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Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives)
Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives)
Allen Shawn
Yale University Press, 2014
360 pp., $25.00

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Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Broadway Legacies)
Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Broadway Legacies)
Carol J. Oja
Oxford University Press, 2014
416 pp., $29.95

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The Leonard Bernstein Letters
The Leonard Bernstein Letters
Leonard Bernstein
Yale University Press, 2013
624 pp., $38.00

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John H. McWhorter


Music as Story-Time

The genius of Bernstein’s theater scores.

For musical theater fans who love Leonard Bernstein's scores, it is odd that Bernstein thought of this work as ancillary to his "real" calling as a composer of classical music, and even odder that Bernstein died considering himself a failure in not having written more of the latter. In his new biography of Bernstein, for example, Allen Shawn recalls hearing classical composer Roger Sessions dismiss Bernstein as having chosen "a life of fame and worldly success over one of achievement."

The temptation is to accept the mandarin judgment that a symphony is a more significant achievement than any narrative theatrical score composed in a vernacular-inflected idiom (as opposed to opera). However, a more contrarian view is that Bernstein's most significant work was, in fact, his theater scores. In these, Bernstein channeled a fundamental impulse to communicate and instruct which is largely impossible through purely instrumental music. Moreover, most of his theater scores were structurally sophisticated to a degree that put them on a par with classical compositions, often challenging the audiences of their time. This point goes through whether or not one happens to be a show music aficionado. A new trio of books—Allen Shawn's bio in Yale's Jewish Lives series, Carol Oja's Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War in Oxford's Broadway Legacies series, and The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a fat volume edited by Nigel Simeone—underscore such an argument.

That theater was Bernstein's true métier becomes clear first in the nature of his classical music. Bernstein's sense that he had never truly realized himself as a classical composer derived in part from the faintly dismissive attitude of so many colleagues toward his classical work. Bernstein was incorrigibly committed to writing music that non-specialist human beings could enjoy on first hearing. While hardly easy-listening ear candy, Bernstein's three symphonies Jeremiah, Age of Anxiety, and Kaddish are accessibly beautiful, ever exploring his concern with finding grace amidst the chaos and tragedy of human life. He wanted to say something to us.

That, it would seem, marked Bernstein as a parvenu to midcentury classical composers, who cherished abstraction to the point that the measure of a piece's worth was the extent to which it would leave cold anyone beyond a few hundred composers and music students. Of Jeremiah, for example, Virgil Thomson sniffed that it lacked "contrapuntal coherence, melodic distinction, contrapuntal progress, harmonic logic, and concentration of thought."

Okay—but, as Shawn puts it, "Perhaps critics felt free to dismiss the work because its language didn't intimidate them." And crucially, opinions such as Thomson's have not stood the test of time, which allows us to acknowledge, without fear of philistinism, that accessibility is hardly antithetical to substance. Thomson, after all, had harrumphed about none other than Porgy and Bess: "I do not like fake folklore, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor gefilte-fish orchestration." This is almost willful contrarianism, melding the élitist and the juvenile. Scarce today are those who cherish Thomson's limp score for Three Saints in Four Acts over Porgy and Bess or, pointedly, Bernstein's Candide or West Side Story.

As such, something Bernstein stressed in his first Young People's Concert, a series of lectures on classical music he gave to children in the late Fifties, reveals itself as an unintentional key to his musical essence, allowing us from this vantage point to assess his oeuvre more fairly than even he could. "Whatever the music means, it is not the story," he emphasized. "If a story is attached to a composition it is 'extra.' " Yet Bernstein's classical music contradicts this very teaching. His classical pieces were almost always "about" something. His first symphony depicts Jeremiah's prophecies and ends with a soprano singing from the Book of Lamentations. His second symphony is a setting of Auden's Age of Anxiety; the third is based on the Jewish Kaddish prayer for the dead and includes spoken text. The Serenade is based on Plato's Symposium. Beyond these works are ballets, vocal pieces, and other works explicitly telling stories, making statements, calling to the beyond. Bernstein seemed almost unable to avoid the role of teacher, or even preacher, when he sat down to compose. "Whatever the music means, it is not the story," he told the children—and yet for him, music was fundamentally story-time.

According to the idea that what happens in the concert hall is by definition more artistically substantial than what happens in the theater, we might assume that the stories Bernstein told with an orchestra were more valuable to the ages than the stories he told through music with words propelling narrative. However, when the latter were written on the level Bernstein was capable of, that assumption falls apart. Is there really a case that the score of West Side Story, from its electric and complex opening dance music to the quirky and rich harmonic textures of even its hit songs, to the roiling underscoring, is somehow a lesser achievement than Kaddish?

Certainly the case cannot be made on the basis that West Side Story is easier to enjoy on first hearing, especially given that some critics even in 1957 found its music hard to understand (Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review: "When his music is sad it seems tired, and when it is gay it seems nervous"). Notably, a currently popular Western music appreciation text (Music Then and Now, by Thomas Forrest Kelly) uses West Side Story as the focus of one of its 18 chapters, in a sumptuous narrative that begins with Gregorian chant and continues through Handel, Mozart, and Wagner.

Bernstein's awesome gift for theater composition was evident even in his first score, for On the Town in 1944, and at last Carol Oja has written a definitive study of that show, which can seem so trivial in retrospect. (Three sailors on shore leave looking for love? What sort of premise is that?) And a certain kind of critic might dismiss the sound of On the Town, alternately jangly and bluesy—perfectly summed up by musical theater historian Ethan Mordden as depicting New York's "crabby hustle"—as quaint mimicry of the kind that used to be called program music. However, the contrast with true kitsch of the era (Gordon Jenkins' pop "suite" Manhattan Tower, for instance) is instructive. With his stirring dissonances and shifting meters even in jocular songs such as "Come Up to My Place," Bernstein conjures a New York that rings as true for today's multiethnic crowds with their earbuds and bottled water as it was for people in fedoras without television and new to penicillin.

Bernstein also provided On the Town with the richest dance music Broadway had yet heard. Show music historiography enshrines Richard Rodgers' ballet music for On Your Toes in 1936 as Broadway dance's inaugural moment, specifically the majestic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." However, music is told through dance only in this instance in the narrative, and the music consists of a string of brief themes Rodgers composed in the workaday pop-tune language of the time, fashioned into a larger piece of scoring by the dance pianist and orchestrator. Bernstein's On the Town dance music took things to a much higher level, in layered, evolving sequences of extended commentary on various points in the narrative, serving as a kind of terpsichorean Greek chorus—and with music as beautiful as what he wrote for classical pieces. That ballet music alone made me include the 1960 studio recording of the score as one of my first ten CDs in 1989.

This music evidenced "a life of fame and worldly success over one of achievement"? That such considered music was a vehicle for worldly success is something many might seek to emulate rather than scorn. On the Town's overture, of all things, usefully brings out the heft of Bernstein's achievement. Like most overtures of the period, it was a hack job by a busy arranger, basically three of the tunes played back to back with an assumption that the audience would talk through it. However, introducing On the Town, that kind of overture sounds more starkly tacky than before any other score I am aware of, precisely because On the Town is so much more than just its tunes. The film of the show, for example, in using only shards of Bernstein's music in favor of journeyman tunes by others, became exactly the period piffle that the show seems like if assessed by its plot alone. Sterling testament to how ahead of its time On the Town's score was is that its director George Abbott, gloriously dependable on Broadway for churning out sprightly but ordinary musical hits, found the music a tad much. In a letter to Bernstein that Simeone includes in his compilation, Abbott called the score "a bit too profligate, perhaps, too many fresh melodies where developments of the existing ones would have done." Meanwhile, Thomson thirty years later cordially wrote Bernstein recalling that musicians in France in 1945 hearing On the Town songs on U.S. Information Service radio broadcasts were amazed that "an opérette composed in so advanced a musical style could be successful."

Overall, even Bernstein's pieces beyond the musicals suggest a gift most fully realized when applied to narrative. His Chichester Psalms choral suite in biblical Hebrew often touches people without especial interest in classical music, and it is likely that part of the reason is that most of the material originated as melodies for theater songs, either discarded from West Side Story or from an aborted musicalization of Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth. Might the music have been even more effective in a narrative work with lyrics in English? Hearing a Bernstein musical signature in an instrumental piece, such as the plangent use of the fourth and the minor seventh in a section of his score for On the Waterfront, one senses that the musical statement was even more effective when set to words in Candide's "Make Our Garden Grow" and West Side Story's "Somewhere."

It bears mentioning that theater music also allowed Bernstein to express his commitment to social justice in a way that the classical music medium could not have. Sadly, this facet of the man was most resonantly aired in the form of Tom Wolfe's famously caustic New Journalism piece "Radical Chic" on Bernstein and his wife's fund-raising party for the Black Panthers. As shallow and self-involved as that article made Bernstein's liberal politics seem, his concern with racial justice was sincere and sustained. Oja documents that even as far back as jolly On the Town in 1944, Bernstein assured the hiring of a black violinist in the pit who later became the conductor, essentially the first black person to conduct a white pit in Broadway history. There were also several black chorus members, and the stage manager's materials show that these chorus members often interacted and even danced with white ones, quite unusual in musicals of the period. Bernstein's final Broadway musical was directly couched in sociological concern to the point of compromising it as art. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), written with Alan Jay Lerner, depicted the sweep of American history through two actors playing various First Couples while two black actors played the couples' servants. The show ran five days; good intentions couldn't redeem a thin premise. Yet in-house recordings of the performances reveal a touchingly earnest, not to mention lovely, work. It is not compromised in not being a voiceless symphony composed in thrall to the format Beethoven excelled in—that form could not have expressed what Bernstein had to say.

Yet Bernstein considered all of this theater work filler, ever bemoaning that his duties as the Philharmonic's conductor kept him from writing a massive body of "serious" pieces. But what he was doing instead is gorgeously illustrated in a scene Shawn describes: Bernstein at the piano during a wearying rehearsal of West Side Story, composing quirky, complex, and often bebop-inflected dance music as choreographer Jerome Robbins works out the steps. Dance music in musicals is typically worked out by an assistant; for the composer himself to create the dance music is almost unheard of, especially dance music so rich that it can stand on its own as instrumental music (and does, in a suite Bernstein arranged). Still, despite this protean talent, Bernstein felt ever oppressed by the narrow assessments of people like his mentor, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, disappointed that he never truly "got serious." This was due ultimately to his having been born too early.

To be sure, a Bernstein living today could not have had the classical career he did have. Bernstein was minted in an era in which classical music had such a cultural cachet that the question "Do you like music?" was assumed to refer to classical music specifically. Bernstein's talent for piano playing, conducting, and composition was on a genius level, and yet today no one with such a talent could become world-famous. Michelangelo and F. Scott Fitzgerald would be stars today, but Bernstein would be at best a respected conductor or obscure composer. Today's New York Philharmonic conductor, Alan Gilbert, is not what most would consider a celebrity.

Yet, ironically, the narrowing of the space for classical music in today's culture would have been good for a Bernstein born fifty years later. Not in that he would have gone into pop writing—the almost mysterious knack required for that was not really his. One squeezes oddly few truly demotic, Man-on-the-Street take-home melodies from his Broadway scores: even the West Side Story tunes now so familiar took a while to catch on. Bernstein actually considered pop insubstantial. Oja documents that in 1947 he told Esquire, "The 'popular song' has had, and can have, no influence whatsoever on serious music. It is created for money, sung for money, and dies when the money stops rolling in. It is imitative, conventional, emotionless."

Rather, it is reasonable to suppose that a Bernstein who came of age in the Sixties or afterward would have applied his talent more assiduously to theater writing, especially as it underwent a reconceptualization as true art with the efforts of figures such as Stephen Sondheim, who penned the lyrics to West Side Story. Freed of antique notions that theater music could only qualify as "middlebrow" because it gave pleasure too readily to too wide a swath of humanity, Bernstein may well have given us more of his intelligent, arresting, and splendid theater music, and measured his success on the basis of how many such scores he got produced, rather than how many symphonies he wrote.

Little remarked is that with his theater music Bernstein achieved an immortality on the level of Bach's, Beethoven's, or Stravinsky's. At no point will the sublime music for Candide or West Side Story ever sound "old-fashioned." From his counsel in that first Young People's Concert we know that Bernstein measured music's true transcendence according to its independence from the bounds of narrative and reference. Interestingly, it can be argued that it was his work most intimately connected to narrative and reference which was the most transcendent.

John H. McWhorter is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford Univ. Press).

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