Leonard Bernstein is widely known not only as one of the greatest American conductors, but also as a composer whose creativity and passion was spread over a wide range. His social and cultural influences helped shape his career into a musical icon and his music rekindled the American spirit. Above all, he will be remembered as one of the most amazing and influential musical personalities of the twentieth century.
In the following paper I will be exploring the beginning of Leonard Bernstein’s career and his family background. I will also look into the influences he had in his life and look at two pieces that he composed, “Jeremiah Symphony No. 1”, and “Candide”. My reasons for choosing these two pieces is due to the fact that they are contrasting in genre, one being a symphony with orchestration and the other being an operetta, and that they were written at different stages in Bernstein’s life. They both produced a number of responses and displayed his wide range of musical ability.
Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Leonard’s father, Samuel immigrated to America in 1908 at the age of sixteen from the Russian province of Volhynia where he came from a long line of rabbis.(Gradenwitz 1987: 20)
Samuel worked for his uncle in a barber’s shop and quickly picked up the trade. He soon found himself accepting a job in Boston and starting his own company called the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company. Soon after he married Jennie Resnick in 1917, also of Jewish descent. She had lived in America since the age of seven and her family lived in Lawrence. The couple moved back to Boston after marriage but soon returned to Lawrence in expectance of their first-born. (Gradenwitz 1987: 21)
Leonard was the first of three children and originally named Louis, after Jennie’s grandfather. He was a sickly child and often had to be taken to the doctor’s and given injections for chronic asthma attacks and hay fever. The family moved around a lot and Leonard never really made any solid friendships. From these experiences, he became an introvert, preferring the safety of his home to the outside. (Ewen 1960: 10)
When Leonard was eight years old, he had his first taste of music when his father took him to the local synagogue. The music of the organ and the choir made him burst into tears. At the age of ten, he came home to find a piano standing in the living room as a family gift from his aunt. It was a day in his life that he would never forget. (Gradenwitz 1987: 22)
The piano opened up a new world for Leonard. He could be completely at ease from the world and all his problems would just seem to fade away. Late one night, the family was awakened by the sounds of the piano. Leonard was later quoted as saying, “I have to do this. The sounds are in my head and I have to get them out.” (Ewen 1960: 11)
When Leonard started taking piano lessons, he always strived for more. He studied with a couple teachers before getting the chance to work with Helen Coates. His father objected the lessons at first for fear that Leonard would turn away from the family business. After four years of working with Coates, Leonard was ready to commit to a career of professional piano playing and study with the best piano teacher in Boston, Heinrich Gebhard. (Gradenwitz 1987: 24)
In 1935 he graduated from the Boston Latin School and was accepted as a student at Harvard University at the age of seventeen. Here Leonard studied with various teachers and engaged in various performances, some including music he had composed. His years at Harvard also marked a very influential time in his life from meeting Aaron Copland to developing his very own distinctive style that would change very little for the rest of his life.
Bernstein looked up to Copland as his Biblical namesake and he was the one who guided Leonard toward his amazing career in conducting. His other influences included Blitzstein, Schumann, Hindemith and occasionally Gershwin. After Harvard, Bernstein then completed training at the Curtis Institute of Music and spent two summers of great learning and experience at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Bernstein fell under Serge Koussevitzky’s spell of conducting and decided then and there that conducting would become his main focus of musical activity. He became his assistant in 1942 and was appointed the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943. (Gutmann: 2001)
On November 14, 1943 Bernstein was asked to substitute conduct on a few hours notice, for the ill Bruno Walter at a Carnegie Hall concert. The concert was broadcasted nationally on radio and television and received great praise from all that heard it. Soon orchestras worldwide sought out Bernstein as a guest conductor.
Bernstein then spent most of his career interpreting the classics and concentrating on revealing the narrative of the music. He was less interested in sound and structure and pushed the envelope on all he brought to life. His strengths were in American music such as Copland and Ives and although he loved conducting, he still continued to compose. Throughout his career he returned to Jewish subject matter for inspiration and became a cultural icon who stressed the importance of musical values. (Schiff 2001: 447)
In 1942, Bernstein wrote his first major work for symphony orchestra entitled, Jeremiah Symphony No. 1. The piece was inspired by the biblical prophet, Jeremiah. Leonard cared deeply about the struggle between good and evil, joy and misery on earth and love and destruction and his concerns can be found expressed in almost everything he has written. (Gradenwitz: 1987: 144)
The symphony is comprised of three movements, Prophecy, Profanation and Lamentation. As stated by Bernstein, “the intention is not one of literalness, but of emotional quality”. The first movement, Prophecy aims to express the feeling of intensity of the prophet’s pleas with is people. The movement is Largamente, opening with a French horn playing a motivic theme that is heard in all three movements in various variations. He also uses the woodwinds to echo this theme and brings forth the piccolo with very high-pitched sounds. The piece builds throughout as if driving toward something with the prophet trying to get through to his people.
(Leonard Bernstein: “Jeremiah”)
The second movement, Profanation, tries to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan (non-believing) dishonesty within the priesthood and the people. The movement is a scherzo played Vivace con brio with the main theme played by the clarinets. This piece is quite different from the other two because the rhythmic variation is intense and becomes stronger and stronger. The dynamics are forceful and more colorful as if pushing, to show the feeling of all the chaos that is developing.
The third and final movement, Lamentation is derived from Hebrew verses from the Book of Lamentations. The movement is played Lento in a ballad type of verse as Jeremiah mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, robbed and dishonored after his desperate attempt to save it. The melodic theme comes back again in this piece and is drawn out in different instruments between the verses of the vocal part. The vocal part is sung by a female voice and the following text expresses some of the feeling Jeremiah felt as he looked at his loved city. “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her.”
(Leonard Bernstein: “Jeremiah”)
The third movement is the longest of the three and deservingly should be as a finale to the symphony. It slowly and gently fades to a soft pianissimo at the end and a sense of comfort and peace concludes the symphony and its tale of faith and faithlessness. The whole work is only twenty-five minutes long, and although it may be brief, Bernstein has just enough elements in it to make its impact a lasting one.
Bernstein is known for his dramatic and exciting music because of the ability of the reader or audience to see and follow the development and variation of a small motivic theme. This style is seen here in his Jeremiah Symphony and characteristic of many of his early works.
Bernstein premiered Jeremiah with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in January of 1944. The work made a vast impact and Bernstein went on to tour the country, introducing it to local audiences everywhere, who also welcomed it with praise. The distinguished Boston critic Warren Story Smith wrote, “ I don’t dare say how good I think Mr. Bernstein was for fear of appearing ridiculous, but I will go overboard and quote Schumann in saying, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Following the performances in New York, it won the Music Critics Circle Prize for the best new composition of the year. With this only being the beginning of Bernstein’s composing career, it certainly showed that he was off to a terrific start. (Ewen 1960:70)
In the following years to come, Bernstein wrote two more symphonies as well as keeping up with his love for conducting and writing various other works on the side. One of the most famous works that he wrote during this time was Candide. In 1953, the playwright Lillian Hellman proposed to Bernstein that they adapt this novel by Voltaire for the musical theater.
Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote a book entitled Candide or Optimism. The book was a satirical attack on the philosophies of the day and especially the Catholic Church. The belief was that “if we believe in a creator, then he must be a good creator and the greatest of all possible creators and therefore could have only created the best of all possible worlds.” People believed that whatever happened was for the best, but the devastating earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal provoked Voltaire into lashing out and writing Candide. (Leonard Bernstein: “Candide”)
Voltaire’s book is about a character named Candide. He sets out on a journey to test this proposition of this being the best of all possible worlds, and suffers so much misfortune that he ultimately rejects the common philosophy. He claims that there is far too much deliberate evil on the part of human beings for anyone to believe that this can be the best of all possible worlds. In 1759 the book was publicly burnt in Geneva and banned in Paris and three years later the Vatican put it on the Index of prohibited readings. (Gradenwitz 1987: 179)
After the books publication, thirteen other editions were published and by the time of Voltaire’s death, there were forty editions. Candide’s message to humanity that the world always has catastrophes in store has never lost its significance as seen today. This held a mirror up to people’s faces for them to wake up to the realities of the world and a message that first attracted Leonard Bernstein to the work. (Gradenwitz 1987: 179)
Lillian Hellman chose to adapt Candide around a period in the 1950’s that was two hundred years after the Lisbon earthquake and the time of McCarthyism. This was a time when everything America seemed to stand for was ground under the heal of the Junior Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was a time of television censorship, lost jobs, suicides and denial of passports for citizens. It seems as though she was fueled to go against the system as Candide did in the book and wanted to adapt this for the public audience to see and wake up to what was going on around them.
(Leonard Bernstein: “Candide”)
The actual writing of the work into a theatrical piece was a huge task. The writers even wondered while writing it if people would accept such a complex story with unusual lyrics and music. But they went on to bring their work to the stage with it opening in New York on December 1, 1956.
In the new Candide, as in Voltaire’s novel, Candide is an optimist and was taught by his mentor, that this is the best of all possible worlds. With his love interest, Cunegonde, Candide decides to leave his home in Westphalia in search of this belief of the best of all possible worlds. They wander in search of truth, goodness and honesty from one city to another and only confront tragedy and disaster along with misery and human greed. As he goes through his journey he meets many people whom die and come back to life at times making it a troubling ordeal. Finally at the end Candide no longer believes in the optimistic view and says to adopt Voltaire’s philosophy of planting a garden, cultivating it and making it grow. (Ewen 1960: 120)
For all that Candide had to offer and bring forth, it failed to attract audiences and was forced to close only after seventy-three performances. Some people felt that the eighteenth century philosophical tale was not ideal for a theatre show and others thought that the story along with the music was hard to follow. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr termed Candide “a really spectacular disaster.” (Gutmann: 2001)
Although in conventional terms, Candide was a flop, it has refused to die and has been periodically revived in many different versions. Leonard Bernstein had a feeling that the composition to such a complex storyline would not earn the desired success but he was still disappointed at the reaction of those critics who had earlier given him moral support. The Overture however, has become one of the most popular light classical compositions of our time and delighted the public to become a favorite opener in symphony concerts. (Gradenwitz 1987: 183)
The Candide Overture is one of the most light-hearted pieces Bernstein ever wrote. It introduces some of the vocal themes of the work and a characteristic of Bernstein, by using a motivic theme that becomes most of the melodic ideas in the entire work. The piece was written allegro molto con brio and starts off in a very lively and bubbly style to get people interested.
The familiar motive, which is quickly introduced, gets passed between the brass and the woodwinds contributing significantly in each. The piece is a constant build up and has a drive in it toward something really big. The middle opens up a new flowing melody, which soon bursts into the recapitulation of the beginning of the piece, but is played in a shortened version. Then as the piece comes to an end, another melody is introduced, pushing that drive even more. The piece soon gets louder and faster and more involved as it builds and builds to a quick two chord ending with the first one being pianissimo and the second fortissimo.
In 1958-1959, a concert version of Candide was performed by a touring ensemble in many American cities. Then in April 1959, Candide reached the London stage at the Saville Theater where audiences and critics were more accepting of the piece. John Thompson reported in the Daily Express, “This is an evening of high style. I feel sure Americans were wrong.” (Ewen 1960: 122)
In 1973, a new version of Candide with a revised storyline appeared at the Chelsea Theatre in Brooklyn, New York. Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler devised a new small-scale version that won the support of Lillian Hellman. She then withdrew her original adaptation of Voltaire from 1956, making it no longer available for performance. The young and lively cast and all around new musical direction helped make this production of Candide a popular success and the earliest version of Candide available for performance. Like its hero, Candide is possibly destined to never find its perfect form or function but in the end, it might just prove to be philosophically appropriate. (Classical Insites: 2001)
Leonard Bernstein still continued his incomparable work right up until the day he died. In August of 1990, he gave his final concert at Tanglewood, still impressing audiences everywhere. On October 9, he declared his retirement due to failing health, and on October 14, he died in his home in New York. (Classical Insites: 2001)
Leonard Bernstein received worldwide recognition in a career spanning nearly five decades. He was an inspiring conductor and teacher as well as a wide ranging composer, author and a gifted pianist. His influences live on in modern day musicians as well as the influence of himself. The music he has created and brought to life will forever be remembered in the hearts of those he has touched and he will forever be known as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.
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Gutmann, Peter. “Leonard Bernstein: A total embrace of music”.
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Leonard Bernstein, “Jeremiah (Symphony No. 1)”, New York Philharmonic
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