Yes, celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. But what about other, better American composers?

July 12, 2018 at 11:55 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland c.1940. Photo: Library of Congress

If you’ve been living in an adjacent galaxy for the past several months, you may not know that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (August 25, to be exact).

Music of the American composer, conductor, pianist, advocate and television personality has been even more inescapable than usual across the country and the world for the past two years. (Even the Eurocentric Chicago Symphony Orchestra did its part this past season with several Bernstein works.)

And there is more to come. Tonight Marin Alsop and the CSO kick off a summer of Bernsteiniana at the Ravinia Festival, which will encompass several works ranging from the familiar (Candide Overture) to rarities (the Serenade on Plato’s Symposium and Mass). The Tanglewood Festival–with which Bernstein enjoyed a long and important relationship and where he conducted his final concert–is, unsurprisingly, doing even more Bernstein this summer.

It’s heartening to see any American composer get this kind of attention in a concert landscape increasingly dominated by Classical’s Greatest (Euro) Hits. Yet it’s increasingly hard not to feel that this year’s Lenny-mania amounts to vast overkill.

The fact is that despite his undeniable musical gifts, fame, charisma and versatility, Bernstein produced a relatively small body of works–and those works are wildly uneven to say the least. Let’s be honest: as a composer, Leonard Bernstein is greatly overrated.

Lest anyone think I have an animus against Leonard Bernstein, far from it. In fact, I can say West Side Story changed my life.

As a young preteen, watching the first television broadcast of the film version–spread out over two nights on NBC–I was riveted by the music, the dancing, the characters and the fluent yet audacious updating of Romeo and Juliet from the courts of Verona to 1950s teen gangs on the (then) mean streets of the Upper West Side of New York. After the first part aired, I could not get the movie out of my mind at school the next day and counted the hours until the second part that night (which floored me even more). That first viewing of this historic musical–my affection for which has never diminished–had a seismic impact and was a major element in my career writing about music. West Side Story remains–for this writer, at least–the greatest Broadway musical of all time and is Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece.

But it is also Leonard Bernstein’s only masterpiece. Nothing else in his oeuvre is as consistent or successful on that level. (Though in its four and one-half minutes, the brassy, breezy, near-perfect Candide Overture comes close.)

The first two of Bernstein’s three symphonies (“Jeremiah” and “The Age of Anxiety”) have interesting moments but fail to hang together as a unified whole. His Third Symphony (“Kaddish”) is a complete train wreck, a low point in 20th-century music with the God-hectoring narrator (to Bernstein’s own would-be hip text) irritating and unlistenable.

The downside of this overhyped centennial bash is that it lets managers, orchestras, and festivals off the hook. Lionizing Bernstein out of all proportion to his actual achievements as a composer is too easy. Presenters can program populist items like the Candide Overture and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story while patting themselves on the back for bravely doing yeoman work for American music.

Please. The worst part of this Lenny orgy  is that it takes precious attention, resources and financial commitment away from other American composers of the past–most of whom are less celebrated but who were, in fact, better composers with a stronger claim on the concert hall than their more media-savvy colleague.

For every one hundred performances of the Candide Overture that are taking place this year, would it be asking too much to perform one piece by the other 99% of American composers whose music continuous to be ignored? The least symphony of David Diamond is worth all three of Bernstein’s put together. And while their music is less outwardly flashy and brilliant, the overall musical legacy of people like Walter Piston, Howard Hanson and others is much more substantial and consistent.

We are fortunate here in Chicago where the Grant Park Music Festival under Carlos Kalmar’s direction, consistently spotlights Piston, Diamond and other neglected American composers of the past. But elsewhere, nada. Even Aaron Copland is infrequently performed these days.

So, by all means, lift a glass to Leonard Bernstein this summer and give him his due as a reviver of Gustav Mahler, charismatic (if uneven) conductor and composer of West Side Story. 

But a much better way to honor Bernstein is to recognize his advocacy of American music and make a renewed commitment to other homegrown composers of the past: those whose works Bernstein conducted–like Ives, Copland, and Diamond–as well as those he didn’t. More than his own uneven output, that important and generous advocacy may be Leonard Bernstein’s most important and enduring musical legacy.

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One Response to “Yes, celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. But what about other, better American composers?”

  1. Posted Aug 12, 2018 at 7:40 am by noochinator

    Some nice iconoclasm, thanks so much!

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