Yes, celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. But what about other, better American composers?

Wed Jul 11, 2018 at 8:04 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland c.1940. Photo: Library of Congress

If you’ve been living in an adjacent galaxy for the past several months, you may not know that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (August 25, to be exact).

Music of the American composer, conductor, pianist, advocate and television personality has been even more inescapable than usual across the country and the world for the past two years. (Even the Eurocentric Chicago Symphony Orchestra did its part this past season with several Bernstein works.)

And there is more to come. Tomorrow night, Marin Alsop and the CSO kick off a summer of Bernsteiniana at the Ravinia Festival, which will encompass several works ranging from the familiar (Candide Overture) to rarities (the Serenade on Plato’s Symposium and Mass). The Tanglewood Festival–with which Bernstein enjoyed a long and important relationship and where he conducted his final concert–is, unsurprisingly, doing even more Bernstein this summer.

It’s heartening to see any American composer get this kind of attention in a concert landscape increasingly dominated by Classical’s Greatest (Euro) Hits. Yet it’s increasingly hard not to feel that this year’s Lenny-mania amounts to vast overkill.

The fact is that despite his undeniable musical gifts, fame, charisma and versatility, Bernstein produced a relatively small body of works–and those works are wildly uneven to say the least. Let’s be honest: as a composer, Leonard Bernstein is greatly overrated.

Lest anyone think I have an animus against Leonard Bernstein, far from it. In fact, I can say West Side Story changed my life.

As a young preteen, watching the first television broadcast of the film version–spread out over two nights on NBC–I was riveted by the music, the dancing, the characters and the fluent yet audacious updating of Romeo and Juliet from the courts of Verona to 1950s teen gangs on the (then) mean streets of the Upper West Side of New York. After the first part aired, I could not get the movie out of my mind at school the next day and counted the hours until the second part that night (which floored me even more). That first viewing of this historic musical–my affection for which has never diminished–had a seismic impact and was a major element in my career writing about music. West Side Story remains–for this writer, at least–the greatest Broadway musical of all time and is Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece.

But it is also Leonard Bernstein’s only masterpiece. Nothing else in his oeuvre is as consistent or successful on that level. (Though in its four and one-half minutes, the brassy, breezy, near-perfect Candide Overture comes close.)

The first two of Bernstein’s three symphonies (“Jeremiah” and “The Age of Anxiety”) have interesting moments but fail to hang together as a unified whole. His Third Symphony (“Kaddish”) is a complete train wreck, a low point in 20th-century music with the God-hectoring narrator (to Bernstein’s own would-be hip text) irritating and unlistenable.

The downside of this overhyped centennial bash is that it lets managers, orchestras, and festivals off the hook. Lionizing Bernstein out of all proportion to his actual achievements as a composer is too easy. Presenters can program populist items like the Candide Overture and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story while patting themselves on the back for bravely doing yeoman work for American music.

Please. The worst part of this Lenny orgy  is that it takes precious attention, resources and financial commitment away from other American composers of the past–most of whom are less celebrated but who were, in fact, better composers with a stronger claim on the concert hall than their more media-savvy colleague.

For every one hundred performances of the Candide Overture that are taking place this year, would it be asking too much to perform one piece by the other 99% of American composers whose music continuous to be ignored? The least symphony of David Diamond is worth all three of Bernstein’s put together. And while their music is less outwardly flashy and brilliant, the overall musical legacy of people like Walter Piston, Howard Hanson and others is much more substantial and consistent.

We are fortunate here in Chicago where the Grant Park Music Festival under Carlos Kalmar’s direction, consistently spotlights Piston, Diamond and other neglected American composers of the past. But elsewhere, nada. Even Aaron Copland is infrequently performed these days.

So, by all means, lift a glass to Leonard Bernstein this summer and give him his due as a reviver of Gustav Mahler, charismatic (if uneven) conductor and composer of West Side Story. 

But a much better way to honor Bernstein is to recognize his advocacy of American music and make a renewed commitment to other homegrown composers of the past: those whose works Bernstein conducted–like Ives, Copland, and Diamond–as well as those he didn’t. More than his own uneven output, that important and generous advocacy may be Leonard Bernstein’s most important and enduring musical legacy.

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5 Responses to “Yes, celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. But what about other, better American composers?”

  1. Posted Jul 11, 2018 at 9:20 am by Brad Ross

    Well put, Mr. Johnson. This is more-or-less what I’ve been thinking for the better part of a year now. Having been treated to so many highs and lows of his career over the past concert season, the highs appear greatly outnumbered by the lows. Let’s hear some more Roy Harris, William Schuman, or Howard Hanson instead; as composers, they at least had something interesting to say.

  2. Posted Jul 14, 2018 at 3:46 pm by Jeff Rice

    In response I would suggest that it is the phrase “and others” after listing Diamond, Hanson and Piston that is key. To which a previous comment added Harris and Schuman. A short consideration of the dates of these composers they are a previous generation than Bernstein for one.

    Indeed, the generation from which these are chosen have birthdates from the last decade of the 19th century until the first decade of the 20th. And even then, missing are Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) a far more interesting composer than those mentioned (in my view), Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a pioneering soundscapist, Wm. Grant Still (1895-1978) and the magnificent Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953).

    Of Bernstein’s generation we must turn to Carter (born earlier but outlived him) and a lot of so-so composers like George Rochberg, Irving Fine, Vivian Fine, Morton Gould et alia. Worth hearing but not ready for a full blown retrospective.

    Some say LB was the greatest American Musician of his era and a serious listen to his ‘classical compositions’ at this point might prove very informative as to the actual quality of the symphonies and the Masses.

  3. Posted Jul 15, 2018 at 11:19 am by Tod Verklärung

    Mr. Johnson’s essay and the comments by Mr. Ross and Rice are much appreciated. Moreover, there are, as these three doubtless know, countless numbers of fine 20th century works written in Europe that deserve some attention. While one cannot commend Mr. Muti enough for his maintenance of the CSO at a high standard of performance, so much else is wanting, including a vision that moves beyond its current focus as a museum of the old part of the Old World. The exclusion of the many fine composers named above allows those who continue to hold a short subscription series to be suspicious of the unfamiliar. Thus, despite its other merits, Orchestra Hall has become a place of cultural irrelevance if that culture is considered a living, changing thing.

    Very old guest conductors are the recent norm. Those who might bring new ideas and excitement such as Susanna Mälkki have either fled to due the repertory contraints and limited opportunities offered by CSO management or a failure to be invited back. No Principal Guest Conductor with a repertoire different than Muti’s has been hired. No obvious successor to him seems to have been encouraged. Where is the CSO going, Mr. Johnson? And who else has the standing to ask the question, but you?

  4. Posted Jul 16, 2018 at 4:38 pm by opus131

    I just finished playing the two Bernstein works at Ravinia with the CSO this week, and am awestruck anew at his genius. David Diamond was teaching at Juilliard when I was there; I knew him a little and know his music fairly well. I actually played Hanson under the baton of Hanson, and have assiduously studied Piston’s orchestration textbook, which is a masterpiece. But when Mr. Johnson opines that any of these admirable musicians belong in the same universe as Bernstein, all I can feel is pity for a listener so incapable of discerning true greatness in music.

  5. Posted Jul 16, 2018 at 8:21 pm by Andrew

    I don’t even care so much about “true greatness” in music as I am about the fact that the CSO’s programming continues to bore me on a regular basis. Full stop.

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