Portrait of Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)
Portrait of Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990) © Getty

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Leonard Bernstein

Under surveillance by the FBI, Beatles fan and jazz pianist in New York, this is Leonard Bernstein as you have (perhaps) never seen him before. Here are 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of West Side Story, the Chichester Psalms, and Candide.

Born 25 August 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts (U.S.), Leonard Bernstein is a key figure within 20th century music history. As a conductor, composer, and pianist, he is considered today alongside George Gershwin and Aaron Copland as one of the great American musicians.

As a pedagogue, writer, and television personality, Bernstein was able to garner a large audience, using his widespread fame to promote new music and its various genres: it is important to remember that Bernstein was interested in all forms of music, be it opera, jazz, rock'n'roll or even Latin music. A veritable melting pot of influences that we find in his ideals as much as in his music.

There are thousands of (small) details to discover about such a charismatic personality! Here are 10, as a start...

The Beatles are the Schubert of our time

It was the great Leonard Bernstein who made this comparison on a CBS show Inside Pop - The Rock Revolution in 1967.Minimalist melodies, unexpected changes in tonality and short stories with which listeners may identify : Bernstein analysed the songs of the Beatles in the same way that he would Beethoven's Symphony no.5 or the impressionist musical style.

No hierarchy is established between musical genres. Indeed, the numerous television shows he hosted during the 1950s and 1970s touched on every musical genre, from Mahler's symphonies to the latest rock'n'roll hits, with one goal in mind : addressing above all the young generation.

Bernstein jazzman

Though Leonard Bernstein touched upon all genres of music, that did not stop him from having his personal preferences: jazz, primarily. As a teenager, he joined all the jazz bands he came across along the way. Several years later, fresh off the boat in New York, he visited the most famous clubs in town and quickly landed his first job as a pianist.

His passion for swing is found in many of his works, including On the Town (1944), Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949), and Symphony no.2 : The Age of Anxiety (1965). Bernstein loved the unique quality of jazz, "an original kind of emotional expression", its subtlety, but also its humour : "With jazz music, one can truly play with the notes" (extract from his album "What is Jazz?")

Parody and humour

Humour: a great source of inspiration for the composer, but also a powerful tool for derision. Bernstein took great pleasure in creating parodies of certain musical forms or works from previous centuries.

For example, in his second cycle of melodies, Bernstein does not find inspiration in the romantic poems of Goethe or Baudelaire but rather...4 cooking recipes! On the menu, sung by the soprano: Queues de boeuf [Ox Tails], Pudding, and even Civet à Toute Vitesse.

Another musical genre, another form of derision: Glitter and be Gay, air sung by Cunégonde in Candide (1956), is a parody of the famous Ah! Je ris, de me voir si belle sung by Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. Whereas the latter is unable to resist the beautiful jewelery she has found, Bernstein's character initially bewails, hesitating before proclaiming cynically : "If I'm not pure, at least my jewels are!".

Committed and politically engaged

Behind the humorous facade often hides an intention, an idea worth fighting for. With Candide, Bernstein sought to denounce McCarthyism, the political practice that spread throughout the United States during the 1950s, becoming a veritable witch hunt led by authorities against any individual suspected of Communist influence or activity.

Leonard Bernstein never sought to hide his political engagements: through his work or in occasional interviews, he shared his humanist ideals, openly criticised the war led by the United States in Vietnam, and supported the integration of minorities and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1970, he caused a scandal by organising with his wife Felicia a concert in support of the Black Panters, an Afro-American political movement.

Bernstein dirigeant un orchestre international pendant le "Est-Ouest Concert" donné à Berlin  le 25 décembre 1989, peu après la chute du mur.
Bernstein dirigeant un orchestre international pendant le "Est-Ouest Concert" donné à Berlin le 25 décembre 1989, peu après la chute du mur. © AFP

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

"The whole superfluousness of art shows up at a time like this, and the whole futility of spending your life in it." Writing to composer and friend Aaron Copland in 1938, Bernstein revealed his doubtful and hesitant facade, questioning his work and personality, facade hidden behind the charismatic and confident orchestra conductor and presenter.

As he worked on Candide in the 1950s, two opposing personalities began to appear, his irrepressible and demonic "I" and his more benevolent "me". "Candide is beginning to look to me like a real fine old-fashioned operetta", criticised the first, sceptically. However, "the particular mixture of styles and elements that goes into this work makes it perhaps a new kind of show", affirmed the second, more optimistic.

Leonard Bernstein en 1968.
Leonard Bernstein en 1968. © Getty  /  Alfred Eisenstaedt

Leonard's dreams

The posthumous publication of Bernstein's correspondance - 650 letters chosen by the editor Nigel Simeone - brings to light the troubled and anguished nature of the composer. Amongst friends, his psychiatrist and even his wife Felicia, he often reflected upon his latent bisexuality, his thirst for success and his dreams, whose meaning he was convinced would bring him answers to the deepest of questions.

These intimate and contemplative musings that pervade Bernstein's private life are also felt throughout his work. In the opera A Quiet Place (1952), for example, he depicts a psychiatrist and therapist in whom Dinah confides her dreams and her search for an afterlife, a peaceful and harmonious "somewhere", the very same Somewhere wished for by Maria and Tony in West Side Story.

Marriage and bisexuality

« You are a homosexual and may never change » wrote actress Felicia Bernstein to her husband in 1951, only months after their marriage. "I am willing to accept you as you are [...] I happen to love you very much". Words heavy with meaning and resonance at a time when homosexuality was still largely considered an illness.

Felicia and Leonard Bernstein had three children together before separating in 1976, after 25 years of living together, during which Felicia tolerated her husband's extra-marital relationships, as long as these "remained discreet".

Felicia et Leonard Bernstein avec deux de leurs enfants, en 1957.
Felicia et Leonard Bernstein avec deux de leurs enfants, en 1957. © Getty  /  Bettmann

Under surveillance by the F.B.I.

When the tensions of America's involvement in the Cold War were at an all time high, Bernsteins social engagements and involvements rang alarm bells for the national intelligence agencies. In the early 1950s, as the Communist witch hunt fuelled by McCarthyism spread like wildfire, the composer's name was even added to an official F.B.I. list of individuals suspected of affiliations to Communist organisations.

Gradually these tensions disappeared, but not for long: in 1971, Bernstein was accused of having hidden coded anti-government propaganda messages in the Latin texts of his latest work, Mass. Despite President Nixon having declined the invitation to the work's premiere and a negative review from the New York Times, the work is today considered to be one of the composer's finest.

A conductor at his piano

Proof of Bernstein's freedom of spirit: unable to choose between the role of performer and conductor, he simply decided to become both. He was often seen conducting from his piano, notably when performing his favourite works: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel's Concerto en Sol.

Bernstein was a formidable pianist, capable of tackling the most demanding of works as well as mastering the role of accompanist. Invited by the world's most prestigious concert halls, he found great joy in performing alongside some of the great singers of his generation : mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig in particular, and also Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

A record number of firsts

In terms of "First American to...", Bernstein beat all the records. To name but a few: first American composer to conduct an opera at the (very) prestigious Scala de Milan, first American musician to be named musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, first classical musician to have a long-standing television career...

The list is long and proof of the composer's prolific and eclectic career, one that ended abruptly on 14 octobre 1990 after a sudden heart attack. « Music’s Monarch, Dies », reported the New York Times.

Leonard Bernstein dirigeant la Symphonie "Résurrection" de Gustav Mahler, à Lenox (Massachusetts), en 1970.
Leonard Bernstein dirigeant la Symphonie "Résurrection" de Gustav Mahler, à Lenox (Massachusetts), en 1970.  © Getty  /  Bettmann

Nathalie Moller

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