed and superficially resolved.
The Age of Anxiety:
Symphony 3, Missa Brevis, The Lark
In the original version of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 [Kaddish], the speaker—reciting words that no doubt came directly from the composer’s heart-proclaims, “As long as I sing, I shall live.” Singers, both solo and choral, figure prominently in many of Bernstein’s works; clearly he considered the human voice one of the most expressive instruments in a composer’s arsenal.
Symphony No. 3:
Serenade, Facsimile, Divertimento
Most of Bernstein’s works spring from a programmatic impulse. Plato’s Symposium provided the germ for the Serenade, a work for solo violin and orchestra that Bernstein himself called his “most satisfying”. In technical demands the work is definitely a concerto, the solo violin assuming the rhetorical role of the ‘speaker’ in each movement. The ballet Facsimile is a psychological drama in which post-war men and women use outward, superficial ‘busyness’ to attempt to fill an inner spiritual vacuum. Negative reviews following the premiere only served to demonstrate its successful exposure of post-war malaise, where true intimacy could be shunned for a cheap ‘facsimile’ of it. One of Bernstein’s final works, Divertimento for Orchestra is a tribute to the broad diversity both of his compositions and the favourite works he conducted.
After his outrageously dynamic 11-year tenure [as music director] at the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein was anxious to get back to the business of composing. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave Bernstein an opportunity to get back on the creative track, big time, with an irresistible commission: to compose the inaugural piece for the opening of the newly constructed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein wrote: “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions and sects, of ancient or tribal beliefs, but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a piece dedicated to her late husband. The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself—it even suggests a theater work.”
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Suite, Slava!, CBS Music, A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet
On 25 August 1988, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began a four-day celebration of Bernstein’s 70th birthday at its summer home, Tanglewood. The gala concert that evening, hosted by Beverly Sills, featured a galaxy of performers including Mstislav Rostropovich, Christa Ludwig, Midori, Gwyneth Jones, Yo-Yo Ma, Betty Comden, Lauren Bacall, Victor Borge and Bernstein’s own family. Approximately 8,000 well-wishers were in the audience, including the composer’s 90-year-old mother. The concluding Sunday afternoon concert opened and closed with Haydn and Tchaikovsky symphonies led by the honoree, but, in between, Seiji Ozawa led the world premiere of A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet, eight variations on New York, New York from On the Town by eight illustrious and admiring composers, including John Corigliano Jr’s For Lenny, with love – and candor…
A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet:
Anniversaries, Fancy Free Suite, Candide Overture, Wonderful Town Overture
Wonderful Town opened on 25 February 1953; it was a great success (eventually running for a year-and-a-half) and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Like On the Town, it was a love letter to New York City, centering on two sisters from Ohio who are out to make it in the Big Apple, and populated by a cast of oddball characters who bring both heart and humor to the story.
Chichester Psalms, On the Waterfront, On the Town
In conclusion, we quote again from conductor Marin Alsop’s testimonial:
“His Chichester Psalms, like all of his compositions, offers a glimpse into Bernstein’s soul. Simply by his choice of a Hebrew text for a premiere in the Church of England we see Bernstein’s deep desire to embrace and include everyone in the experience. The final a cappella moments of Chichester Psalms—’Behold how good, and how pleasant it is, For brethren to dwell together in Unity’—are the essence of Leonard Bernstein for me and why I miss him so very much.”