Bernstein, eclectic? Unquestionably. But his music is much more than that; in fact, it changed the meaning of the term, dismissing the slightly derogatory tone used by Europeans who denounced what they considered, from an artistic perspective, to be an overabundance of styles. This was never questioned in the Americas, from Gershwin to John Adams, which explains why Bernstein never broke through to the other side of the Atlantic, other than with his stage productions that have only recently been met with success in France, from Trouble in Tahiti (Île-de-France, 1999-2000) to Candide, as well as On the Town and West Side Story – the last three thanks to an effort made by the Châtelet theatre in Paris since 2006. Yet concerts too often neglect his three Symphonies, or other works such as Serenade, Songfest, Divertimento, Aria and Barcarolles, and Jubilee Games, let alone Chichester Psalms, Dybbuk and Mass, all of which cut through the existential question of faith…and are transcended by the power of the music. And apart from a number of his own students, who plays the breakneck jazz of Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs? His piano work isn’t done enough justice, either, in spite of the finesse that can be found in his invaluable writing for Anniversaries, at first played only for select audiences at dinner parties, as pianist Jay Gottlieb recounts: “Like sketches, portraits meant for his wife Felicia, his friends, his family… Several have been edited, and even performed in public, but Bernstein wanted to preserve their intimate nature.”
Like all the greats, Bernstein loved to appropriate any kind of style and capture its essence, turning it into something else entirely. It would be futile to try to isolate in his work what had originally come from one tradition or another…as soon as one may perceive a snippet of Jewish folkloric music, a Latin American rhythm sweeps away this first impression. Further on, Mahler is tormented by a jazz riff, and Berg finds himself projected on a Broadway stage: Bernstein is mindblowing. Those with a view to protect certain musicological traditions can understandably find themselves tearing their hair out trying to distinguish and identify the colours of this technicolor dreamcoat. From the end of the 30s, he was a member of The Revuers, a troupe created by legendary couple of cinema lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden, whose songs include “Singing in the Rain”, “The Band Wagon”, and “Bells Are Ringing”. Before he had even finished his studies at Harvard, and while Serge Koussevitsky was teaching him the fundamentals of orchestra direction at Tanglewood, he had already begun working on the music for a stage production in Greenwich Village, The Girl with the Two Left Feet. In any event, the spirit of Broadway was already present – in addition, singing alongside Alvin Hammer and John Frank in the group, was the dazzling Judith Tuvim who would later become known by the name Judy Holliday – making this an impressive relic of 1940, fortunately available as a recording! (*)
Success would come a few years later with On the Town, whose Broadway premiere in 1944 would lead the composer to unprecedented heights. Aged 26, he was already the darling of New York, having been crowned the Wunderkind of Broadway, just as Gershwin had been twenty years prior with his triumphant Oh, Kay!. As opposed to his distinguished predecessor, who didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the prestige of having his work amplified by film, everything would move very quickly for Bernstein, who would soon see the colourful dances and fast-moving, urban melodies of On the Town brought to the silver screen by MGM with Stanley Donen behind the camera and Gene Kelly at his side, acting (alongside Frank Sinatra) and choreographing. A colossal post-war success, On the Town rolls out a red carpet of playful tunes: “New York, New York”, “I Get Carried Away”, “Ya Got Me”, “Lonely Town”, “Lucky to Be Me”, “Some Other Time”...
Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s first venture into opera, in brief, one-act form (seven scenes in 45 minutes), entered the New York scene in a 1955 Broadway production entitled All in One. Yet Broadway was uncompromising with its new prodigy: it wanted simpler, catchier melodies, and the opera received only critical success, leading its author to do away with it altogether… until reviving it thirty years later by inserting it into the three-act opera A Quiet Place. Wonderful Town, his second comedy, created in 1953 in Connecticut and performed in New York only a month later, with 559 shows, finally fulfilled the expectations of Broadway. It called once more upon the two librettists of On the Town, who, for the occasion, adapted Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s piece My Sister Eileen, a stage interpretation of the highly popular writings of Ruth McKenney, published in The New Yorker. Although Broadway managed to be unfazed by strong personalities like Gershwin and Kurt Weill – without whom, Bernstein would have been nothing – thanks to him, comedy freed itself from the Old World, turning jazzy, and balancing optimism with social realism, which offered performers a greater palette of expressive depth. Only two short years later, Hollywood would follow suit, bringing My Sister Eileen to cinemas, featuring Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon.
In 1957, the composer definitively carved his name into the history of American music, reinterpreting the story of Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story. While composing Porgy and Bess, Gershwin had been the first to imagine turning musical theatre into a form of opera that felt quintessentially American. Ambitious in more ways than one, West Side Story also shares this utopian vision: to transcend everyday life, with its religious and sociocultural barriers, in order to find the essential values on which society is so mythically founded. Created in collaboration with the original creation’s choreographer Jerome Robbins, the film version by Robert Wise led the work to international renown from 1961. The gifted composer thus became an artist of the future.
After West Side Story, Bernstein’s seriousness and slowness was by no means sign of a return to a sort of neo-romantic sentimentality, but rather an expression of tragedy, an inextricable component of his musical language that managed so well to inject theatricality into his works destined for the concert hall. In his second and third Symphonies, The Age of Anxiety (1947/65) and Kaddish (1963/77) , one finds elements of jazz, at once festive and disruptive, mixed with a profound feeling of unease, doubt, and Mahler-esque morbidity. A composer rooted in many traditions, playing hide-and-seek with the traditional all while taking in the zeitgeist, Leonard Bernstein fashioned a body of work in his own image, even when, inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, the spirit of the Enlightenment possessed him to step into the moralist shoes of Voltaire for his comedic operetta, Candide, in 1965. Its satire is addressed to American high society, denouncing its puritanism, intolerance, blind faith in progress, and sense of superiority, as well as serving as “a love letter to European music, a Valentine’s Day card”. “Of course” Lenny Bernstein acknowledges, “it’s a pastiche, it’s eclectic. That’s the point! An homage to all that I love about Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, and even Bellini.” It’s universal.
(*) 2 CD Leonard Bernstein, Wunderkind. Pearl GEMS 0005, 1998.