Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 25 August 1918, Lawrence MA; d 14 October 1990, NYC) Composer, conductor, pianist, lecturer; classical superstar with important Broadway credentials. He spent his early life in Boston, got a degree at Harvard and a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (recommended by Dmitri Mitropoulos). He became a star at 25 conducting the New York Philharmonic when Bruno Walter was taken ill. His ballet Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, was turned into the full-blown musical On The Town '44, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Comden in the cast as well); the film directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen '49 dropped most of Bernstein's music. (Bernstein's song 'Big Stuff' was recorded by Billie Holiday '46, the record later played on a juke box on stage to open a new production of the ballet.) He wrote a one-act opera Trouble In Tahiti, and music for a production of Peter Pan '50. Jean Arthur, who played Peter, passed her 50th birthday during the run; Boris Karloff played Captain Hook, and neither of them could sing. Five of Bernstein's songs were mutilated; another was dropped and his incidental music was replaced by that of Alec Wilder, but all the music was recovered by Alexander Frey and released on a Koch CD over 50 years later, with Linda Eder and Daniel Narducci, with Frey conducting the Amber Chamber Orchestra ('Bernstein' means 'amber' in German). The clever lyrics were Bernstein's with some small help from Marc Blitzstein: among the pirates, 'We are eviler far than the tenors are,' cry the basses. 'It is true that the basses/ Have eviler faces,' the tenors concede, 'But we are more evil inside.' There is not enough music for a full-scale musical show, but Matthew Gurewitsch described the incidental music as bewitching.

Bernstein's show Wonderful Town '53 adapted the play My Sister Eileen, set in the 1930s, lyrics by Comden and Green. Candide '56 was adapted by Lillian Hellman from Voltaire and won a New York Critics Award; it flopped at the box office but has remained a cult favorite (revised/revived '74). West Side Story '57 was a one of the biggest hits of the decade, with Robbins, librettist Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim. It was an update of Romeo and Juliet set among New York street gangs, the songs including 'Maria', 'Tonight', 'I Feel Pretty', and 'Somewhere', plus a lot of great dancing ('America'); it ran for two years and the film '61 scooped the Oscars including best picture. Bernstein's last show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner flopped badly '76. West Side Story has been revived several times (in London '84); Bernstein had never conducted the full score, and recorded it '84 with Kiri Te Kanawa, a best-seller despite the miscasting. He began recording his own music '45; also wrote three symphonies (Jeremiah '44, The Age Of Anxiety '49, Kaddish '63, the latter with narrator and mezzo soloist); also vocal music Chichester Psalms '65 (one of his best works), Mass '71, Songfest '77 (underrated) and other pieces. His full-length opera A Quiet Place '87 included scenes from Trouble In Tahiti in flashback; critics said the comparison with the stronger earlier work was unfortunate. His score of the Marlon Brando film On The Waterfront '54 received an award from down beat. He taught at Brandeis U '51-4; his brilliant TV lecture/concerts began '54, many of them available on Columbia records for years, later on video, and just as enchanting now as they were then.

He was assistant music director of of the New York Philharmonic '57-8 under Mitropoulos; and took over '58-69. His recordings of the Haydn 'Paris' symphonies, Beethoven's Third and Fifth, Mahler's Third and Seventh, Bartók's Concerto For Orchestra, Berlioz's Harold In Italy and many others were especially fine; the first Shostakovich piano concerto was recorded with André Previn, the second had Bernstein playing and conducting. Bernstein's was the first complete set of the Mahler symphonies; he later conducted the world's great orchestras freelance, recorded by DGG, including another Mahler cycle. Of two eponymous biographies '87, Michael Freedland's is straight panegyric while Joan Peyser's gossip pins down a massive ego, and neither has much about the music. Humphrey Burton's later one is fuller. Bernstein was not a very nice man: Mitropoulos was his early mentor; later when the older man hoped to become conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein spread the word that he was homosexual, knowing that Serge Koussevitsky, the retiring conductor, was homophobic. (Mitropoulos was ascetic in his private life, almost a saint, while Bernstein was a promiscuous bisexual.) For all his glittering showmanship and personality Bernstein may have lacked confidence; as Mark Steyn has pointed out, there are plenty of good recordings of this or that symphony, while nobody else could have written Bernstein's music, but he funked his career as a composer. He admitted that the more famous a conductor he became the harder it was to compose, and the suspicion will remain that it was easier that way.