An Ode to Bernstein on his 100th Birthday
Today we salute the genius of that great American man of music, Leonard Bernstein, born exactly one hundred years ago. The conductor Marin Alsop described him perfectly in The Guardian newspaper recently, as “the consummate amalgam of highbrow, low-brow and every other brow.”
It was the musicals that brought him widespread fame. Who’s not familiar with West Side Story? That 1950s take on the Romeo and Juliet tale, placing it in working class Manhattan, teamed Bernstein’s score with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and delivered such timeless standards as Maria, I Feel Pretty, and Somewhere.
By then, Bernstein had carved out an impressive career in the classical arena as well. He’d studied conducting, and, in his mid-20s, had secured the post as assistant at the New York Philharmonic.
But he was also composing. There had been a song, based on a text from the Book of Lamentations, which he developed into a symphony that he entered in a competition being run by the New England Conservatory.
It didn’t win, but proved an important staging post in his career. The symphony — Jeremiah — had its premiere in Pittsburgh, in early 1944, with the composer himself on the rostrum.
It enjoyed a remarkable run of success, with a string of performances in major concert halls over the following months.
Leonard Bernstein was now firmly on the musical map, though his prominence, together with his willingness to involve himself in progressive causes, had an unwelcome side effect.
He came to the attention of the FBI, and in the reds-underthe-bed Cold War paranoia that had developed in the United States, he found himself a target of the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Bernstein’s was blacklisted as a communist, his music was banned at official functions, and his passport was withdrawn.
Though that decision was revoked — he became the first American to conduct at La Scala, Milan — he was never far from the thoughts of the secret service.
A work commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971 was deemed to be part of an anti-war plot to embarrass the White House.
Bernstein was the dynamic director of the New York Philharmonic throughout the 1960s, and was also an enterprising educator, bringing classical music to a younger audience through a number of television series.
Quite possibly the pinnacle of Leonard Bernstein’s achievements came in December 1989 when, at the age of 71, he presented Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on both sides of the Berlin Wall which had fallen only six weeks before.
On Decmber 23rd, his multinational ensemble performed in the west.
Then on Christmas Day, in the Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt in the old East Berlin, his orchestra and vocal soloists, together with three choirs from both sides of the German divide, brought Beethoven’s music to life at the heart of the now reunited city.
The symphony’s climax, the Ode to Joy, was amended for this historic performance. Instead of “Freude” (joy), Bernstein had his choirs sing “Freiheit” (freedom). This Ode to Freedom was a crowning achievement for Bernstein the activist, as much as Bernstein, the complete man of music.
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Unbridlged joy: Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra