IHAS: Composer
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"Who was Leonard Bernstein?--a question sure to fascinate the guardians of 'style' and the faithful alike for years to come. The 'Who' of a person is singular, personal, and unique, whereas the 'What' of a person becomes the public domain. To re-create music with Lenny was an invigorating and intoxicating adventure through the 'What' of a person to the 'Who' of me. Lenny's physical departure is a transcendent rebirth into the 'Who' of all of us. We are closer to the truth."

-Thomas Hampson

Though he was surely one of the best-known, most popular composers and conductors of the twentieth century, the full scope of Leonard Bernstein's genius is only beginning to be realized in the years following his death. Not only is Bernstein becoming increasingly appreciated for the dramatic, driving force he embodied in classical music performance and education, but he is also being recognized more and more as a composer of variety, vitality, and substance.

Like Copland and Gershwin, he came from a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, born in Lawrence, MA on August 25, 1918, to Sam and Jennie Bernstein. Lenny began his piano studies at age ten, attended the Boston Latin School, and in 1935 matriculated at Harvard, where he studied with Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. At university he tried his hand at composing the incidental music for Aristophanes' THE BIRDS. He cultivated close associations with several other musicians, whose lives and compositions would continue to intersect with his: Copland, for whom he was commissioned to arrange the two-piano version of EL SALON MEXICO in 1937; Blitzstein, whose radical opera THE CRADLE WILL ROCK Bernstein mounted at Harvard (he would go on to champion both works); and Dimitri Mitropoulos, whose mentorship shaped Bernstein's conducting and introduced him to Reiner and Koussevitsky. In 1940 Bernstein joined the latter's conducting class at Tanglewood, where he was to establish a lifelong affiliation: first as Koussevitsky's assistant, then succeeding him when the older conductor died in 1951.

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Serious Composer
Meanwhile, Bernstein had made media headlines as a conductor with an eleventh hour substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter at a live broadcast concert of New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1943. His electrifying performance flashed across the front pages of America's press, making him a household name. The decades of the 1940's and 1950's also saw Bernstein's emergence as a serious composer. His JEREMIAH SYMPHONY premiered in 1944 and was followed by the 1944 ballet score FANCY FREE--his first collaboration with Jerome Robbins -- which Bernstein together with the team of Adolph Green and Betty Comden then expanded into the Broadway musical ON THE TOWN. His SYMPHONY NO. 2: THE AGE OF ANXIETY and PRELUDE, FUGUE AND RIFFS for clarinet and jazz ensemble appeared in 1949; his opera TROUBLE IN TAHITI, which would metamorphose into his late masterpiece, A QUIET PLACE, premiered in 1952, followed by his 1954 film score for Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT, the operetta CANDIDE in 1956, and his most famous theatre work, WEST SIDE STORY, in 1957. Succeeding Mitropoulos in 1958 as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein inaugurated a series of ground-breaking educational projects, which influenced an entire generation of listeners and won scores of converts to classical and contemporary music. Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic were televised from 1958-1973; his Harvard lecture series, THE UNANSWERED QUESTION, was also broadcast, and his book THE JOY OF MUSIC, which incorporated his early 50's TV Omnibus lectures, became a best seller and classroom classic.

go next A Quiet Place After stepping down from the directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, Bernstein toured widely as a guest conductor, establishing a very special relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, committed himself to liberal political causes, devoted special energies to the music of Ives, Copland, and Mahler, and continued to compose. In addition to the works previously mentioned, his ambitious, eclectic catalogue included a third symphony, KADDISH (1963), the CHICHESTER PSALMS (1965), the theatre piece MASS, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 1971, a ballet, THE DYBBUK, in 1974, the musical 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE in 1976, SONGFEST in 1977, A QUIET PLACE in 1983, JUBILEE GAMES in 1985, and ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES in 1988, Of these A QUIET PLACE, which received its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, reflected poignantly Bernstein's attempt to confront the angels and demons of his own past and transform them into the realm of imagination. Completed in the emotionally turbulent years which followed his wife Felicia's death from cancer in 1978, the death of his parents, and his own identity-sexuality crisis, the opera recounts the joys and travails of an American family, whose seeming banality is really the stuff of mythic psychology.

Until a few days before his death from heart complications associated with emphysema on October 14, 1990, Bernstein remained active, composing, conducting, touring, teaching at Tanglewood, and living with the voracious energy that had always informed his activities. His flamboyant podium style, his irrepressible gusto, his embracing passion for people and for music, his larger-than-life, often unconventional persona have become the stuff of legend, while his recordings, videos, and books remain top sellers. Yet beyond the glitter shines a substance that can only gain in luster as American music moves into the 21st century--an inspiring and inspired voice of an artist who unabashedly proclaimed: "Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace."

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& Whitman

by Walt Whitman

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is

my answer:

Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can

never belong to me, nor I to you,

Behold the customary loves and friendships--the cold

I am that rough and simple person

I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at

parting, and I am one who is kissed in return,

I introduce that new American salute

Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious

Behold the received models of the parlors--What are they to


What to these young men that travel with me?

Throughout his career as a composer, conductor, and teacher, Bernstein sought not only to serve as an exponent and champion of the late Romantic composers but also to incorporate into his own work the emotional intensity and melodic-harmonic lessons of their legacy; at the same time he strove to create, especially in his vocal and theatrical music, an uniquely American idiom--to absorb from the democratic melting pot an eclecticism that he could transform into a truly personal voice. In this he was very like Walt Whitman, who, unfettered by categories, labels, or conventions in his poetry, did not fear to combine with breathtaking audacity an astonishing array of thematic and stylistic contrasts.

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Anne Gilchrist
Drawn to the exquisitely humble, touchingly exposed honesty of Whitman's love lyrics, Bernstein chose an unpublished poem found among the bard's posthumous papers to include in SONGFEST, composed for the American Bicentennial and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1977. The twelve-song cycle set to texts by Americans takes LB's familiar humanistic and politically liberal perspective on the themes of love, marriage, personal aspiration, and social justice in the multi-cultural framework of America's melting pot. In its original incarnation the purposefully and exuberantly eclectic score called for six singers and an orchestra of traditional and electronic instruments, while the subsequent version was arranged in the more intimate piano-vocal format. TO WHAT YOU SAID is one of those rare poems which Whitman abandoned in its initial stages. Scribbled on the verso of page thirty of the ink faircopy of the 1871 DEMOCRATIC VISTAS, the text shows signs of being composed quickly and spontaneously with revisions made on the spur of the moment.

Play/Download VideoQuicktime Video, 1 MB
Thomas Hampson on TO WHAT YOU SAID
The ability to date the manuscript conclusively poses a great many problems, though affinities in the themes, images, and hints at autobiographical substance point to the years between 1871-1876. A strong probability exists that it was addressed to Anne Gilchrist, the plucky, intelligent, literary Englishwoman and widow of Blake's biographer who fell in love with Whitman via his poems, published the first feminist defense of his writings in 1870, declared her passion in 1871, and followed him to Philadelphia in 1876 in the hopes of marrying him. Whitman gently fended off her romantic advances; calling her his "best-woman-friend," he cherished their platonic bond long after her return to England, and following her death he remained close to her son Herbert.

That new American

That Whitman never considered the poem worthy of publication may have been in part due to its personal nature, but was more likely a function of his feeling that he had uttered its message in far more sweepingly significant metaphoric terms elsewhere.

For beyond any possible autobiographical implications, TO WHAT YOU SAID is a poem of universal import--a text ideologically linked to the bold social vision of DEMOCRATIC VISTAS on which it was inscribed. It is one in which Whitman lashes out against the restrictions and repressions imposed by convention ("Behold the customary loves and friendships--the cold guards")--and one in which he offers his message of salvation: that new American salute, a love that is supremely human, that goes beyond the parameters of the merely sexual and beyond the confines of the exclusive, that expresses the poet's belief that he could never belong to one because as Bard he must belong to all. TO WHAT YOU SAID offers one of those quintessential moments in contemporary song: a collaboration of America's foremost poet with one of her late, great musical souls. In a voice wrenched from the heart, in a language daring to speak the unspeakable, Walt Whitman and Leonard Bernstein invite the listener to embark on a metaphysical journey in which matter is transformed into fleshy spirit, experience into art, and stasis into flux. "If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles," writes Whitman at the end of SONG OF MYSELF. "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/ Missing me in one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you"

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