Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 1

Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 1

This is the first of four parts examining the legacy of Leonard Bernstein and why so many performing arts organizations are celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017/18 season. They were originally written for The Washington Chorus in support of their November 8th concert at the Kennedy Center, where they'll be performing Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast


On Monday, November 15, 1943, near the bottom of its front page, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Young Aide Leads Philharmonic, Steps In When Bruno Walter Is Ill.”

The “Young Aide” was Leonard Bernstein, then a relative unknown, who took the podium without any rehearsal time with the orchestra and whose only preparation came during a bedside visit with Walter a couple of hours before the performance. In today’s parlance, one might say Bernstein “killed it,” but that would be an understatement.

The accompanying review of the concert claimed Bernstein was “brilliant from the start.“ The next day an editorial in the Times stated Bernstein’s performance was the latest variation of one of “the six best stories in the world,” the one in which an unknown steps in at the last minute and saves the troops, the company, the show, or the town, and in the process becomes a hero or a star. They went on note “Mr. Bernstein must have had something approaching genius to make full use of his opportunity.” Overnight, an American icon was born.

Bernstein, who was just 25 years old on that Sunday evening at Carnegie Hall in 1943, remained a dominant force in American music and culture for nearly five decades, until his death in 1990, by which time he was known across the globe as one of history’s greatest musical ambassadors.

In honor of the centennial of his birth, musicians around the world are performing his works during their 2017-18 seasons. The Washington Chorus begins and ends our season with his music. But we remember Bernstein for more than just his music -- we also wish to celebrate and honor his spirit, his generosity, and his advocacy for civil liberties and advancing the human race through the arts.

There’s a common theme running through the seminal moments of Bernstein’s career: breaking down barriers, creating community, celebrating humanity, and leading others forward through teaching. We witnessed Bernstein living these beliefs out loud over and over again, including the fourteen years of his televised Young People’s Concerts between 1958 -72; at the 1973 Concert for Peace at the National Cathedral; during the Berlin Wall concert in 1989, when he substituted the word ''freedom'' for ''joy'' in the chorus of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to mark the moment when the wall finally fell; and we still feel it viscerally and with pleasure when we watch or listen to a performance of his landmark musical, West Side Story.

The music remains undoubtedly great, destined to be performed for generations to come, but perhaps the underlying reason Bernstein is being celebrated around the world this years is because never has an artist’s musical life seemed so directly connected to, and representative of, the spirit of its creator. As the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette recently noted, the contemporary music world, and American culture, lacks an obvious heir to Bernstein’s legacy at precisely the time we need it most.

W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, a book-length poem about the isolation of man’s spirit and identity in an increasingly industrial/technological-oriented world, was the inspiration for and became the title of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2. In the composer’s prefatory note to the score, written in 1949, he writes, “I have a suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theatre music in some way.” If we could somehow extrapolate the definition of what Bernstein described as “theatre music” to our own time, we might expand it to include any music that comments on or reflects the world around us. In other words, a kind of “popular music.” The ideas, conflicts, and crises that inspired Auden and Bernstein are still with us today. In fact, our current age of anxiety might be more acutely felt than it was in 1949, and Bernstein’s music remains just as relevant.