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Leonard Bernstein, still brilliant at 100

Leonard Bernstein, still brilliant at 100
Leonard Bernstein in Carnegie Hall in New York in the late 1940s. (William P. Gottlieb/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

I’m still not used to a world without Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was born Aug. 25, 1918 — 100 years ago tomorrow; he’s already been gone almost 30 years.

The thing is, Bernstein is irreplaceable. It’s a cliché in the popular field of amateur Bernstein psychoanalysis that he thought the world revolved around him — descriptions of his ego usually have words like “monstrous” attached to them. But if that’s indeed what Bernstein thought, he was at least in part going by the evidence. He was a giant international superstar — a brilliant and charismatic composer, pianist, teacher, writer, television pioneer and celebrity; a prodigiously prolific recording artist; and the first American conductor to achieve worldwide respect, honor and fame. There had certainly been no one like him previously, and there’s been no one to match him since.

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He was a complex character, to put it mildly. Some people, they say, are a little bit of everything. Bernstein was a lot of everything. More dramatically, vividly and certainly more publicly than most, he lived a life of dualities and apparent contradictions.

Nobody but Bernstein could have conceived of such a musical work, and no one but Bernstein could have brought it off.


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Bernstein grew up on music of the synagogue, but also on jazz. He remained tightly and warmly tied to his Jewish identity while consciously doing everything possible to universalize himself. He was a conductor and also a composer; a classical composer and also a Broadway composer; a devoted servant of music and also an extraordinarily — well, monstrously — egotistical exhibitionist; a promiscuous sexual adventurer and also a loving and devoted family man; a generous, humane, thoughtful human being and also a silly, childishly self-indulgent one; a lover of women and also, or primarily, of men; an astoundingly successful man who, by his own admission, was also a man of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.

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Some of Bernstein’s qualities I observed firsthand because I was lucky enough to play under him several times as a member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. He would arrive at the Kennedy Center wearing a cape, trailed by an entourage of young men who brought him his cigarettes (which he smoked onstage, against all regulation and custom) and his drinks (water? perhaps), and he wasted time and told stories during rehearsals to make sure that he would cost the orchestra management extra money in overtime payments to the musicians.

It was all pretty funny, pretty pathetic or mildly revolting, depending on your point of view. But when he conducted — ah, when he conducted — it was with a combination of intelligence, depth, insight, joy and easy command of even the most complex passages that was simply staggering, not to mention inspiring.

And he was a composer of genius, a brilliant and original musical mind. If you need convincing, look no further than “West Side Story” ’s “Cool,” a song that represents an astonishing synthesis of musical languages, styles and influences, including traditional classical, avant-garde classical, popular song and jazz. The song includes a section known as the “Cool Fugue.” What could be more traditionally classical than a fugue? But there it is in the middle of a Broadway show, and it’s not just a simple fugue — the subject of the fugue is a 12-tone row, the kind of thematic building block that composer Arnold Schoenberg invented for his jarringly atonal music in the early part of the 20th century.

The whole song, with all its strange, spiky, jazzy rhythms, its weird harmonies and dissonances, its wailing muted trumpet, vibraphone and snapping fingers, manages somehow to work wonderfully both as an independent piece of music and as a dramatically effective traditional Broadway show song. Nobody but Bernstein could have conceived of such a musical work, and no one but Bernstein could have brought it off.

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We already know that Bernstein’s music will last, and by “last” I mean forever. About “West Side Story” and “Candide” there’s no question, and a number of his other works, including “Chichester Psalms,” “Fancy Free,” the Symphonies No. 1 and 2 (“Jeremiah” and “Age of Anxiety”), and the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin and Orchestra, just to name a few, are awfully good bets.

Did Bernstein “fail to live up to his potential” as a composer, as so many have noted, distracted by his performing career and, later in his life, limited by a crippling self-consciousness? Well, sure, but how many people write one piece of music that lasts? What Bernstein perceived as his failures may have been an enormous emotional burden for Bernstein himself, but the rest of us, rather than focusing on what the man didn’t do, should be grateful for the gifts he did leave us.

As for Bernstein’s personal qualities and idiosyncrasies, they will fade in interest and relevance as the years go by. Already, in fact, they seem beside the point. The music he left us, what he did for music in our time, and what he meant for music in our time — those are the things that count, the contributions that will endure. In 1984 Bernstein conducted a “Concert for Peace” at the Washington National Cathedral. I was in the orchestra, and I’ll never forget that at a certain point in the rehearsal — we were playing one of the great works of the symphonic repertoire — Bernstein stopped and said, “You know, the only thing more important than what we’re doing this for” — he paused — “is what we’re doing.”

Miles Hoffman is violist of the American Chamber Players, and classical music commentator for NPR's “Morning Edition.”

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