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The Great Communicator: Leonard Bernstein and His Legacy

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One year before his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a wildly romanticized rendition of Mozart's Requiem. The recording immediately drew controversy: some critics lambasted it for being too personal and having too many tempi inconsistencies, while others listened in awe of Bernstein's highly personal and emotionally charged conducting. The Lacrimosa dies illa is especially spellbinding. Bernstein -- silver-haired, bronzed, and sweating profusely -- conducts in such a slow tempo that the music threatens to fall apart, pushing the musicians to the brink of exhaustion and summoning tear-like phrases from the strings' mournful accompaniment. The standard recording length of Mozart's Lacrimosa is just over three minutes. Bernstein's 1989 version ebbs and flows for over five and a half minutes. Mozart's Requiem becomes Bernstein's requiem: a final musical gesture.

By the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein achieved heroic status. He was lauded as the greatest American-born conductor and had come to embody the New World by championing America's most eminent composers and re-interpreting Europe's revered musical deities. He thrilled audiences with his musical theater works On the Town and West Side Story and had come to dominate not only the New York Philharmonic but also the Vienna Philharmonic, amongst Europe's most esteemed orchestras.

Above all, Bernstein was a tireless advocate for artistic expression. He voiced the need to promote music that communicated with anyone -- not just the musical cognoscenti -- and decried the mid-20th century rise of academic twelve-tone and serial music, a compositional language he felt excluded listeners from the all-embracing tonality of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. In his 1973 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard entitled The Unanswered Question, Bernstein brilliantly elucidated his ideas about music and metaphor, music and morality, language, and politics. But Bernstein's aspirations lay beyond being America's greatest maestro; he had every intention of composing his "one important piece", a great American masterpiece, and being the conductor to premiere it. I think Bernstein possibly desired to be America's Mahler.

Many critics, such as the famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, argue that Bernstein's compositional talents were simply not on par with his abilities as an interpretive musician. Botstein wrote an especially biting criticism in 1983: "Bernstein's serious music, at its best, is reminiscent of an exuberant adolescent who... uses impressive mannerisms, clichés, and gestures to pour out his heart."

On the other hand, Barry Seldes, author of Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, thinks Bernstein's inability to compose his "one important piece" was inextricably tied to the composer's socially progressive outlook, forged during his youth in the milieu of FDR's New Deal politics. In the 1950's during the Red Scare, Bernstein was a politically outspoken liberal who was incessantly harassed by the FBI, blacklisted by the State Department and CBS, and, at one point, had his passport revoked. Although he escaped the 1950's relatively unscathed -- unlike many left-leaning artists of the day, the conductor was never called to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee -- Bernstein was berated throughout the 1960's for being, as Tom Wolfe once put it, "radical chic" and whimsically lending his celebrity to support the "nice liberal cause" of the month. After the assassination of JFK, Bernstein was depressed about the state of America and about a loss of liberal faith. An American audience receptive to the kind of work he wanted to compose, a piece that would resonate with such loss, simply did not transpire.

Political machinations and accusations of a lack of creative talent aside, I think Bernstein's lucrative and absorbing career as a conductor may have obstructed his serious compositional pursuits. Bernstein was his own worst enemy. Instead of honing his compositional craft and working privately and intensely on sustained composition, he was much more concerned with the state of music at large and used his powerful and persuasive talents of discourse and musical interpretation to help sustain a fragile artistic industry.

Bernstein sacrificed his private time as a composer, and possibly his dream to compose an American masterwork, in order to build a legacy of accessibility, education, and public understanding of the arts. His affable narration of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf continues to thrill young audiences and inspire future musicians -- not to mention soothing my one-year old niece during her most agitated crying fits. His recordings of the Mahler, Beethoven, and Brahms symphonies astound contemporary listeners; his recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony has nearly half a million hits on YouTube. His Young People's Concerts, a concert and lecture series created during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, was nationally televised by CBS in prime time in the 1960's, syndicated to forty countries, and, judging by user reviews on Amazon, still proves to be an enlightening educational tool.

Though he may not have realized it, Bernstein lived in a new era. Music of the 19th century belonged to the creative genius, but music of his century, the 20th century, belonged to the interpretive genius. Celebrating his birthday on August 25th in the 21st century, I find Bernstein's legacy as an educator and conductor more vital than ever in a time when the arts face a threat greater than a lack of public funding: a lack of public interest.