Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.
Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.
However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.
It’s been fascinating to witness the range of Bernstein’s music being programmed during this anniversary year. (Some are even slightly exasperated by the sheer amount!) Many organizations are programming the obvious classics—the overture from Candide, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Chichester Psalms are all getting frequent play time. But Bernstein’s output extends way beyond these familiar pieces. Some of his other concert and theatrical works have seen a growing number of performances—his Second Symphony and score for the ballet Fancy Free among them—allowing the art world to reflect on the multi-faceted nature of Bernstein the composer.
Below are five of my favorite works from Bernstein’s output, some lesser known and some more familiar. (If you like what you hear, check out the Spotify playlist below for recordings of the complete works):
1. Divertimento (1980)
Bernstein’s Divertimento is essentially a set of eight short orchestral miniatures written for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The notes “B” and “C” (for “Boston Centennial”) play a prominent role throughout and the work as a whole delightfully showcases Bernstein’s eclectic sensibilities. Here is the fifth movement—a cheeky little ditty entitled “Turkey Trot”:
2. Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium (1954)
Bernstein never wrote a concerto in the traditional sense, but his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium is the closest he got to the genre. Scored for solo violin, string orchestra, harp, and percussion, the work takes its inspiration from the philosophical text by Plato, in which the participants of the eponymous symposium give speeches in praise of love and its assorted qualities. Below is the lovely opening movement. (Sharp-eared listeners will pick out hints of two melodies that would later appear in West Side Story—“Maria” and “Somewhere.”)
3. MASS: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers (1971)
Bernstein’s MASS has garnered some strong opinions over the years since its 1971 premiere at the Kennedy Center, namely for its somewhat blasphemous and self-indulgent approach to the Catholic Mass. (Also, its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality makes complete performances of the work a rare occasion). Personally, though, this is one of my all-time favorite works in Bernstein’s output. Not only does it contain some great tunes, it isn’t afraid to grapple with tough questions regarding faith and doubt. Some portions of the work do show their age, but most of it remains deeply relevant amidst the contention of our current day and age.
Here is the poignant “Simple Song” from the opening of the work (although it’s so difficult for me to choose just one representative excerpt from Bernstein’s MASS—other favorites include the sarcastic “God Said” and the celebratory “Sanctus“).
4. Missa brevis (1989)
On the less controversial (and less familiar) side is Bernstein’s Missa brevis, his last completed choral piece before his death in 1990. This setting of the Mass is quietly affecting in its intimate scoring for a cappella chorus and percussion but also exudes a brightness and exuberance, such as in the Gloria movement:
5. Wonderful Town (1953)
Bernstein is arguably most famous for his theater works—Candide, On the Town, and the smash-hit West Side Story. One of his lesser-known efforts, though, is the 1953 musical Wonderful Town. Filled with delightfully witty songs and a lighthearted plot, it’s a total feel-good work and a shame that it hasn’t quite reached the same renown as its counterparts. Take, for instance, the boisterous “Conga” from the finale of Act I. How can you not love this!?
Many people have pondered over this past year if there will there ever be another figure like Leonard Bernstein. It’s impossible to come up with a definite answer, but one thing is certain: Bernstein’s legacy still looms large in the public consciousness and will likely continue to inspire, perplex, and amaze in the generations to come.