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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.

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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."

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