Sept. 1, 2006
The intensity of true genius
Bernstein was prodigious, but always wished he had done more.
Leonard Bernstein's achievements as a conductor are dazzling. He
was the wunderkind of classical music, becoming, at age 40, the
first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic.
His big break came in 1943. Consider the odds: he had been assistant
conductor of the orchestra for only two months. Suddenly, he had
to lead a performance after Bruno Walter, the chief conductor, became
acutely ill. The Philharmonic's first choice for a replacement was
Artur Rodzinski, but he was snowed in and suggested Bernstein. The
matinée performance permitted no time for rehearsal. Of the
four works on the program, Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude was the
only one the orchestra had not performed recently, but also the
only one Bernstein had previously conducted.
The scene after the last note sounded was straight out of a Hollywood
melodrama without any notice, the understudy takes over and
outdoes the person he replaces. Even before the final note faded,
people clapped, they cheered, they shouted. Those who had heard
the radio broadcast sent telegrams of congratulation. Serge Koussevitzky,
the aging conductor of the prestigious Boston Symphony, suggested
Bernstein as his replacement. The following year, Bernstein was
offered directorship of the New York City Orchestra.
Much of Bernstein's life had cinematic flair. It was an American
success story: a Jewish boy of an initially poor immigrant family
makes it to the top.
His mother, Jennie, was only three when she accompanied her mother
from Shepetovka, Ukraine, to America: a month-long journey described
as "terrifying." Jennie's father had landed only three
years earlier and had managed to save passage money for his wife
and baby daughter from his five dollar a week wages working as a
wool-dyer in one of the huge mills then stretching along Massachusett's
Jennie loved music, having grown up in a household that often resounded
in song. She somewhat reluctantly married Shmuel Yosef Bernstein,
born to a Chassidic family in the Ukrainian town of Beresdiv, who
himself had arrived in America as a child. As a fish cleaner in
New York's Fulton Street Market, he, too, had earned five dollars
a week until his uncle gave him a better job in a Boston barbershop.
He married Jennie in 1917 and settled in a Jewish working-class
district of Boston.
Shmuel, although he became Samuel, never quite mastered English;
his speech was full of the malapropisms for which his namesake,
Samuel Goldwyn, became famous. He referred to "psychosemitic"
illness and to cleaning out "cowwebs." To wish people
good luck, he admonished, "Keep your finger crossed."
Nonetheless, through hard work and determination, he prospered,
establishing his own hair products business.
The Bernsteins' first child, Leonard, was always drawn to music,
a trait he may have inherited from Jennie. Too short to wind up
the Victrola, he screamed for moynik, moynik (music, music) until
someone put on a record. The Bernsteins became rich enough and Leonard
was smart enough for him to enter Boston's prestigious Latin School
(founded in 1635) and later, Harvard. As a youth, he took piano
lessons, to which his father objected, fearful he would become a
"palm court musician" instead of taking over Samuel's
Leonard would have made a fine concert pianist, but his passion
was conducting and, beyond that, composing. Bernstein invariably
conducted without a baton. A slim, handsome man, he used his fingers
expressively, almost as if he were playing a phantom keyboard. He
crouched, he jumped. His face registered every emotional response
to the passage he was conducting.
In 1944, he conducted his first symphony, based on the Book of Jeremiah
and featuring a beautifully vocal "Lamentation" section,
which received good reviews. His second symphony, The Age of
Anxiety, based on W.H. Auden's poem of the same name, was completed
in 1949. New York Times critic Olin Downes called it a "triumph
Bernstein then turned to a musical adaptation of Voltaire's satiric
novel, Candide. The score was good but its Broadway run was
rather short. Dissatisfied, Bernstein rewrote the score several
Above all, Bernstein was prodigious. While working on Candide,
he had been composing West Side Story. Based on Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein's lovers are threatened by rival
murderous gangs, replacing the inimical Montagues and Capulets.
It became a smash hit on Broadway and later a highly successful
movie. Along with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, West Side
Story generated ongoing genre arguments: Were they operas or
For most music-lovers, the argument was trivial; both works became
an integral part of American musical culture.
Bernstein was also the first American conductor at La Scala in Milan
and, over the course of his career, he conducted many times in Tel-Aviv.
His third symphony, Kaddish, composed in 1963, was premièred
by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and dedicated to the memory
of John F. Kennedy. In addition, Bernstein created the music for
three ballets and the score for the movie On the Waterfront.
In 1969, after Herbert von Karajan left the Vienna State Opera,
Bernstein conducted there to great exaltation. The musicians, the
public and the critics loved him. We cannot know if this was genuine
or a demonstration that the Viennese, never comfortable with Jews,
were displaying their "advancement." A bust of Gustav
Mahler, removed by Hitler, was restored to its place in the Vienna
opera house. Bernstein even took the orchestra on a tour of Israel.
Conducting Mahler was a near-obsession with Bernstein. Mahler, who
had reluctantly become a Catholic to enhance his career, did not
have the exuberance of Bernstein but, in addition to sharing his
Jewishness, Bernstein was attracted by Mahler's passion and the
grandiosity of his works.
In a life filled with fantastic success, Bernstein never achieved
his most important goal: to compose at least one piece of serious
music that would become a standard in the symphonic repertoire.
Many, perhaps most, geniuses never fully satisfy themselves. Einstein
never came up with a unified field theory. Beethoven could never
compose for the voice with the ease and brilliance of Mozart.
Bernstein, a lifelong heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at the age
of 72. His smoking, his drinking, his affairs, his experimentation
with his own sexuality, were typical of his life. Everything he
did had an intensity born in a self-confidence that easily glides
into hubris, the overbearing fervor that often victimizes its possessors.
Eugene Kaellis is a retired academic living in New Westminster.