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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12 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 6:48 am by Lawrence Eckerling

    While I agree with the points that there are “other American Composers” that celebrating Bernstein would take away from, there are a couple of points that I totally disagree with. West Side Story is not his “only” masterpiece. His Violin Serenade is another one (and it’s not a rarity…at least not anymore). Chichester Psalms is another.mAnd his conducting isn’t any more “uneven” than scores of other conductors. And in his conducting, he achieved greatness more than most.

    I think if there is something weird about the “Bernstein celebration”, it is that you can’t”just” celebrate him as a composer. You have to celebrate “all” of him. The teacher. The conductor. The composer. The writer. The ambassador of music. All of him. And when you do that, and add it all together, the total sum of him makes him one of the greatest of the greats in our lifetime, and it is most worthy. And the celebration is at the expense of no one.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Posted Aug 08, 2018 at 11:46 pm by Alexander Platt

    Samuel Barber: Symphony No.1; the literary tone-poems; the Essays for Orchestra
    Bernstein: Symphonies 1 and 2; Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
    Aaron Copland: Symphonies 2 and 3; the concertos; the ballets; Symphonic Ode
    David Diamond: Symphony No.3
    Irving Fine: Notturno
    Gershwin: Paris; the three Rhapsodies; the Concerto in F, in the version by Ferde Grofe
    Howard Hanson: Symphonies 1,2,3,4
    Roy Harris: Symphony No.3
    Charles Ives: Symphonies 2,3; Three Places in New England; Four American Holidays
    Walter Piston: Symphonies 2,4,6
    Ned Rorem: String Symphony; “Sunday Morning”
    Carl Ruggles: Men and Mountains
    William Schuman: Symphonies 3,5,7
    Wm. Grant Still: The Symphonies; “La Guiablesse”
    Every major American orchestra should have these basic, accessible masterworks in their repertoire, just as every British orchestra knows their Elgar, Britten, Walton, Tippett, Bax, Vaughan Williams and Moeran, etc. In this sense Mr Kalmar is a great inspiration.

  8. Posted Aug 10, 2018 at 8:54 am by Tod Verklärung

    Excellent list from Mr. Platt. I’d add Irving Fine’s Symphony, Easley Blackwood’s Symphony #1, and Mysterious Mountain by Hovhaness. Probably a Roger Sessions symphony, too. Big question: does anyone in the artistic administration of the CSO have familiarity with or knowledge of these works?

  9. Posted Aug 10, 2018 at 9:52 pm by Steve Robinson

    Mr. Johnson seems to think Bernstein’s compositions are mediocre. If that’s really the case, I’d like him to explain what or who compelled classical music organizations of all sizes and shapes all over planet Earth to embrace the anniversary with such passion. I’m waiting.

  10. Posted Aug 11, 2018 at 5:06 am by Steve Robinson

    The CSO has familiarity with the music of William Schuman and, in fact, will perform his Symphony No. 9 in the 2018/2019 season.

  11. Posted Aug 11, 2018 at 1:20 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Mr. Robinson clearly missed the point of the column. Bernstein wrote one undisputed masterpiece (West Side Story) and a few other inspired works (On the Waterfront suite, parts of Candide), but much of the rest of his “serious” concert works are uneven at best and some are outright dreck.

    The central point is that the overhyped centennial hullaballoo is way out of proportion to Bernstein’s highly variable output as a composer. And that leaves the other 99% of unjustly neglected American composers wholly ignored.

    Mr. Platt’s list is an excellent roster of good works we should be hearing more regularly. Yet except for Grant Park Music Festival, nobody else is serving the cause of 20th century American music–either here in Chicago or across the country.

    Also I’m not sure that two or three CSO performances of William Schuman’s music over the past 25 years can be called “familiarity.”

  12. Posted Dec 30, 2018 at 8:46 pm by Hudson Fair

    To the Editor:

    Not really sure why a so-called judgement of Bernstein should only proceed to focus on his work as a composer. He did so much more as a force of nature for promotion of music and art than just toil as a composer. His lectures, his professorship in poetry at Harvard, his conducting genius, his getting on television to urge tens of thousands (at least) to discover and learn about music. This is only part of his legacy.

    Admired in Vienna as a conducting visionary, leading Israel out of the dark ages of music presenting, he reigned.

    So what is supposed to be a criticism is too constrained and narrow a view.

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