2018 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, and many of the world’s greatest orchestras are honoring the occasion by opening up their repertoires to display the dash and splash that was ‘Lenny’s’ compositional gifts of music to the world. From the well known Broadway inspired cadences of West Side Story and Candide, to the more imposing Symphonies and Mass, Bernstein’s music evoked American shades of 20th century classical music, albeit more profoundly evolved as a definitive American classical style by his contemporaries Copland, Thompson, Harris, and Barber. His most famous contribution, West Side Story, is a synthesis of a triad of multi-genre genius, Bernstein of the score, Sondheim of the lyrics, and Jerome Robbins of the ballet. The combination created a very modern unforgettably muscular American cultural creation that answered much like Porgy and Bess any sense of perceived inferiority complex of the American art scene against its more established European creators. In addition to his music compositional creativity, Bernstein proved himself a polymath with concert level piano performance skills and superstar celebrity persona as conductor of the greatest orchestras, including his long tenure with the New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein, however, achieves on the 100th anniversary of his birth year status as Ramparts People We Should Know #31 most specifically for his most selfless gift to western civilization, his genius and lifetime contribution as a pedagogue, delivering to multiple generations of performers, students and every day people alike, an unparalleled love and understanding of classical music as a critical pillar of our civilization, and distilling it into a form that all, regardless, of training or exposure, could profoundly enrich their own lives.
Leonard Bernstein was born of Jewish Ukrainian immigrant parents on August 25th, 2018 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His prodigious musical talent showed itself early despite his family’s general passivity towards music. He was recognized in school for both his performance ability as well as his musical intellect, and ended up despite his humble beginnings, studying music at Harvard, and eventually Curtis Music Institute in Philadelphia. At a young age, he interacted with famous musical talents such as the composer Copland and conductors Serge Koussevitsky and Fritz Reiner, who recognized his singular talents and helped promote the unknown Bernstein. His initial fame was achieved at the conductor’s baton, substituting at age 25 without rehearsal and succeeding in melodramatic fashion for a suddenly indisposed Bruno Walter in front of the New York Philharmonic. In rapid sequence, he reached equally epic heights with a series of well received compositions, Fancy Free (leading to On The Town), Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony #2, and eventually the superstar status of West Side Story. The music carried the thematic structures of modern American idioms of syncopal rhythm and jazz, less defined by its originality as its ability to evoke modern American sensibilities as the new post-war superpower melting pot cauldron of influences, rather than the tired national strains of the dissembled Old World. West Side Story was the music of youth, the multi-cultural rhythms of the streets, a muscular declaration of a unique American style.
By the 1960’s Leonard Bernstein had ensconced himself as at a celebrity superstar level musical force, and was a much sought after conductor around the world. He took advantage of his singular position to do something amazing on a relatively untested new medium that he believed could be a force magnifier for music popularity and understanding for the public at large, television. As magnetic as he was on stage, in front of the cameras, he came off as welcoming, unpretentious, and never condescending in developing a complex topic. He became famous for his patient and example laden teaching style he brought to the weekly broadcasts, Young Peoples Concerts with the New York Philharmonic on CBS. From 1958 to 1972, Bernstein used the format of a classical music outreach concert to young people to develop their music intellect at the same time, with the concerts centered upon topics such as “What is a Melody?”, “What is a Mode?”, “The Sounds of a Symphony,” and “Music Atoms: The Study of Intervals”. He took apart complex compositions into digestible pieces that musical novices could appreciate, then re-assembled them into their musical canvas, enriching for everyone the hidden genius and life affirmations music can provide. Through the bounty of YouTube, many of these master classes showcasing Bernstein’s special gift for making centuries old music come alive for the listener are available to us today:
He recorded multiple symposiums in the development of music collected as The Unanswered Questions , on of the most famous was his five minute exposition on the entire development of Tonal Exposition we know as music:
All was displayed to bring art to life for all to enjoy, in a medium that was accessible with a teaching style that was accessible. Generations of Americans, and people the world over, gained their willingness to make classical music a part of their life experience and learned to appreciate why western civilization could hardly be understood without music’s development alongside, replenishing and invigorating the cultural foundations of a healthy society. Bernstein brought the artist’s lyrical brush to our understanding and appreciation of music, and likely saved classical music for another generation from being crowded out by modern technology’s assault that encourages shortened attention spans and the need for superficial gratifications.
I heard Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free in a boisterous local performance of my local symphony orchestra this past weekend, along with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto #5 and Ravel’s La Valse. I can only imagine how ‘Lenny’ might have brought the whole concert to even greater life through a running narrative of what we were about to hear. One hundred years going, he was a proud defender of humanity’s most creative impulses, and a worthy recipient of Ramparts People We Should Know #31.