Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 2

Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 2

This is the second 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


Leonard Bernstein's lifetime spans most of the 20th Century. He was born at the end of World War I and died at the dawn of the internet era. In terms of politics, culture, and technology, to describe the pace and scope of changes to everyday life around the globe during this era of human history as unprecedented would be a gross understatement. When Bernstein was born, women in the U.S. had yet to be granted the right to vote . The year he died, the Voyager 1 space probe took a photograph of the Earth, and sent it back home to NASA scientists, 3.7 billion miles away.

In between came The Great Depression, WWII, the Atomic Age, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., astronauts landing on the moon, the rise of feminism, Watergate, the push for civil rights, AIDS, the Collapse of the Soviet Union, the advent of cinema, radio, and television as sources of entertainment and news, and much, much more.

Unlike many of his musical contemporaries, Bernstein's artistic sensibilities were never constrained by the increasingly hermetic world of Western art music and its ties to the classical music canon, even though he undoubtedly felt those constraints at every turn. Despite the classical music world's groundbreaking developments and myriad innovations during the 20th Century, and the willingness of composers to incorporate strains of jazz and influences from other cultures into their compositions, for the most part its development remained distant from the increasingly growing influence of the contemporary popular culture surrounding it.

It remained a curiously stubborn one-way street. We know the Beatles were influenced by the music of Stockhausen and Xenakis, that Frank Zappa's interest in Edgard Varèse began in his teens during the 1950's, and eventually how rock bands like the Electric Light Orchestra and the Moody Blues, not to mention nearly every prog-rock band that followed, unabashedly took pleasure in mixing classical sounds into rock and roll songs built on three guitar chords. But there was little sense that any kind reciprocity or exchange of ideas was taking place between the two, or that the classical world even cared at all about what was taking place outside the concert hall, even as the rest of the world kept experiencing one upheaval after another. Bernstein was the great exception.

One could argue that individual works by Bernstein's contemporaries, which include Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Britten, Boulez, Hermann, Stockhausen, Copland, Orff, and Harrison to name just a few, have had greater artistic impacts, and one could reasonably argue that in terms of strictly musical legacies, many of them will eclipse Bernstein, or already have. What is inarguable is that no one worked more diligently, or sincerely, to bridge the ever-widening gap between composers and audiences that were growing up listening to pop music, one that viewed the Beatles as the starting point of musical reference instead of Beethoven, though Bernstein began these efforts long before the British Invasion -- in 1944 he premiered his Symphony no. 1: Jeremiah as well as Fancy Free and On the Town.

At the time, especially during the 1960s, Bernstein's public embrace of pop was a radical, even visionary stance, as was his willingness to take political stands far outside the accepted norms of the "establishment." After years of using television to educate young people about classical music, in 1967 Bernstein decided to turn the table and educate "adults" about the importance of pop music, or at prompt them to accept its artistic worth and what it represents to its audience. In 1967 he partnered with the documentary maker David Oppenheim to create Inside Pop - The Rock Revolution, which was broadcast on CBS on April 25th, 1967. His guests on the show included Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson, Janis Ian, Peter Noone (of Herman's Hermits), Graham Nash, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. After stating the majority of current pop music was "mostly trash," he goes on to say "the good five percent [of it] is so exciting and vital, and may I say, significant, that it claims the attention of every thinking person." It's difficult to imagine any of his contemporaries making such a claim, much less doing so on national television. And even if they had, his classical music peers lacked the wider cultural authority and respect to make the claim resonate beyond those already converted. 

Only Bernstein had that kind of credibility on both sides of the cultural divide. Today we call such people "influencers," and Bernstein remains one of America's greatest. We might wonder how Bernstein would have responded to today's divisions, but a statement he made after JFK's assasination offeres a hint:
"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."