How much was Bernstein describing himself? He shared Mahler's division between conductor and composer. As a composer, he split again, between classical and popular music. But there were many other large Bernsteinian divides as well. Brought up a devout Jew, he struggled between doubt and faith, and his music often addressed these issues. He had an insatiable sybaritic side and an insatiable spiritual side. In the early segments of the radio documentary, he is described as having had a capacity for tremendous generosity but also for cruelty. He was bisexual and probably bipolar. Indeed, wherever there could be two sides to anything, he was both.
In fact, they can be condescending. Also pretentious, biased, even dishonest. These are not school, they are performances, and there is hardly a moment when Bernstein doesn't show off. Watching the programs now, I realize that I didn't learn what sonata form is from Bernstein's clever descriptions of it on television. As a kid, I simply fell for the guy because he seemed so full of music.
I may even have sensed, from his broadcast celebrating Shostakovich's 60th birthday, that Bernstein was working just a little too hard to defend Shostakovich against his attackers. Bernstein, of course, is defending his own concert music, which was often accused of having some of Shostakovich's glibness. But worse for the with-it Bernstein, his music was also derided for being, like Shostakovich's, old-fashioned, when in the '50s and '60s the avant-garde was the rage.
Ironically, now that the Young People's Concerts have become dated -- not many modern kids are likely to put up with fuzzy old black-and-white video, though the shows may be addictive to adults of a certain age -- Bernstein's music is undergoing a major reevaluation. No one may need convincing of the greatness of "West Side Story." But "Mass" and the "Kaddish" Symphony, two of this composer's most self-indulgent works, works that were downright ridiculed when they premiered, have demonstrated a remarkable lasting power.
In "Kaddish," an anguished composition for narrator, chorus and orchestra, written in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, Bernstein argues with, even attacks, God. This is his most conflicted score, and audiences and critics alike cringed at its excesses, especially the pompous narration. But that pomposity explodes into one of the most moving hymns of love and wonder in all his music -- it is the same sentiment found in "Somewhere" from "West Side Story" and "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide," only writ symphonically large.
Ten years later, Bernstein went even further in his push-pull with God in "Mass," written again in memory of JFK and commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Here he makes a grand effort to synthesize his popular and classical sides into what, at the time, looked like a pathetic hippie pageant, his midlife crisis plastered all over the Washington stage. Bernstein had left the New York Philharmonic, was about to leave his wife and was living intemperately. But "Mass" too can now be heard as Bernstein's genuine attempt to come to terms with his divided personality, as a near-heroic reach for transcendence.
How far is too far?
Recent recordings of "Kaddish" and "Mass" bring new emphasis to the ways in which these works were key in Bernstein's growth. The "Kaddish," by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony and Chorus and Orchestra, maybe goes too far in that direction. It contains a rewritten text by Bernstein's older daughter, Jamie, in which she transfers the composer's confrontation with his Father into a personal confrontation with her father. Slatkin's interpretation is on the mild side, but the restraint brings out much that is musically beautiful and sophisticated in the score.
Kent Nagano's recording of "Mass" with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is likewise more restrained and refined than Bernstein's brazen original performance. It does a more effective job of integration than Bernstein could possibly have done at the time he wrote the work -- he was far too close to it, the spiritual wounds were still raw and gaping -- and will deservedly win "Mass" new admirers.
But for true revelation, turn to the Deutsche Grammophon box sets, devoted to Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Sibelius and American music. Most of the performances, except for the American set, are from Europe and feature the Vienna Philharmonic, with which Bernstein developed close ties during the last two decades of his life.
What is remarkable about these performances is just how many aspects of Bernstein's personality they reflect. As Bernstein grew older, as he indulged in his fantasies, his composing became more difficult. He never resolved his conflicts. His late opera, "A Quiet Place," is a study in angst, how to balance the inner life with uncontrollable urges.
But in these late recordings, in which tempos are often shockingly slow and interpretations imposingly grand, Bernstein finally found a way to cope with his split personality. He made himself, musically, into a very large vessel. Namely, he slowed everything down dramatically, allowing him time to apply more ideas to this music than anyone else ever had.
Be it in Brahms, Sibelius or Copland, he produced a symphonic sound so sensual that he seemed to fondle each note. His climaxes became orgasmic. He hung on and would not let go until every ounce of passion was spent. If that took a long time, it took a long time.
The remarkable result was that, in the process of completely succumbing to his ego, he also transcended it. Hanging on became a kind of weightlessness and a complete transformation of the music. When Bernstein recorded "Appalachian Spring" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982, Copland was said not to have recognized his own score. That might have been because he was already suffering from dementia. But it also might have been because Bernstein had created an alternate "Appalachian Spring" universe.
I remember people complaining about Bernstein's carrying-on, his wiggling at the podium and all the rest, during a live performance of Copland's ballet at the Hollywood Bowl. But who cares about any of that now? No other conductor reached such a level of ecstatic mysticism while at the same reveling in a near-indecent corporeality. No other conductor had ever made those extremes one.
In the end, Bernstein's conflicts killed him. He couldn't smoke cigarettes, drink Scotch for breakfast and burn the candle at both ends forever. But those conflicts also stimulated him. The Sibelius set also includes a performance with the Boston Symphony of the "4 Sea Interludes" from Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes." This is taken from Bernstein's last concert, in summer 1990, three months before he died.
The interludes are "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm." "Dawn" is translucent, a cherishing of every photon of light, a celebration of day, of one more day. "Sunday Morning" is so wonderful you never want it to stop, as a dying Bernstein never wanted it to stop. "Moonlight" breaks your heart. The "Storm" is Lenny's farewell, a wrenching of the heavens, an unwillingness to give up the fight.
"Is this all there is?" Bernstein is said to have asked moments before he died. Nothing was ever enough for Bernstein. Every answer implied a new, more troubling question.
We need to remember that when we ask the ultimate question: "Who is Bernstein?" There is no answer, just a quest that can take you as deep as you are willing to go.