by Benjamin Pomerance
It was supposed to be a routine visit to their son. Samuel and Jennie Bernstein simply planned on spending some time at the home of their 25-year-old child in New York City, an intimate but not especially dramatic period for the parents. Young Leonard had been working too hard, pulling far too many sleepless nights and taking poor care of himself, business as usual, and the parents likely hoped that some quiet conversation would set him onto a more even keel. Samuel, in particular, fretted that music would never prove to be a stable profession for their son.
And then a message arrived from Carnegie Hall. Bruno Walter had the flu. Nobody else was available to conduct the New York Philharmonic that night. Could Leonard slip into his tuxedo, dash over to one of the world’s most storied concert venues, take the baton from the ailing maestro, and pull off one of the greatest Houdini acts in the history of Western classical music? An entire orchestra — and two utterly thunderstruck parents — waited breathlessly for the response.
The answer was yes, of course. Leonard Bernstein strode out onto the podium that night and left the crowd showering him with bravos, of course. Samuel Bernstein, overcome with emotion, wept tears of astonishment and proclaimed that his son’s triumph was “my contribution to an America that has done everything for me,” and the cameras were there to capture it, of course. After the concert was over, Leonard emerged from his dressing room and hugged everybody in sight, of course. He was in every respect the picture of perfect victory, of course.
For many mortals, such a moment would represent the emotional apex of a lifetime. For Bernstein, it was merely the overture. An operatic existence followed that night, a tale of such extraordinary complexity and such a colossal scale that it would require a libretto the length of fifty Ring Cycles to tell it appropriately. Conductor, composer, educator, impresario, ambassador to the universe — Bernstein could do it all, knew he could do it all, and flooded his life with an unquenchable desire to do it all. And like all whirlwinds, he was devilishly difficult to define.
Not that people didn’t try. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, once tried to throw Bernstein a verbal curveball: “Did anyone ever get so much done and have so much fun as you have?” For an instant, the whirlwind actually paused. Then the planet’s greatest expert on seizing the attention of thousands of people regained his footing. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Mozart, maybe.” From the mouths of most artists, a self-comparison with Mozart would have felt blasphemous. From Bernstein, it felt pretty close to being accurate.
Like Mozart, he never lacked public-facing confidence. No one but the most audacious of souls would proclaim to his associates, “I’m going to Budapest to teach the Hungarians how to play Bartok” — and then wind up with the Hungarians cheering as he told them about the artistic desires of their native son. No one but the most daring of fellows would bind so much of his reputation to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, seen at the time as mammoth unplayable beasts — and succeed in resurrecting Mahler’s legacy on both American and European soil.
And like Mozart, the fun often wasn’t really much fun at all. Bernstein was the life of the party when the spotlights glistened, but credible accounts show that the tune changed behind closed doors. Insomnia plagued him mercilessly, too many nights when the music refused to stop playing. Cigarettes — up to four packs a day — were the self-medication that ultimately killed him. Large quantities of Scotch didn’t help, either. Internally, he waged war with his sexuality, devoted to his elegant wife, Felicia, who in turn struggled with the fact that he also loved men.
At times, many of those late-night tortures felt self-imposed. Revitalizing the New York Philharmonic seemed like enough for a single career. No one would have blamed him if he hadn’t sought out Jerome Robbins to create West Side Story, a tempestuous partnership that often left Bernstein privately questioning whether his own work possessed any artistic merit. No one would have blamed him if he hadn’t insisted on scripting and televising programs specifically for families, a series of 53 “Young People’s Concerts” whose recordings are still widely replayed.
No one would have blamed him if he hadn’t accepted a commission from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to compose a work for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — and no one would have blamed him if he hadn’t turned that commission into one of the most ambitious compositions ever created, a Mass for an enormous orchestra combined with a rock band, dancers, gospel choir, children’s choir, and street choir, incorporating text in English, Latin, and Hebrew. No one would have blamed him if he ever took a year — or a day — off.
Yet Bernstein never stopped, never even legitimately slowed down, leaving behind the obvious question of why enough was never enough. In part, the maestro seemed to be a man concerned with history’s judgment. Boston Symphony Orchestra leader Serge Koussevitzky, whose cufflinks Bernstein wore for virtually every concert, was one of his heroes. Aaron Copland was another idol. Jeremiah — yes, the Biblical prophet — appeared to be another. He lionized such heroes to the point of hyperbole, driven to equal their contributions in his own life.
At the same time, Bernstein embraced his own status as kingmaker. Whatever he touched became gold by the sole virtue of his approving hand. Bernstein premiered Charles Ives’s Second Symphony; thus, Ives moved from a writer on the fringes to someone worthy of mainstream attention. Bernstein championed Carl Nielsen’s symphonic works; suddenly, audiences in the United States embraced Nielsen’s music for the first time. Bernstein praised the potential of a young conductor or soloist or composer; instantly, doors for that burgeoning artist began to open.
With such mighty power came enormous responsibility, and Bernstein both reveled and writhed under the weight of it all. “To achieve great things, two things are needed,” he once quipped wryly. “A plan, and not quite enough time.” As his career blossomed, his personal plan became one of great things: to use music as a vehicle to change the world. And while there was perhaps not quite enough time to carry that plan into full effect, he came as close as any classical musician ever has come to realizing this stratospheric goal.
One can trace this desire to a concert tour of Europe in 1948, not long after that career-launching night at Carnegie Hall. While in Munich, local officials convinced Bernstein to visit a displaced persons camp. There, he met with seventeen Holocaust survivors who had formed a ragtag orchestra. They crowded around the young Jewish maestro, begging him to conduct their small ensemble. He led them in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work that Bernstein considered to be a healing force. He posed for a photograph with the musicians, thanking them profusely.
He managed to maintain his composure until they left. But as soon as they were outside the gates of the camp, Bernstein started bawling. Asthma had shielded him from military service in World War II, leaving him rather unexposed to the gruesome realities of the Holocaust until that moment. Yet the tears flowed not only from what these survivors had endured, but also from what he had observed. In one afternoon, music had applied salve to horrific wounds. And the man who never learned how to stop realized he had found something that he needed to start.
So Bernstein became the go-to guy whenever the triumph of the human spirit needed a soundtrack. There he was in Paris, Vienna, and Prague immediately after World War II, conducting Copland’s final symphony, a work of dignified heroism. There he was when the Six-Day War ended with the reunification of Jerusalem, directing the Israel Philharmonic in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony on Mount Scopus. There he was in Berlin after the Berlin Wall fell, leading musicians from both East and West Germany in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, even changing the text of the final chorus from “joy!” to “freedom!” in honor of the occasion.
And there he was in New York, conducting a nationally televised performance of the “Resurrection” Symphony as a stunned nation grappled with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Many observers were surprised at Bernstein’s choice of composition, questioning why he did not instead lead the orchestra in the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 or one of the classic Requiem Masses. The next evening, in an address at the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York’s annual fundraising event, the maestro provided his answer.
“We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him,” Bernstein proclaimed to the crowd. “In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.”
He went on to describe Kennedy as a champion of learning and reason, the two principles that had guided great leaders “from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein.” Violence, he continued, was the enemy of these vital precepts, a foe that arose from ignorance and hatred. Only when that foe had been defeated by the weapons of the mind would the world truly become a better place.
And then the conductor rose to his own crescendo. “But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution,” he declared. “Rather, they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
For a man who from afar seemed so perfect, a true memoriam is impossible to write. Leonard Bernstein will always be more and mean more — both good and bad — than any single heart can possible comprehend. But if anyone seeks a piece of his legacy to carry forward, perhaps it is encapsulated in those words offered to a grieving nation, a call for music and all matters of the mind to outclass ignorance, hatred, and violence on the earth. In those troubled times, the maestro had struck the perfect chord, one that still rings above the tumult of today.