"The Legend of Lenny"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 2008
Photo: Library of Congress.
Audio: Mahler 2, National Cathedral, 1984.
In 1984, when I was fifteen and living in Washington, D.C., I stopped by the National Cathedral to watch Leonard Bernstein conduct a rehearsal of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Bernstein was preparing for a concert sponsored by an organization called Musicians Against Nuclear Arms, or MANA. I had little faith that he would prevent Armageddon by conducting Mahler, but I idolized him nonetheless. A score of the symphony was resting on a pew, and I gawked at the “LB” scrawled across the title page. For several minutes, Bernstein busied himself with the two rumbling percussion crescendos that suggest the rending of the earth at the Last Judgment. “Louder! Louder!” he kept shouting, his bellow a model for the players. Later, I followed him at an awed distance while he explored the crypts beneath the cathedral and ascended the narrow, winding stairs into the central tower. When he discovered the carillon, he merrily banged out the closing theme of Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Like so many people in the late twentieth century, I was a small object swayed toward a life in music by the gravitational pull of the meandering planet Bernstein.
More than the man, I remember the sound, and the feeling of power that the sound produced. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Bernstein had really accomplished something epochal or whether he had simply opened an epoch in my mind. The other day, while searching the Internet for information about that performance, I happened upon a broadcast recording of it, which someone in Japan had digitized. The sound quality was a little sketchy, and the playing rough at times (the orchestra was an ad-hoc group assembled from the National Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony), but the intensity remained. At the climax of the first movement, the brass unleash militant chords that turn fearsomely dissonant, while a scale grinds downward in the remainder of the orchestra. The sequence ends with a violently plunging octave figure. I remember Bernstein flinging down his arms to produce it. On the recording, you can hear the echo sail down the nave of the cathedral, like a hammer thrown with enormous force.
The moment exemplifies Bernstein’s ability to render almost any abstract sequence of notes or chords as a physical act, a sweatily human gesture. The effect is difficult to achieve. Musicians must be cajoled into creating a particular kind of unison: not a robotic sameness of execution but a deeper unanimity in which spontaneous activities on the part of each player viscerally realize the conductor’s vision. There are videos in which you can see Bernstein striving for that unanimity, and it is not always pleasant to watch. When the feeling is absent, he exhibits irritation, rage, or—most unsettlingly—an unhappiness that threatens to spiral into despair. He tells members of the august Vienna Philharmonic that unless they try harder “there will be no Mahler,” and then he hangs his head, as if averting his eyes from an unspeakable crime. Usually, things turn around. The players fall in line—that trembling, hurtling line in which Bernstein seemed the most inspired follower rather than the leader. Although he basked in fame, he never accumulated power: each night, he gave away everything he had.
This fall, Carnegie Hall, in league with the New York Philharmonic and other organizations, has been presenting a festival called “Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Bernstein, who died in 1990, would have turned ninety this year, but no excuse for a party is needed. When the festival ends this week, with a chamber concert, Carnegie’s leaders should take a bow; their series has delighted a fretful city. Films of Bernstein’s performances have been shown, his incomparable television lectures have been revived, old friends keep seizing a microphone to tell Lenny stories. But the festival has been more than a welter of nostalgia. Bernstein, long seen as a wondrously talented but creatively unfulfilled figure, is finally getting his due as a composer. His body of work is, of course, uneven. In October, Carnegie revived “Mass,” a pop-laced deconstruction of Christian ritual in which Bernstein’s greatest strengths and flaws collide in a single unstable compound. Some listeners left elated, others bewildered. Yet, in its riotous strangeness, Bernstein’s “Mass” demonstrated just how original this composer was.
The story of Bernstein plays like a modern American fable. A prodigious boy from Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian shtetl immigrants, one day sits down at his aunt’s upright and begins plinking out notes. Within months, he is outplaying his first piano teacher; within a couple of years, he has mastered “Rhapsody in Blue.” While enrolled at Harvard, he impresses the conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos and Serge Koussevitzky, wins a lifelong friend in Aaron Copland, and, on the side, writes a senior thesis on African-American themes in classical music which is still worth reading. He moves to New York in September, 1942, at the age of twenty-four, and in a little more than two years pulls off an extraordinary triple feat: he wins national notice as a conductor when he substitutes for Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic; he establishes himself as a concert-hall composer with the rock-solid, formidably eloquent First Symphony, “Jeremiah”; and, with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he knocks out a hit musical, “On the Town.” By V-E Day, in 1945, Bernstein was one of the most famous American artists of his generation. A recent revival of “On the Town” at City Center, with some of the original Jerome Robbins dances vibrantly re-created, evoked the gleeful energy with which Bernstein descended on the city that became his home.
Behind the remarkable early successes lurked a series of identity crises that were never entirely resolved. To attend the Bernstein festival night after night was to watch this man’s sometimes desperate struggle to find the proper vessel for his talent. In a better world, these conflicts—between classical and popular traditions, between composing and conducting, between high-art institutions and radical politics, between gay and straight sexualities—would have mattered little. The spirit of the man, which had something primordial, almost animalistic, about it, overwhelmed all categories.
In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, élite and pop. He happily took in Gilbert and Sullivan, Yiddish folk songs, Beethoven symphonies, Chopin nocturnes, jazz, bel-canto opera, dissonant modernism, and more or less everything else. Children tend to listen this way—they solemnly chant commercial jingles and dance giddily to Bach. Bernstein’s genius was never to let go of his boyish avidity, and to combine it with an analytic awareness of how disparate styles fit together. He had an X-ray-like ability to perceive melodic kinships beneath sonic surfaces, and in his ambitious Norton Lectures, of 1973, he attempted to construct a global syntax of music, along the lines of Noam Chomsky’s structural linguistics. The theory can be picked apart, but Bernstein’s compositional practice goes some way toward proving it.
One evening in October, Jack Gottlieb, who served as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic, presented a lecture-concert at the Jewish Museum in which he and various performers demonstrated Bernstein’s relationship with Jewish traditions. In the process, they highlighted the composer’s knack for alchemically transforming his own material. One part of the program focussed on “Chichester Psalms,” Bernstein’s choral masterpiece from 1965. Gottlieb noted that the music of the second movement—combining Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”) with Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage”)—is largely derived from other projects. Just before writing the “Psalms,” Bernstein tried to write a musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” When the project fell through, he saw that one completed number, the gently bluesy duet “Spring Will Come Again,” fit the words of the psalm: “Winds may blow” became “Adonai,” “Spring will come again” became “Naf’shi y’shovev.” Bernstein also retooled a castoff number from “West Side Story,” a fight song called “Mix,” to produce Psalm 2: “Make a mess of ’em / Make the sons of bitches pay” mutated into “Lamah rag’shu / Lamah ra-g’-shu goyim.” Bernstein’s propulsively muttering musical line applies equally to rival gangs and raging nations, which are, after all, symptoms of the same disease. The Amor Artis Choir and the soprano Heather Buck sang the pieces at the Jewish Museum, and it was like watching one of the great magic tricks in history explained.
Bernstein’s skill at playing such games raises the suspicion that he was merely a facile trickster. But his manipulations and appropriations served carefully calculated expressive ends. As Kent Tritle demonstrated when he conducted “Psalms” at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, in October, all those vernacular melodies and street rhythms are folded into an atmosphere of sacred purity, a kind of athletic innocence. Throughout the early years, Bernstein’s craftsmanship was unerring. This fall, the New York Philharmonic presented the “Jeremiah” Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety” Symphony, and the “Serenade” for violin, strings, and percussion. I heard the last two, in performances under Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s current director, and Alan Gilbert, his designated successor. If neither man quite caught the authentic Bernstein swing, the works were revealed above all as enduringly solid constructions. These days, with composers using computer software to generate reams of notes and washes of timbre, the early Bernstein can be held up as a model of economy, his big structures extrapolated from a core set of intervals. “West Side Story,” a fantasia on tritones and fifths (“Mari-a!”), remains, of course, his most staggering achievement. With a major revival opening next week in Washington, D.C., and arriving on Broadway in February, the Bernstein renaissance may go on for some time after the Carnegie festival ends.
Just as “West Side Story” had its première, Bernstein’s second crisis—the tension between composing and conducting—came to a head. Two weeks before the show opened, in August, 1957, Bernstein signed a contract to become the sole music director of the New York Philharmonic, more or less guaranteeing that his creative output would fall off drastically. He had long been encouraged to make the move. As early as 1939, Copland and his fellow-composers Roy Harris and William Schuman had hatched a plan for the young man to become “America’s Great Conductor,” as Humphrey Burton reports in his 1994 biography of Bernstein. The older composers saw that he could lead American classical music into the mainstream. They were not much concerned that he might have to sacrifice his own composing in the process. Bernstein fell in love with conducting, and happily pursued it. Composing, by contrast, inspired a certain terror in him, and the theatre world caused him endless frustration. In July, 1957, he wrote to his wife, the Chilean-American actress Felicia Montealegre, “This is the last show I do.” Noting that the Philharmonic contract was ready to be signed, he added, “I’m going to be a conductor, after all.”
At the Philharmonic, Bernstein raised Mahler on high, celebrated American composers, and dabbled in the avant-garde. He transformed the dowdy business of music education with his nationally televised Young People’s Concerts. He wrote two best-selling books, “The Joy of Music” and “The Infinite Variety of Music,” both still recommended as guides to the classical repertory. He and his wife became fixtures of society. His national celebrity increased to the point that he became a political figure, consorting with the Kennedys and later campaigning against the Vietnam War. Consequently, between 1957 and 1971, Bernstein produced only two substantial works, the “Kaddish” Symphony and “Chichester Psalms.” The “Psalms” approaches perfection, but “Kaddish,” which subjects the audience to an overblown quarrel with God (“O, my Father: ancient, hallowed, lonely, disappointed Father”), suggests a distracted composer. I wonder whether three or four more operas and shows on the order of “Candide” and “West Side Story” might have done more to advance the cause of American classical music than all of Bernstein’s concerts and broadcasts put together.
In the late sixties, Bernstein tried to correct the balance again. “I’m really a composer and I don’t have any time to do my other work,” he told the Philharmonic management in 1966. He led his final concert as the orchestra’s music director in 1969 and attended a Jimi Hendrix show the following night, relishing his escape from routine and plotting a compositional second act. The Beatles and other progressive rock acts fascinated him. “Mass,” his most ambitious creation, was on the horizon; Jackie Kennedy had requested a work for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington. But within two years Bernstein was in the thick of more crises, political and sexual, and neither he nor his family ever fully recovered.
One night in 1970, Felicia Bernstein hosted a fund-raiser on behalf of twenty-one associates of the Black Panther Party who had been indicted for conspiring to bomb buildings and kill police. Her husband arrived late from a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and, perhaps charged up by that tale of oppression and liberation, he inserted himself into the discussion, voicing sympathy for the Black Panthers’ egalitarian aims but quizzing Donald Cox, the Panther field marshal, about the group’s propensity for violence. Two journalists were present: Charlotte Curtis, of the Times, and Tom Wolfe, of New York. “If business won’t give us full employment, we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people,” Cox said at one point. According to Curtis, Bernstein replied, “I dig absolutely.” In Wolfe’s account, Bernstein said, “How? I dig it! But how?” Bernstein later tried to explain that Cox had ended his statement with a “You dig?” and that he was simply answering in kind. Whatever the particulars, the reports conjured up an unsympathetic picture: America’s Great Conductor trying to talk jive with extremists. After Curtis’s article ran, the Times’ editorial page accused Bernstein of “elegant slumming” and stated that he had “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Protesters appeared outside the Bernstein apartment building. Waves of hostile mail landed on the couple and also on their guests.
Wolfe’s piece, which ran under the famous title “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” was a tour de force of dispassionate hostility, characterizing Bernstein as a “more than competent composer” and then mocking him as “the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out.” Wolfe reduced Bernstein’s passion for African-American music to a caricature of racial tourism, pushing the idea that his subject was obsessively fixated on the figure of a “Negro by the piano” (perhaps a case of projection on the part of the author). Felicia Bernstein was derided for the “million-dollar-chatchka look” of the apartment. She avoided reading the article, but she could hardly avoid hearing about it, and the episode had a devastating effect on her. At a panel discussion with members of the family at Carnegie Hall, Jamie Bernstein, one of the couple’s three children, recalled, “There was this sense that our mother never recovered from the heartbreak and shame of this incident. No one was all the way to happy again.”
When the F.B.I.’s files were opened, years later, radical chic turned out to be more than a case of a musician making an ass of himself. Many of those angry letters had been generated by operatives in J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program; one memo notes that the correspondence was scripted to highlight the Black Panthers’ “anti-Semetic posture and pro-Arab position”; the misspelling points up the hypocrisy of the enterprise. Richard Nixon, too, followed the case, marking Bernstein as the personification of “the complete decadence of the American ‘upper class’ intellectual elite.” (This was written in the margins of Daniel Moynihan’s memo encouraging a “benign neglect” of African-American issues.) If, as William F. Buckley, Jr., said, Bernstein was parroting the lingo of fanatics, Wolfe was, in his own way, a mouthpiece, his fashionably tart prose advancing the new art of wedge-issue politics. In retrospect, the entire episode reeks of hysteria, and Bernstein was by no means the most hysterical person in the room.
“My father was absolutely fearless,” Alexander Bernstein said at the Carnegie panel. “He was afraid of nobody and no thing.” After a well-timed pause, he added, “Except for Jerome Robbins.” Certainly, Bernstein did not fear Hoover, Nixon, or Tom Wolfe. “Mass,” which had its début in September, 1971, was a work of unrepentant radicalism, an all-out assault on social, political, religious, and musical convention. Because it was the first piece to be played in the Kennedy Center, the President was expected to attend, but, in one of the more curious memos in the F.B.I.’s files, Hoover warned Nixon that Bernstein might be plotting to “embarrass the United States government” by inducing the President and other officials to applaud a Latin text on “an antiwar theme.” (He seems to have been referring to “Dona nobis pacem.”) Various members of the White House Plumbers, including G. Gordon Liddy, looked into the matter, and it was decided that Nixon should not go. Interestingly, Henry Kissinger did attend, and, according to the society report in the Times, he “liked it.”
What’s not to like? As it turns out, a lot. In previous works, Bernstein had played by the rules of whatever genre he inhabited, no matter how much he stretched them. “West Side Story” is a musical with modernist touches; “The Age of Anxiety” and “Chichester Psalms” are classical works interlaced with jazz and blues. “Mass,” created in collaboration with the composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, is unnameable. It begins with a chaotic soundscape of voices and percussion on quadraphonic tape. Then open fifths sound on an electric guitar, and a Celebrant, dressed in street clothes, chants, “Sing God a simple song,” in a clean, striking lyric line. A multifront war among styles begins: Broadway tunes, gospel in the manner of Schwartz’s “Godspell,” attempts at folk-rock, anthemic choruses with marching band, austere reminiscences of medieval and Renaissance church music. The work is described as a “Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers”; the essential plot is that the Celebrant tries to bring his church up to date, takes on the trappings of a cult leader, and eventually loses control of his congregation.
The lyrics present the greatest challenge. They are laden with arch wordplay (“Let there be sprats to gobble the gnats”), dorm-room theology (“I believe in God, / But does God believe in me?”), and slangy rewrites of the Bible (“God said: Let there be light. / And there was light. /. . . And it was good, brother / And it was goddam good”). But before we sneer à la Wolfe—Bernstein says to God, “I dig it! But how?”—we should ask what the composer is really up to. He may be holding a satirical mirror up to Nixon’s America, teasing establishment and counterculture alike. He may even be portraying his own quixotic attempt to master pop culture. The Celebrant—first idolized by his parishioners, then criticized—resembles Bernstein himself, the supposed savior of classical music. And, if “Mass” sometimes falls mortifyingly short in its attempt at a pop-classical fusion, mortification is the subject of the finale, when the Celebrant smashes his chalice and remarks on “how easily things get broken.” The orchestra thumps out shuddering, dissonant chords that are like a sharp knock at the door. (A similar figure appears in the lamentations of the “Jeremiah” Symphony.) The Celebrant’s shattered phrases also recall the mad scene in “Peter Grimes.” It’s as if Bernstein had hosted an out-of-control party and then unleashed the demons of his depression in the wee hours. The dark night of the soul gives way to a reprise of “Simple Song,” a glowingly tonal canon on “Lauda, Laude,” and a powerfully gentle blessing of the house. The sequence may be Bernstein’s greatest theatrical invention.
Still, it’s hard to pull it all together. The recent revival came courtesy of the Baltimore Symphony, with Jubilant Sykes forcefully embodying the Celebrant, the Morgan State University Choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus full-throatedly delivering the choruses, and Marin Alsop conducting with absolute conviction. There were two New York performances on consecutive days: one at Carnegie and one at the United Palace Theatre, in Washington Heights. The first was troubled by sound problems—there was widespread amplification, which, as usual, worked poorly at Carnegie—and also by a basic sense that this unabashedly over-the-top piece didn’t belong in the grand old hall. The United Palace performance, though, benefitted from gaudier surroundings—the theatre is owned by the television evangelist Reverend Ike—and from the exuberant participation of four hundred singers from New York City schools. Seated in the front rows of the audience, the kids periodically stood up, sang, and danced in place, and, at the end, they turned around to sing the closing benediction: “Fill with grace / All who dwell in this place.” Some of the children lined the aisles, offering their hands to the audience, in accordance with Bernstein’s stage directions. At Carnegie this moment made me cringe; in Washington Heights resistance was futile.
In his final years, Bernstein entered a kind of second adolescence, with the inevitable problems that adolescent behavior entails for a man past the age of fifty. He stayed up all night, drank, took pills, and slept with various young men. On certain nights, he swerved into ugly, caustic moods, offending family and longtime friends. (The singer Michael Feinstein disclosed, during a jovial evening of Bernstein standards at Zankel Hall, that he had refused to attend a seventieth-birthday tribute, in 1988, because he found Bernstein’s antics unbearable.) In 1976, Bernstein separated from his wife, and nearly came out as a gay man when he told a Philharmonic audience that Shostakovich’s death-obsessed Fourteenth Symphony made him realize that he had to “live the rest of my life as I want.” Then, in 1978, Felicia Bernstein died, of cancer, leaving her husband scored by guilt. To most onlookers, though, he remained his majestically ebullient self; that was the Lenny I glimpsed in 1984.
Huge ovations greeted his conducting — Vienna all but worshipped him — but compositional triumphs eluded him. The major works of his last two decades—the ballet “Dybbuk,” the musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” the vocal symphony “Songfest,” the semi-autobiographical opera “A Quiet Place,” and the orchestral suite “Jubilee Games”—show a falling off of inspiration and a more uncertain command of structure. They have many splendid moments, however, and come alive in the hands of committed advocates. Gustavo Dudamel, the young Venezuelan who stirs memories of Bernstein at his most dynamic, conducted “Jubilee Games” with the Israel Philharmonic, savoring its punchy rhythms. Michael Tilson Thomas, who more than anyone has carried on Bernstein’s music-appreciation efforts, included haunting excerpts from “A Quiet Place” at an all-Bernstein gala with the San Francisco Symphony.
The Tilson Thomas concert also had a selection from “Songfest”—Bernstein’s setting of “To What You Said,” a Walt Whitman poem that came to light in the nineteen-fifties. Thomas Hampson rendered the song with immense nobility, as if embodying a composer who had finally found a measure of sexual and spiritual repose:
To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me, nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships—the cold guards,
I am that rough and simple person
I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting, and I am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors—
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?
The music has a richly melancholy air, akin to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” but at the words “that new American salute” the snare drum taps out a martial rhythm, hinting at love’s armies on the march. It seems prepared to end in radiant C major, but when the last big chord fades away you become aware of a C-minor chord lingering in the strings, indicating, perhaps, some abiding loneliness.
In the end, despite his Boston Brahmin accent and other trappings of cosmopolitan glamour, Bernstein almost fit the Whitmanesque tag of being a “rough and simple person.” Works like “Kaddish” and “Mass” alienate many modern listeners because they are so brazen in their approach; they greet the listener as the man himself greeted visitors backstage, with wet hugs and kisses full on the lips. A man genetically incapable of saying anything but what he really meant, he presents a rude challenge to the attitude of professional caution that now prevails in so many precincts of the arts—the aesthetic of avoiding entanglements, of looking over one’s shoulder, of perpetually hedging one’s bets. In a culture of cynical chic, Bernstein teaches the power of impassioned affirmation. His 1973 Norton lectures—titled “The Unanswered Question,” after Charles Ives—end with a concise credo: “I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is Yes.”
Extra material: My five favorite Bernstein recordings; the Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress; Carnegie Hall's Bernstein site (with a listening tour of Mass); the official Bernstein site (with materials on Mass); some more Library of Congress materials, with notecards on Mass (the intended audience was "Nixon + Jackie and Joe Blow"); and a three-part investigation of Bernstein's relationship with the FBI and the Nixon White House.