Today is the 100th Anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. So much has already been said and written, and performed that I have only a little to add. He was the dominant idea of what a musician was for my entire youth, and when I finally got to see him live (with the National Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s 9th Symphony, the “Great C Major), it did not disappoint. He was “all in” in this epic music, which, like him, is immediately appealing, and also profound.
That he was a mash-up of 20th century ideas and drives, musical and otherwise, is the most familiar take: a Broadway star who wrote symphonies, a Jew who set the Mass as one of his greatest works, a happily married man, who lived and celebrated gay love in the last quarter of his life. Contradictions prevailed, but in his work the great through line for me is the alloy he created in of intimate and dramatic. He did this over and over again, in his performances of others’ music, and most of all in his own. That he knows his way around big gesture is clear from the first moments of the overture to Candide say,
But he finds the dramatic embedded in the the intimate, the balcony scene in West Side Story, or the violin soloist’s musings in Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)–an unlikely dramatic source–come to mind, in a way that makes you feel you know something about him, about the characters, and about the journey ahead that is a unique secret. It’s an odd comparison I know, but I think of the private moments in Wagner (to me at least a lot more treasurable than W’s bombast). Wotan saying farewell to his daughter, the fraught and forbidden love of Sieglinde and Sigmund, much of Act II Tristan. Those times when–rare in opera or perhaps even in life–nobody’s lying; they are really simply themselves, as Lenny surely was for his own eclectic, wonderful, sometimes infuriating, and completely inimitable 72 years on the planet.
My listening suggestion to close, a counterpoint to that romp of Candide overture, is his setting of three psalms–his own dramatic mash up of course, a written in 1965 to a commission from Chichester Cathedral. He found the dramatic potential, part intimacy, part frolic, grim discord, and finally a long-breathed a capella moment of peace, with these fitting words for him and for us.
Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity.