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Bernstein’s birthday

This week Leonard Bernstein (he insisted that it be pronounced BERN-stine) would have turned ninety (he was born 25 August 1918), and the news of the anniversary reminded me of the profound influence he had on me as a young adult and maybe still.  By the time I was old enough to pay attention to classical music and to even want to listen to a Young People’s music lecture by Bernstein, his famous talks were already being rerun on the local PBS station I only occasionally watched in West Lafayette where I grew up (I gather I was watching talks that had been recorded maybe decades earlier).

But for me, and looking back on it this will of course also reveal my youthful naivete, Bernstein epitomized class and urbane sophistication and learning.  As I was learning to play a musical instrument in the small town midwest, Bernstein was the Big City and Broadway and jazzy swagger, all certified by his position with what I thought must be the world’s greatest orchestra (I hadn’t yet learned about Chicago under Solti or Berlin under von Karajan).  But he also signified by his heart-on-his-sleeve passion for music of all sorts that erudition was not incompatible with a fierce perfectionism and a prowling curiosity.  Before the slightly odd turn to mysticism and Nehru suits (along with a weird medallion he insisted on wearing) in the 1970’s had him seeming to pander a bit too much to the times (and as I first encountered his earlier works Jeremiah and Kaddish, both had also struck me as similarly overwrought), I found him charismatic anyway.

His conducting style was regularly ridiculed for its over-the-top emotionalism; it was frankly at odds with his Curtis Institute training, where his teacher, Fritz Reiner, taught a far more precise and contained approach.  But I found him compelling and mainly authentic.  His alternatively brooding and ecstatic movements fit the urgent underlying arc of the Mahler symphonies he loved most.  And they perfectly matched the moment of German reunification in the aftermath of the Cold War when his exuberance in conducting Beethoven’s 9th in Berlin provided a more fitting response than the stifled reaction of the American president.  As he aged his earlier Glamour Boy status gradually gave way to a wider respect in the world’s music capitals, and by the end the regularly offered honorific Maestro seemed sincere.

The weird mix in Bernstein of intellect and glibness is on full display in the lectures he delivered in 1973, a result of his brief appointment as Harvard’s Norton Professor of Poetry.  The critics hooted – this was, after all, the same chair that had been held by Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot – but the talks (now available on DVD) hold up as a passable semiotic analysis of the musical score (and in fairness, some of those reading or hearing him loved it).  And his presentational acumen remains compelling, often persuasive, even when the final conclusions he reaches are sometimes rather mundane or retrograde (he was, for example, defending High Modernism when postmodern approaches were already coming into vogue).

One of the last images we have of Bernstein was taken at the final symphonic performance Bernstein conducted before his death in October 1990.  Conducting at Tanglewood (which explains his summer formal wear), Bernstein was desperately ill, and in fact there was some speculation that he would not be able to appear at all.  The program had significance both for the audience and for the conductor:  the orchestra played Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which was the first piece programmed by Bernstein in his first full season as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, an appointment arising in the long aftermath of a bizarre serendipity (on November 14, 1943, Bernstein  was a last-minute replacement for a sick Bruno Walter; the good first page review the next day in the New York Times made Bernstein famous).

Bernstein was so disabled by the crippling combination of lung cancer and emphysema (all an overlay to his lifelong asthma and worsened by his many years of smoking) that at one point in the piece he simply reeled back against the conductor’s rail and let the symphony move ahead of its own volition; Bernstein was gasping for air and caught in a spasm of coughing so severe he nearly passed out.  But he rejoined the piece moments later and brought it to a close.

As with so many of his lifelong performances, his conducting of Beethoven’s 7th drew both admiration and criticism.  His dramatic style often stretched movements out in ways that seemed to some critics to produce music played indefensibly slow.  Though some suspected, no one knew for sure that this was to be his last public appearance at the conductor’s podium.  Only in retrospect, when two months later his broader audience realized belatedly how seriously deteriorated was his health, did the critics come around on the Tanglewood performance:  after all, Bernstein conducted the 7th so slowly because, sensing his own fast-approaching mortality, he simply didn’t want it to end.


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