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Is Leonard Bernstein still the greatest? The power and passion of modern music’s most controversial maestro

A scene from the 1961 film version of Bernstein's West Side Story, whose premiere 60 years ago changed the course of the musical
A scene from the 1961 film version of Bernstein's West Side Story, whose premiere 60 years ago changed the course of the musical Credit: Alamy

The centenary year of the 20th-century’s most flamboyantly gifted musician is upon us, and the celebrations have begun. There are thousands of performances taking place all over the globe, and newly boxed sets of his recordings with (among others) the New York and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras are being released. It’s evidence that, for many, Leonard Bernstein is still the greatest, 27 years after his death. And it is certainly true that today’s conductors and composers seem somewhat small in comparison. 

Even those who aren’t fans will have heard of Bernstein, if only for one work: West Side Story, whose premiere 60 years ago changed the course of the musical. It retold Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the story of a rivalry between two New York gangs, in a mode of gritty realism that shocked audiences.

“How can it be called a musical comedy?” wrote Martha Gellhorn, the famous war correspondent. “It’s a musical tragedy. Were it not for the most beautiful music, and the dancing, which is like flying, people would not be able to bear to look and see and understand.” 

That premiere was a high point in a life that was complex, both personally and politically. Bernstein was homosexual but, fearful that his sexuality might stand in the way of a major conducting role, he married Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean stage and television actress, and they had three children.

Bernstein was a devoted family man, and tried psychotherapy to try to “cure” him of his homosexuality, yet affairs with men, many of them very young, continued.

Composer Leonard Bernstein Credit: LIFE picture collection/Gordon Parks

This was a source of both pain and resignation for his wife, who once wrote: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the LB altar. (I happen to love you very much – this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?) Let’s try to see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession. Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect.” 

Politics also threatened to jeopardise his career. As Bernstein’s star was in the ascendant, J Edgar Hoover began an 800-page dossier on him, believing he was “connected, affiliated, or in some manner associated with various organisations of the Communist front”. Bernstein was put under surveillance. His radicalism reached its zenith when, in 1970, he threw a party for the Black Panthers, which led Tom Wolfe, the journalist, to coin the phrase “radical chic”.

By this point, however, Bernstein’s significance in American cultural history was assured. Besides West Side Story, Bernstein composed three ballets, including Fancy Free, and several other musicals including On the Town and Wonderful Town.

A poster for Bernstein's musical On the Town 

There were also some flops, including Mass (which despite its name is a music-theatre piece) and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As well as musicals there are the works Bernstein preferred to call operas, including Candide and A Quiet Place, though their syncopations and jazz-inflected musical language made the distinction far from water-tight.

These continue to be revived and earn Bernstein a front-rank position in the history of the musical. But what of his “serious” works? How do they stand in the roll-call of 20th-century greats? Again the list is not long, but it is weighty. It includes three symphonies, a violin concerto, a Psalm-setting composed for Chichester Cathedral, and a cycle of orchestral songs.

These works undoubtedly have their moments. Violin concerto “Serenade” has a chaste lyrical beauty, as if the neo-classical austerity of Stravinsky and the American pastoral of Copland have been fused in an imaginary Greek landscape. The symphonies too have their moments, but they are hamstrung by their aspirations to depth. “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of our century, the crisis of faith,” he declared. This  “crisis of faith” was certainly real for Bernstein.

Bernstein in 1986 at his Connecticut home, surrounded by his family and dog, Sonya. Credit: Hulton Archive

He was born into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in 1918, and the rituals and beliefs and, above all, the music of his ancestral faith were branded into his consciousness. They would be recalled in his music, but never in a mood of serene possession. Often one finds a penitential mood, as in his First Symphony. In his second symphony “The Age of Anxiety”, based on W H Auden’s eponymous poem about four characters’ search for meaning in a world without values, the predominant mood is one of anxiety.

Bernstein expressed his religious anxiety with a rather heavy-handed symbolism, representing the state of being “fallen” and separated from God through the familiar clichés of modern music; anguished dissonances, and expressively angular melody with more than a hint of Berg or Shostakovich. When peace arrives at the end, we emerge into the paradisal innocence of old-fashioned harmony. 

We find this pattern in Bernstein’s “serious” works, and it suggests that for Bernstein music itself had a power to overcome our fallen state, if only temporarily. It could tap into the deepest sources of our being, mirroring in its move from tension to resolution our own longing for peace and certainty.

He often acted as if he were the chosen vessel of this sacred insight, which he had a duty to spread by every means at his disposal: performing, conducting, composing – and through words (as an educator, typified by his illustrated Harvard lectures, he showed a dazzling display of erudition).

So how great was Bernstein? All too often his classical compositions sound like an echo of the bleak tragedy of Shostakovich or the over-wrought romanticism of Berg. We recognise the source, if only half-consciously, and because of that the feeling itself seems second-hand.

And yet if you turn back to Bernstein’s Broadway works, all one’s reservations fall away. Freed from his self-imposed obligation to fret about the “crisis of faith” Bernstein could speak in his own voice.

That Broadway vernacular allowed Bernstein to plumb the gamut of feeling, from the satirical high spirits of Candide to the tragedy of West Side Story, in a way that is instantly recognisable as his alone. In his “classical” works we feel the aspiration towards depth; in his popular works we feel the thing itself, perfectly achieved.

The global calendar of Bernstein celebrations can be viewed at leonardbernstein.com/at100. The BBC’s Total Immersion Day on Bernstein takes place on Jan 27 at the Barbican London EC2 020 7638 8891