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Leonard Bernstein invented how we do modern classical music

April 26, 2018

Whether he was conducting, composing or communicating, Bernstein was a stylish innovator

Alexandra Coghlan

Between 1958 and 1972, Leonard Bernstein presented 53 episodes of his pioneering Young People’s Concerts on US television. In over 50 hours of broadcasting one moment stands out. It’s in the episode entitled, unpromisingly, “What is a Mode?” Faced with the task of explaining the “tongue-twisting” Mixolydian mode to his Sunday-afternoon audience, Bernstein sits down at the piano. Dressed in a suit and tie, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra ranked behind him on stage, he begins to play and sing: “Girl, you really got me goin’. You got me so I can’t sleep at night…”

That delicious friction between high and low, the incongruous spectacle of a world-famous conductor and composer singing the Kinks on national television—and the wonderful ease with which Bernstein then transitions into Debussy—says everything you need to know about this singular figure.

Bernstein was an overwhelmingly gifted, era-defining musician, the composer of scores including West Side Story, Candide, Mass and the three genre-defying symphonies, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a skilled solo pianist, educator, author and activist. But he was also a showman who relished his personal celebrity as much as his professional career. He was a classical musician who composed for Broadway, closer in some ways to Stephen Sondheim than Igor Stravinsky: the grip of his signature baton was fashioned from (what else?) a champagne cork. Bernstein was the artist the public loved and the critics loved to hate.

Such was his notoriety and the scope of his personal influence, it is only now, in what would have been his 100th year, that we have enough distance from Lenny the man to take a clear-eyed look at Lenny the musician. Bernstein protégés still play important roles in musical life—most notably, perhaps, the conductor Marin Alsop, who recently conducted Mass at a Bernstein celebration weekend at the Southbank Centre—and there are few American musicians of a certain generation without a Bernstein story to tell. But both the hero-worship and personal animus towards this divisive figure are fading.

Reaktion’s Critical Lives series has become a useful barometer for an artist’s reputation. Experts, rather than journalists or jobbing biographers, take the temperature of some of culture’s leading figures in concise, un-sensationalist studies. Paul Laird’s Leonard Bernstein may not have the stylistic ease and flair of the best of this series (notably Jonathan Cross’s elegant volume on Stravinsky), written as it is in the ponderous tones of American academia, but it still offers a neatly filleted account of Bernstein’s life and works. It is a calm if not entirely neutral supplement to the unwieldy and often controversial bibliography that now surrounds the composer.

Both book and anniversary invite us to consider not just a life but a legacy. What’s striking is the shuffling of the deck of Bernstein’s many achievements. Ask anyone 30 years ago what he would be remembered for, and the answer would have been his work as a conductor—the vast catalogue both on disc and film made through his long association with Columbia Records and then Deutsche Grammophon. West Side Story aside, his work as a composer probably wouldn’t have merited much discussion (Bernstein himself, interestingly, believed none of his works would outlive him), let alone his pioneering role in music education.

Bernstein became enough of a phenomenon to merit a Time cover story in 1957. Yet the magazine felt able to declare loftily that: “At 38, Bernstein must tell himself that his talents have so far produced great excitement but no great works.” (This the year of West Side Story.) Today, as Laird demonstrates, attitudes have shifted significantly. The suspicion and snobbery that dogged Bernstein throughout his career, reaching a head in the 1960s in the writing of New York Times critic Harold C Schonberg, who branded him a lightweight and a dilettante, have now faded. Critical frustration remains with an artist spread too thin, battling a “lifelong wrestling match” with his own diverse talents and inclinations; but his struggles are now viewed with new sympathy.

Laird takes this sympathy still further. He argues that Bernstein’s many creative outlets and activities—his television series, his Norton Lectures at Harvard, his mentoring of conductors at Tanglewood and even certain of his compositions—were not the rival distractions they’ve traditionally been viewed as, but rather constituent parts of a single coherent urge to educate.

Early on Bernstein identified his own “quasi-rabbinical instinct for teaching and explaining things,” and later declared that, “the public is… an intelligent organism, more often than not longing for insight and knowledge.” He placed immense value on sharing musical understanding in all its forms. Laird reframes classical music’s most glamorous butterfly as the pioneer of the kind of holistic music-making more common in today’s artists.

When Simon Rattle addresses his Proms audience and explains the relationship between a 12-tone Webern miniature and a Mahler symphony, when Antonio Pappano presents a BBC series on classical voices, when Marin Alsop devotes her time to nurturing young female conductors, they all are following a model set by Bernstein.

Today the classical concert is a format under (re)construction. Recent developments have given us Gerard McBurney’s award-winning Beyond the Score series, which opens up a classical work for an audience, pulls it apart, then puts it back together again in a complete performance. There is also Glyndebourne’s Behind the Curtain and the Aurora Orchestra’s collaborations with Radio 3’s Tom Service. All take inspiration from Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, which argued so presciently that classical music really could speak to everyone, proving their point on primetime television. Even today’s major digital innovations—the Berlin Philharmonic’s streaming service, opera broadcasts in cinemas—were anticipated by Bernstein, who was one of the first conductors to harness technology to increase classical music’s reach, ensuring that high-profile concerts were filmed live for later broadcast in cinemas.

But the skill that gave Bernstein this platform was conducting. From the moment the 25-year-old Bernstein stepped in at the last-minute for an ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall in a broadcast concert, he seized the power of the position, translating it into not only musical but educational, and even political, influence. The significance of his rise through the ranks to become Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 cannot be overstated. He was not only the first ever American-born conductor to hold such a position with so prominent an orchestra, but also the first American-born, American-trained conductor to have an international career at all.

But if Bernstein’s music made a powerful statement about American national identity, his career and professional success was no less clear in its message. Classical music in the US was once a milieu dominated by Europeans, used to dismissing home-grown talent as second-best. Anti-Semitism was still so rife that Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky suggested that his protégé change his name to help smooth his career. But this stuffy, hidebound culture was turned on its head by this charismatic young conductor whose confidence and ambition overrode all objections.

Bernstein’s highly physical approach—nakedly emotive, muscular—couldn’t have been a greater contrast to his rivals. Even the more demonstrative—Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti—were restrained compared to Bernstein, whose visual style translated into interpretations whose heart-on-its-sleeve emotionalism and generosity were also new. At their best, Bernstein’s performances are electrifying, shattering the glass case around great works. At their worst, like the infamous 1990 recording of Mozart’s Requiem with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, with its bafflingly slow, unmusical tempi and capricious, unidiomatic stylistic choices, they are unlistenable.

Today we can trace Bernstein’s influence in the rhythmically energised, flamboyant conducting style of Kristjan Järvi and the darling of the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel. But we can also see it in a critical shift in attitude towards conductors such as John Wilson, who has conducted MGM musical scores at the Proms. It was Bernstein who first forced the classical establishment to take Broadway seriously. He split his time between these two worlds and maintained that one did not diminish the other. In Wilson’s career championing musicals and film scores alongside symphonies we see this acceptance at work.

Only in his choice of repertoire does Bernstein’s legacy look dated. At first, he was keen on new work, increasing the amount of American music performed by the New York Philharmonic until it represented a third of all the music he conducted with the ensemble. But later in life he increasingly retreated to the European classics. True, it is thanks to Bernstein that Mahler, previously a fringe figure in concert halls, occupies so central a position today; but in turning his attention to the 19th century, Bernstein all but abandoned his commitment towards contemporary works—aside from his own, of course.

And what of his music—the catalogue of works contemporary critics claimed would never endure? Many have not. It has been interesting during this anniversary year to hear pieces rarely heard restored to the concert hall. The three awkward, exploratory symphonies—each a highly personal re-imagining of the form—feel like experiments without an obvious outcome. The value we place on Bernstein as a composer now rests on just a handful of works: the vivacious violin concerto, Candide, the Chichester Psalms and, towering over them all, West Side Story—the piece that, had Bernstein composed nothing else, would still ensure his place in the repertoire.

While West Side Story remains one of the great works of music-theatre, it is perhaps most important as a symbol of the Bernstein conundrum: a Broadway musical of symphonic scope that gleefully collides jazz and popular dance styles with highly sophisticated, chromatic language to create something at once absolutely classical and undeniably contemporary. The musical broke down barriers without its creator wishing to. The composer who yearned to create “one important piece” who, throughout his life, “always bristled when people wanted to talk about West Side Story,” accidentally prepared the ground for a new détente between highbrow classical music and more popular styles.

In a world of 12-tone avant-gardism, Bernstein dared to emancipate tonality—to give it a voice that wasn’t nostalgic, but instead imagined an alternative musical future. It’s a voice without which the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the operas of Jake Heggie, John Corigliano and Nico Muhly wouldn’t be possible. Even Sondheim’s brand of thinking-man’s-music-theatre, perhaps even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, would be unimaginable without the fundamental reassessment of the genre that West Side Story provoked.

It’s often said that Bernstein has no musical heirs. Perhaps this is true in terms of strict stylistic genealogy, but not in terms of spirit. Today’s philosophy of a genuinely plural, democratic classical music is one rooted in Bernstein’s eclecticism and lack of cynicism. Throughout this anniversary year, I urge you to look closely at every new initiative or innovation proposed for the concert hall. Chances are, whatever it is, this musical maverick got there first.

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